A Little Trouble in Big China
by Greg Lynch Jr.
When I look in the mirror, do you know what I see; A world traveler. I have been there and I have done that. I have climbed pyramids on two continents. I have visited the bazaars of Cairo and Istanbul. Have I seen the Eiffel Tower; Check. The Roman Coliseum; Check. La Sagrada Familia; You know it.
When the opportunity arose for me to travel to China, do you think I even hesitated; Not a chance. My passport thrives on the taste of ink from foreign stamps.
Sure, I had friends giving me dubious stares when I mentioned traveling to Dengfeng to see the famous Shaolin Temple. Why are you going; they asked. What could you possibly do in that famous martial arts city; You know they don't speak English, right;
Silence, disbelievers! I am a world traveler. I know the drill about traveling overseas. Gene Ching tried to get me to learn some numbers and a few key phrases. I bought books on the subject. I perused the internet for tips and hints. One website warned me that any attempt to drive on the Chinese streets was to sign my own death certificate, which did give me pause. But traveling is all about planning. I can plan with the best of them. The plan and I are as one.
I bought books for the trip. One was called Chinese Survival Guide: How to Avoid Travel Troubles and Mortifying Mishaps. I'm sure it's a great book. I accidentally left it behind at my parents' house after reading only the first chapter. I didn't worry too much about leaving that book behind because I also had Essential Chinese for Travelers. I was going to read that on the plane and be good to go when I touched down.
It also seemed like a good idea to read Gene Ching's Shaolin Trips. He'd been there and I could get all the information I needed about the town from his book. The plan was in full effect.
The first cracks appeared when I touched down in Beijing. Tired from the twelve hour flight, I followed the herd off the plane and through customs, all the while wondering if I was going in the right direction. I had to grab my bags from baggage claim and transfer them to the plane that would take me to Zhengzhou. There seemed to be hundreds of check-in booths, but none of them bore the name of the airline I needed. I'd walked up to people and babble, and that's when I noticed the odd looks. Their glances would travel up and down my frame. You could see the question in their eyes: What is this strange alien creature that has appeared before them; Granted, I was wearing shorts in the middle of winter. But I was as used to those stares as I was to having cold legs. Onward. The world traveler will not tremble before these examinations. And eventually I mimed my way to the right spot.
The staring got a little worse in Zhengzhou Airport - probably because I spent about twenty minutes wandering around looking for my ride into town. Thinking there had been some miscommunication, I went out to the curb to look for my ride or even worse try and find a taxi to take me into town. The freezing cold air did not help my sense of confidence in being a world traveler. Nor did the guys at the taxi rank, who, when I showed them the name of my hotel, gave me only blank stares.
Fortunately, I was saved from gibbering madness by the arrival of my ride into town. It turns out my lofty opinion of myself as a world traveler was a paper-thin façade. A few moments in the cold foggy night and it ripped away like Kleenex.
I had been informed that you could live like a king in a twenty dollar hotel room in China, so I had gotten a cheap room in a fancy hotel in Zhengzhou. It turns out this is only true if the name King is inscribed on the tag on your leather collar. The room was fine, with all the creature comforts of cellophane-wrapped house shoes, toothbrush and individual shampoos. But it was dirty, and had been put to hard use by legions of chain smokers. If I had paid ten dollars more I could have stayed in a room without quite so many cracks in the walls.
I woke in the middle of the night to find I had lost one of my last Chinese life-preservers. I was looking for my bag that had my snacks in it when I realized I had left that bag behind in the taxi. More importantly, the bag also contained my Chinese phrase book. My knowledge of Chinese now consisted entirely of the phrase, "Bu yao." My friend Gene Ching had passed this to me on a forum. It is the phrase to get rid of unwanted trinket sellers. It means, "Don't want". You have to use it like you mean it for it to be effective.
