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-My China Experience 09

Stav's Diary (SCIC Kung Fu Training China Trip 2009)

Trip Title: Kung Fu Training Trip to China 2009
Trip Date: 12th April - 25th April 2009
Participants No. 17 
School: Chat Ying Kuen Kung Fu Association Sudbury UK

Day One: -12th April 09

For so many years I have dreamed of travelling to China, that my first few hours in the country have been and wonderful, tiring, amazing and terrifying experience. My first impression of Beijing is the juxtaposition of the city. Beautiful, modern and new yet filled with life. Machinery and industry rise along the horizon yet by the roadside stand workers with push-brooms.

Though the air is smoggy this morning, I feel it adds to the experience. The buildings hide like dinosaurs in the grey mist, revealing them selves one street at a time, vibrant reds and greens flashing in bright strips down the spines of the nearest towers.

As day turns to night the city spills out onto the streets, the staff in the shops lingering outside their businesses. The cacophony of car horns and the little roars of engines adding to the night-time conversations, whilst a constant stream of silently sweeping bicycles weave between the pedestrians.

It is only my first day yet I have found much to love in this country.

Day Two: -13th April 09

In such a populated city it is rare to find yourself alone so it quickly becomes important to learn how to be comfortable in crowds. Nowhere is this more relevant than at the Forbidden City, an undoubtedly beautiful piece of imperial architecture that more than rivals the forums in Rome. I allowed myself a few moments to indulge in imagining myself alone in the city letting history overtake me. The strict pattern of the architecture is punctuated by oases of calm, such as the Imperial Gardens which I expect may have been one of the most peaceful places I have ever been.

In the afternoon we visited a hutong, the narrow streets of an older, private China. It is a strange mix of tourist attraction, Commercial Park and sprawling living space. Yet more than anything it is alive, a buzzing, living china far removed from the monumentality of the Forbidden City.

We eat at Madam Fang's house in the hutong, welcomed by a mother whose children have moved out, tables squeezed into her front room. The home-cooked meal is the best I have eaten in a long time. Being welcomed into Madam Fang's house felt to me like being welcomed into China, and afterwards I felt much more relaxed.

After leaving the hutong we spend the afternoon relaxing in the park, tourists and locals alike enjoying the ever cooling air.

Day Three:-14th April 09

We enter the Temple of Heaven Park and are astounded. The beautiful park is filled with the elderly involving themselves in a thousand and one different activities. I cannot imagine anything like this strange and wonderful place existing in the UK. People dance, sing, play instruments, practice Tai Chi ball. For me it was an incredibly liberating experience to see so many people so passionate and yet so accepting of others, free from the self-imposed social rules that would prohibit me from doing something similar at home. As we moved through the park and reached the temple I felt the same excitement and fascination as I do when in the presence of Roman monuments. However, there is something alive about the temple; it feels much closer to the time of its relevance than the ruins of Rome or Greece.

In the afternoon we spend a short time at The Summer Palace, though I could have easily spent a day in the beautiful grounds. I could not help but look with a historians?eye on what power the imperial family must have commanded to indulge their imaginations?in such expressions of architecture.

Day Four: -15th April 09

A cooler day breaks mid-week. The change in weather has come as a welcome break to the people of Beijing, judging by the crowds that now flood the streets. The Ming Tombs are yet another example of the power of Chinese Imperial Architecture. The hall of Eminent Favour being one of the most impressive pieces of pillared architecture I have ever seen.

Travelling the outskirts of Beijing is perhaps more representative of the China I imagined, if not all of China. Spending a quiet few moments resting by the side of the road is a happy experience, allowing me the chance to watch the daily lives of the locals.

Before we know it we are standing below the great wall and I am faced with the opportunity to realise one of my great dreams.
It is a truly tiring and strange experience. Foreigners and Chinese all struggle together, helping one another along this masterpiece of engineering. The steps are so steep as to burn the legs, whilst the dry air catches in the throat, yet after all the struggle the sense of achievement I felt is something I doubt I will ever forget.

In the mountains, on the wall, where the wind cools you and the cold brick shades you, it is easy to imagine oneself alone in the whole world. It is strange how when I first looked upon the wall it seemed so out of place, yet after walking on it for less than a day I cannot now imagine the scene without the wall in place. The wall transforms from something man-made to something like a natural feature, like the mountains had given birth to a spine of rock.

At night we visit a market and the juxtaposition between ancient and modern China has never been starker. Downtown Beijing is young, bright, international and noisy. I step away from the group and find a real joy in watching the city passing me by.

Day Five: -16th April 09

The Chinese culture workshops must really be experienced to be understood. As a musician and creative person I find a great kinship with many of the Chinese pursuits of which we are given a quick taster. I admire the precision, dedication and detail of the artistic pursuits we are shown, they seems so similar and yet so strange to the things with which I fill my own life. Of course for me the music workshop was a highlight, I was amazed by the level of the musicians who had chosen to perform for such a simple group of tourists. Once again I found a wonderful joy in the international language of music. Regardless of the languages we spoke I was more than able to communicate with the musicians through scales, octaves and tones.

We spent a little time in the afternoon at the zoo, a relaxing opposite to the hectic morning in the workshops. As ever we then rush to the train station for our overnight train to Henan Province.  

