Trip number three of the year is now in the bag, as I finished here in Beijing on May 29th. I had met the small group of 5 passengers on May 15th in Shanghai, where we spent our time admiring the nighttime view from the historic Bund, checking out the museum, and simply wandering about the city.
From Shanghai it was an overnight train journey to Luoyang, where we exited the train station and immediately boarded a van for the 2-hour drive to Shaolin. Some of you may recognize Shaolin as the place where young students go to practice what is commonly referred to as Kung Fu. We arrived to our rooms in one of the largest martial arts schools in the area, ate lunch, and then wandered around to see what was happening. And what was happening? “Everybody was Kung Fu fighting. Those cats were fast as lightning. In fact it was a little bit frightening….” Sorry, but it’s impossible to wander the grounds without that song looping through your head.
We checked out Shaolin Monastery and wandered through the forest of stone pagodas, but it was the practice grounds we were lead to believe would be the most interesting. Or not. Don’t get me wrong - it’s pretty impressive to see fields of young students punching, kicking, and flipping, but it had a real circus atmosphere to it, thanks to the fact that Shaolin has become a major tourist destination. That was especially true for the ’show’ which we went to see…very touristy. However, there is always some bad with the good - the good in this case being the really young students practicing in the courtyard of the school where we stayed. Kids start as young as 6 years old, and it was these students who were asked to demonstrate their skills in front of a panel of young teachers. They performed their repertoire of kicks and flips - sometimes less than expertly, but always enthusiastically. They were definitely entertaining to watch.
Not content to watch, one of my passengers did a 3-hour lesson with a well-known Kung Fu teacher, while two other passengers opted for the 1-hour lesson. All seemed to enjoy the experience, and were only slightly bruised and battered the following day.
It was my first time to Shaolin, and I must confess that it wasn’t exactly what I’d expected, but I still enjoyed my time there - especially watching the younger students.
From Shaolin it was back in the van - first for a brief stop at the White Horse Temple, and then for a longer stop to examine the Buddhist carvings at Longmen Grottoes. Hundreds of niches have been carved into the stone embankment of the river - each niche originally containing some form of Buddhist carving and painting. Over the centuries many of the carvings have been defaced, but there are still enough around to give some idea of how the place looked in its heyday. The most impressive statues were over 6 meters in height.
We walked along both sides of the river, up and down the stairs, and peered into many of the niches, until we decided that we’d had enough and so headed back to the van and the short drive to Luoyang.
We didn’t have anything planned for Luoyang, so simply spent our time there wandering around the parks, finally eating a good/cheap Chinese meal (prior to that we ate in tourist areas…tourist prices), and finishing the evening by sitting outside a small cafe down a narrow alleyway and playing with some of the children who were brave enough to approach the strange foreigners.
The hotel in Luoyang, though one of the best places we stay in China, still managed to provide us with a good laugh. A small laminated card listed items we could buy….”cigarette, ham, pickle, instant noodles, gum, puke, ankle socks, and briefs”. Excuse me, did you say “puke”? Yep - a bad translation for a deck of cards. Not often you can buy puke!
From Luoyang it was a short train journey to Xian and our standard routine there, with the hotpot meal first on the agenda, followed by the trip out to the Terracotta Warriors the following morning. We had quite a bit of free time in Xian, so people had plenty of time to explore Xian to see what it had to offer. I always like Xian.
An overnight train journey and 6-hour van ride dumped us in Xiahe/Labrang. As with my previous trip we arrived to rain showers, but we donned waterproof jackets and umbrellas and set out along the kora. The following morning we took the tour of the monastery, and then we boarded our van for a short trip into the surrounding grasslands to see a Bon temple. Bon is the religion which existed in the Tibetan areas prior to Buddhism, though today it is mostly thought of as a sect of Buddhism. However, as is the case with many new religions which overtake existing religions, Tibetan Buddhism incorporated many Bon practices in order to make converting the locals easier.
After a short look around the Bon Temple (and playing the requisite frisbee with some of the kids) we drove a short distance to a school within a walled village. As June 1st is Children’s Day here in China, the kids were in the courtyard practicing their performance - mostly singing. Unfortunately for the teachers, 6 foreigners tend to cause quite a disruption, as the kids seemed more interested in playing with us than listening to their fellow students. The teachers finally conceded and allowed the kids to play with us, so we spent the next hour or so throwing frisbees, teaching them songs, break dancing, or performing whatever other tricks we had in our repertoire. Actually, one of my ’skills’ became quite a crowd pleaser, as kids would approach me and motion for me to repeat what I’d done earlier. And what was that? There was a lot of dust blowing around, which eventually lodged in my eye and wasn’t feeling great with my contact lens, so I’d had to remove my contact. Voila…party trick!
After the school we drove through the walled village a bit more to our home for the evening. We sat around playing with the kids of the home, and then set out to wander the village - in particular the wall around the village. We spent quite a bit of time on the wall, descending to avoid precarious sections, and reclaiming the wall a bit later. It gave us some nice views down to the village, but seemed to drive the dogs of the village mad. I’m sure the locals were happy when we finally descended and went back to our homestay so the dogs would quit barking.
A good dinner of homemade noodle soup, followed by cards and the Tibetan game sho finished off the evening. Two of us - plus our guide, elected to sleep outside under the stars, and it was beautiful. I love sleeping outside when the sky is clear and there is no light pollution.
Back in Labrang the following day we simply had some free time before some of us did a short hike in the late afternoon. A brief rainstorm gave way to sunshine and a beautiful view over the monastery.
The following day we drove back to the airport near Lanzhou and caught the flight for Beijing, where we again did our standard routine. The first day was spent on the Great Wall at Mutianyu. As it was raining it actually made for a perfect day - the temperature was cool, the trees were a lush green, and the rain kept most of the tourists away. A great day to be out there.
The following day was Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, followed by the final group meal and a few drinks that night.
I’ve been hanging out in Beijing since my trip officially finished on the 29th. It’s been nice to see some of the other leaders and hang out doing nothing. I’ll start my next trip on June 3rd, and this will be another 3-week trip such as the one I did the trip before this last one. It will be a full group of 12 passengers. After that trip I’m currently scheduled to get back to Tibet, so I’m looking forward to that.
That’s about it from this end, so I’ll catch you from somewhere down the road.