I battled my newfound fear by wandering the streets of Zhengzhou, never venturing too far out of sight of the hotel. My bravest moment came when I descended into a pedestrian tunnel. The streets of Zhengzhou are broad, packed with cars, and don't allow pedestrians such niceties as crosswalks. The tunnels are one way of bypassing this death sprint through traffic. But when I took the stairs down, all I could hear was horror music playing in my head. I'm sure the Los Angeles Times headline was going to read, "Tourist Found in Pieces in Nefarious Zhengzhou Death Tunnel."
It was just a tunnel. There were shops. People sat on benches trying to stay out of the cold. It was like most of my experiences: get past the fear and the results are pretty banal. Feeling a little bit of my courage return, I walked out of sight of my landmarks. I could still hear the horror music in my head, but it was at low volume. I dared to enter weird toy stores full of remote control helicopters and Anime models. I wandered through a five-story building that contained nothing but shops selling blue jeans. Pictures of Santa Claus adorned many store fronts.
I also ventured down a darkened alley that was full of food vendors. They all had propane-powered stoves. One had an oven on wheels wherein the vendor baked rolls. For most of the length of the alley, it was a food guessing game that I played miserably; and I received my allotment of stares when I pulled out my camera and started filming.
I took the local bus from Zhengzhou to Dengfeng for the princely sum of 25 yuan (about five bucks). The majority of the trip seemed to take place at the start as we tried to make a left turn out of the Zhengzhou bus station. The journey out of the city brought a new meaning to the word traffic jam.
I could tell we were getting close to Dengfeng when along the side of the road I could see bas reliefs of monks in martial poses. At the roundabout to exit the freeway, giant posts a hundred feet tall supported statues of monks performing kung fu.
One of the keys to finding your residence in Dengfeng - or any city in China, or the world, for that matter - is having the right name for your hotel. The printout I had taken was from the C-Trip website, basically a hotels.com for China, which listed the name of my hotel as the Holiday Inn Rome Spirit. Our taxi driver at the bus station had never heard of this hotel, despite the fact I had the street name and its intersection. At the intersection of those two streets, there was no sign of the hotel. My native guide eventually took my printout into another hotel and made some calls. It turned out we were on the right street, but I had the wrong name. But the name Roman Holiday Hotel is so close to Holiday Inn Rome Spirit, don't you think; Fortunately, I had paid a little more from this room, and it showed. The shower had a window overlooking the bedroom. I couldn't find any visible stains. The TV was big and was broadcasting my new favorite channel, Dengfeng TV. Best of all, it didn't smell like they had held the Marlboro cigarette convention in the room before I got there.
I had two goals for my trip to Shaolin: Light incense for my friend Gene Ching and take photos of me wearing the "Got Qi;" shirt in front of interesting places. Sorry, three things. I also wanted to film cool martial arts schools doing cool martial arts things. Four: Find Damo's cave. Curse you, Michael Palin.
If you are in Dengfeng and wondering what to do first, then the 600-pound gorilla in town is the Shaolin Temple. With trepidation firmly in hand, I went out to the street and attempted to hail my first taxi. I figured the phrase "Shao Lin" would be universal and I would hold up twenty yuan to show how much I was going to pay. I had been told twenty was the going rate to get to the Temple.
It turns out Shaolin is universal but the going rate is not twenty yuan. Taking pity on me, or perhaps looking for a little kick-back consideration (probably a mixture of the two), one of the hotel guards came out of the heated shack to assist me at the curb. Soon I was on my way.
The Shaolin Temple is about a fifteen-minute drive northwest from my Roman Holiday hotel. For about fourteen minutes of the trip I said silent prayers that I had communicated what I wanted correctly. Then I saw the giant statue of Damo at the edge of the Shaolin Temple property and relaxed considerably. I continued in my quest to only pay twenty yuan for the trip, but the driver was adamant to get thirty. I gave in. I was happy to finally, after a massive amount of travel by plane, bus and taxi, walk the grounds of the famous Shaolin Temple.
From the sprawling plaza where you purchase tickets (100 yuan to enter the grounds) to the Temple itself is a walk of a kilometer. With camera firmly in hand, I made the journey in a mere three hours. What can I say; I'm slow and I take a lot of pictures.