Day Six: -17th April 09

Waking I am faced with a mixture of travellers fatigue and the confusion that overtakes all travellers eventually. Forgetting little concerns of luggage and time, the mind adapts and I simply follow my fellow travellers in the hope of finding a bed. The early morning air refreshes me somewhat as I emerge from the train station, to find the city waking. Zhengzhou is an unusual city. I imagine it is teetering on the brink of change. Neither the young kids with their mad hairstyles or the older farmers fit completely comfortably into the city.

We spend part of the day watching the provincial Wushu team practice. The intense dedication of the athletes is a challenge to my own feelings about martial arts, especially given the darkly beautiful nature of the forms.

We spend our lunch being taught paper-cutting and dumpling making at a restaurant. I must admit an embarrassingly deep joy at being taught these simple things that Chinese children have presumably learnt from a young age.

A few hours of the afternoon are given over to the Museum of Henan History. The collection found its way straight into the part of my heart that is forever fascinated with the origins of human civilisation.

In the evening we walk in the city and discover a little park were groups of people have congregated to sing and play. Everywhere we have been the Chinese have had a wonderful sense of community, even in the centre of such sprawling cities. I must admit that it evokes a slight sense of jealousy.

Day Seven: - 18th April 09

This morning there is a very real sense of excitement in the air as we travel to Dengfeng. A county-level city such as Dengfeng seems much livelier than Beijing. I think that the extra space gives people a little more room to breathe and express themselves. We were certainly much more of an attraction than we had been in the more international capital.

In the evening we attend a massive show, put on against the backdrop of the mountains. It was a truly stunning production with a huge cast and beautiful lighting reaching up the side of the mountain. As a regular theatre goer I can honestly say that the production was the most impressive I have ever seen. The show was made even more memorable by the warm rain that soaked us throughout the evening, certainly not an experience I had ever had before.

Day Eight: - 19th April 09

On our eighth day we study and train with the students of the Kung Fu school where we have been staying. A little learning went both ways I imagine, yet I am sure that what I learnt concerning intention and power will be among my most important martial arts lessons.

Day Nine: -20th April 09

Today we visit the Shaolin Temple. A place that I am sure has a special significance for some many of the people I am travelling with, myself not least among them. Though the temple has of course undergone a makeover to make it friendlier for tourists, the heart of Shaolin is there for those who search for it. Much like the Forbidden City the temple is filled with crowds, yet here and there the little places of calm emerge and it is in these secret places that I find a sense of joy. Leaving aside other concerns, the temple is beautiful, the ornamentation telling of the continuous habitation of the site and the green glaze of the tiles blending so quietly into the surrounding mountain.

In the warm afternoon sun we undertook the climb to Dharma Cave. Through the little avenues of shade and the long hot stairways we struggled to the top of the mountain. Finally in reaching the cave I found a very personal sense of peace. In the cool, quiet grotto it felt very much as if the mountain was breathing with me. A little higher up, in the shadow of Bodhidharma? statue looking down on the monastery, I felt a moment of true peace.

Day Ten: -21st April 09

A long drive in the morning gives us some much needed time to reflect on the journey so far. The mountain scenery is stunning and the lives of people in the little villages so different from the city-dwellers. We reach Chen village as the day turns warm and dry, yet the home of Tai Chi is a sanctuary of quiet peace. The tranquillity of the Chen training grounds is filled with a stillness and peace I find unusual. I hide a little part of the energy in my subconscious to take with me when I return home.

We leave the peace of the Chen Village and find ourselves in the afternoon heat at a Tai Chi school. It is surprising to me that so far from the bustle of the big cities there are still little enclaves of martial artists quietly perfecting their art. It was my first time training in Tai Chi and it was a great introduction to the art.

It was really enjoyable to travel through the Chinese countryside; it felt almost as if the journey would last forever.

Day Eleven: -22nd April 09

Today we visit the Longman Grottoes and I must admit that part of me had not truly accepted that I would be seeing such an important historical site, therefore it came as something of a shock when I found myself facing the first of the carvings. The immense project of the carvings was one of the highlights of my trip. I wandered the site allowing myself to imagine the dedication and perhaps the motivations of the people creating such a place. Standing before the immense statue of the Buddha I felt the same kind of deep peace that I felt the first time I stood before the pyramids. I would have to place the grottoes among the most stunning pieces of monumental religious architecture I have seen.

In the evening we once again board the night-train to take us back to Beijing.

Day Twelve: -23rd April 09

Given our leave to explore the city, we head off in the afternoon to attempt a crossing of Beijing by subway. I found the independence of the journey exhilarating. It was fantastic to learn that it was possible to find our way around the city. Above us the city was sparkling with rain. As with all cities, the rain brings the city to life. We spend the afternoon shopping in the market. It is both exciting and exhausting to barter for the little souvenirs I will take home.

Day Thirteen: -24th April 09

On our final day in Beijing we once again travel by subway, this time to the Temple of Heaven. Once again to experience the joy of the crowds playing their music, dancing and singing. We walked for miles around the grounds of the park, lost in our thoughts of the trip.  

As pleasant as the day was, there was a tinge of regret in the air. As I imagine there is at the end of all such journeys.

Day Fourteen: -25th April 09

The final day: Like all last days it passes in a rush. My mind refuses to take the city in as we leave and the day is filled with half-remembered events.

When we return to the UK it is suffused with an otherworldly aspect, much like China was when I arrived.

In the weeks that follow I am convinced that my journey to China has been one of the most profound I have undertaken and I cannot wait to return. 

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