I must have spent a good half hour trying to get the pictures of heroic statues in front of the wushuguan just right. Then I had to spend some time photographing the boys playing basketball next to the ancestors shrine in the back. I thought for sure the kids would be spending every second studying kung fu. I was disappointed to find out that, because most of the kids were on break, there wouldn't be any demonstrations. C'est la vie.
As I walked through the spritzing snow along the road leading to the Shaolin Temple, I noticed another interesting phenomenon. When I would stop to take pictures of the odd waste receptacles or the frozen ice in the creek next to the road, I would suddenly become the focus for other picture takers. People would come up to be in pictures with me. It was very strange. I started to feel like some giant white creature that these people had never seen before, and they needed proof for their friends that such a thing as the dancing white monkey actually existed.
When I finally got to the famous dragon gate at the Shaolin Temple, it was blocked by a group of filmmakers. They were shooting a monk sweeping leaves from the steps. The monk would take breaks from his sweeping to do martial arts moves with the broom. Oddly, the monk was a kid from Wexford, Ireland.
Since, the main entrance was kind of busy, I headed to the building on the left of the main gate. It took me two hours to get to this point, but it was nothing compared to the mountain of photos I was about to take. Certainly, there was the de rigueur self-portrait in my "Got Qi;" shirt in front of the dragon gate (what do you mean not everyone does that;), but that was just the beginning. The Shaolin Temple is packed with things of which I desperately needed to take pictures. I found a pavilion of four back-to-back Buddha sculptures attended by myriad small sculptures. In the central courtyard, on the other side of the main gate, were stele dating from antiquity to the present day. Two were even from the United States.
It's one thing to talk about monks punching holes in trees with their fingers. It's another to be standing there looking at tree bark full of finger size holes. Giant intricate demon statues guarded the gates. Antique braziers filled the air with incense. I used several of them to fulfill my promise to Gene Ching. You could get lost studying the murals on the walls in many of the temples.
I couldn't take enough photographs of the roof charms or yan shou. I could probably do an entire book on those photographs alone. I later learned that the more figures on the roof edge, the more important is the building.
I was also the subject of more pictures. One group of men were particularly adamant about taking my picture and being in a picture with me. I eventually took a group shot of all of us.
I had been wandering the grounds for quite a while, and you would think it was time to take a break. But there was too much to see. I could always eat when I got back to the United States, right; I left the temple hoping I could find the path to Damo's cave. This was supposed to be the cave where Damo prayed for nine years facing a wall. When he emerged from the cave, he had the basics for kung fu. According to Gene Ching (as mentioned in his book, Shaolin Trips), he used to run up the mountain to it all the time.
I found a sign that said the cave was four kilometers away. I figured it was too late in the day to make that hike. Plus, in my out of shape athletic condition, the thought of any climb gave me the willies. I headed instead to the Pagoda Forest where generations of Shaolin abbots are buried. Once again I was stunned by the sight of so much antiquity. There are hundreds of pagodas in the forest. I'm pretty sure I photographed every one.
One of the other locations I was interested in seeing was Huike's Temple. Supposedly there were four wells near the temple that Damo used to cure Huike after he cut off his arm. I looked at the surrounding steep hills and figured it was on one of those peaks. I wasn't going to make that climb either.
As I left the Pagoda forest, I was accosted by a woman. My "Bu yao" had no effect on her. She wanted me to buy something and kept pointing at pictures of the mountains she had posted on a large board. The pictures showed exotic rope bridges and dynamic waterfalls and a gondola. I got the impression that this gondola went to the top of the mountain, and on the top of this mountain was Huike's temple.
The next thing you know I'm riding a mostly empty gondola up the mountain. I was a bit dizzy after whacking my head on the door edge on the way into the car. A word to the wise: try not to have too many things in your hands like cameras and tripods while performing a tricky moving gondola mount.
Huike's Temple was only a few minutes walk from the gondola's terminus at the top of the mountain. A monk at the temple explained to me about the four wells on the property and tried to get me to drink from them. I didn't partake. It was still interesting to see the reality behind a myth.
I tried to climb further up the hills to gain views of the waterfalls or cross the suspension bridge that I had seen in the pictures, but at this point the weakness of my body was making itself known. I also kept having thoughts of Chinese newspaper headlines about an American hiker rescued from a mountaintop he should not have been climbing in the dead of winter. I do see a lot of my life in headlines, most of them disastrous. I called it a day and went back to the gondola.
At the hotel I should have collapsed in a ball from exhaustion, but my mind buzzed with all the amazing things that I had seen during the course of one day.
It was a pattern that I followed for the rest of my stay in Dengfeng. Over the next few days I visited other temples like Songyang Academy, Yongtai, and Zhongyue. Each was full of diverse and exotic treasures. I'm lucky I was shooting digital or I would have spent a fortune on film and processing. I still don't think I covered them adequately.
One day I left Dengfeng to visit the Longmen Caves, which are in Luoyang, about forty miles northeast of Denfeng. Try and envision two kilometers of cliffs carved into thousands of representations of the Buddha. It would probably be easier for you just to go there and see for yourself.
I spent another day filming martial arts demonstrations on the steps of the dragon gate with Sifu Sal Redner, Patricia Kusaba, and Natasha Cordova. If I got a lot of stares by myself, videotaping this group tripled that. We also found time to film amongst the shrines in the Pagoda Forest and at the Chuzu nunnery.
As I was coming to the close of my trip, my biggest regret was that I had never made it up to Damo's cave. It was like going to Jerusalem and never making it to Gethsemane. I was going to have to give my world traveler merit badge back. I was out of time. That is, I was out of time until I was talking to my girlfriend about when I was going to be home. She pointed out that I had my dates wrong. I had one more day in Dengfeng to do things. I guess I would be climbing to Damo's cave after all.
Denfeng responded by giving me the best weather of the trip. Up to this point it had been foggy and overcast. I couldn't even tell there was a massive mountain at the edge of town until I woke up that Tuesday morning and saw it. It finally clicked in my brain why this was the Songshan Mountain because I could finally see it.
Under crystal blue skies, I traveled the path to the cave. There was a huge series of switchbacks leading up the cliff. I kept psyching myself out by seeing this tremendous section of vertical stairs further up the trail. There was no way I was going to make it up that without some sort of coronary infarction. But I put one step in front of the other, my tripod balanced on my shoulder, and kept going. I took a lot of breaks. I sweated through all my layers. And I was rewarded for my efforts.
The cave is tiny. A small arch spans the short path leading to it. There were several women by the entrance selling some sort of medicinal herb. They must hike up here everyday to be in position to hawk these potions. Bu Yao!
A nun stood by the entrance to the cave selling incense. I bought some and did my incense duty for Gene Ching. A big sign outside the cave said, "No Photographs," in English. I think the only English signs in China say, "No Photographs."
A little further up from the cave is a giant statue of Damo all in white stone. It perches on the top of the mountain and overlooks the valley where Shaolin Temple lies. Another nun guards this altar. Some of the medicine women followed us up to the statue and burnt more incense.
On the way back down, I decided I needed to look at the cave one more time. I asked the nun if I could take her picture next to the cave. She agreed. Then I asked if I could take a picture looking out from the cave. No problem. Then she motioned as if to ask if I wanted my picture taken inside the cave. You didn't have to ask me twice. I was quite excited to take the forbidden picture. I took pictures of the nun as well. It seemed to be quite the coup to mark the end of my trip. I was excited all the way to the bottom and didn't feel tired at all.
The lesson to be learned is this: "Go to Dengfeng." You want to experience its rich history and culture. There are a lot of historic places packed into a very small area. If you go by yourself, it will be scary. But it will be worth it.
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About Greg Lynch Jr.:
Greg Lynch Jr. has produced a video documentary of his trip for the DVD insert with the Shaolin Special 2012 which was included for free for subscribers and is also available in select newsstand outlets.