Thursday 21 February 2008

Sitting here tonight in my hotel room, it sounds like gunfire has broken out all over the city. Actually it is the end of the Spring Festival and fireworks and firecrackers have been exploding for hours and, 10.30 pm there is no sign of it quietening down. I can see firework displays in every direction over the illuminated cityscape. This is the formal end of the most important holiday period in the Chinese calendar. It has been holiday time since Chinese New Year and, tonight, at the end, it is officially the Festival of Lanterns and there will have been lantern processions in every town. We saw one the other day on our way to the Southern Shaolin Temple. The whole village was in festival costumes, carrying lanterns, playing music and setting off fireworks and firecrackers along the route…this is, I imagine, what we can hear tonight.

We did our bit for the celebrations by buying our own box of fireworks which, because we are not living in P.C. Land, we could just take out to the lakeside in front of the hotel and let off to the applause of passing Chinese with their illuminated lanterns and small children with sparklers. Next to us a group of enthusiastic teenagers spread a long line of firecrackers in front of us and let them off to ear piercing effect.

I don’t know about the rest of China but Fuzhou certainly knows how to have fun. Ever since we arrived there has been a sense of joy in the air. “Gong sie gong sie!” they say…good luck and good fortune”…that is exactly what I am wishing these impressive people.

The morning started with our, by now usual, three hour session with Kungfu Dog Style Master Lin. I woke up with an attractively blackened bruise on my hip and I dragged my way to a hot shower with one leg dragging behind the other…. like Igor in Count Dracula’s castle. Smothered in some muscle medicine that I had bought at the Southern Shaolin Temple, I thought it might just go away before the class began.

Limping down the road towards the school, I saw Master Lin waiting at the gate so I quickly disguised my limp and soon all of us had made our way up those dreaded twelve flights of stairs.

It came as a wonderful relief to do a prolonged stretching session…Master Lin showed me a leg stretch with foot on the bar, diaphragm in, arms outstretched with fingers pointed beyond the toes. My hip said thanks as it also did when he showed us how to do a forward splits…. actually I did not get all the way down but I got much further than I thought possible. With a bit of effort and a gradually increasing stretch, I think I shall achieve it before one of my feet gets into that grave.

Then we were off…the pattern up to move No. 40. All together and then one by one…certainly there was no hiding place; even when reaching those rolls and twists which had caused my hip problem yesterday.

What do they yell in cartoons when something hurts? Ouch! Ow! Aaaargh! Whatever you say, I felt it…. my hip said no but the rest of me said yes. So I continued and hoped the tears in my eyes didn’t show.

We were on target as far as Master Lin was concerned and we went on to the next moves that contained, yup, you’ve guessed it, more rolls and twisting hip movements…just what the doctor definitely didn’t order. Well I carried on doing it until my instructor…who irritatingly always does know best in these things, said I should tell Master Lin.

He, of course, was full of wisdom and consideration. I described my symptoms…. slightly under playing the pain but I told him that my leg had started to go numb…. actually I was now numb right down to everything except my big toe.

He told me that it would get better and I should not worry…all I had to do was to carry on with less force and not to do anything that really hurt. He is, apparently, a master masseuse like his son and makes his own medicinal cures that he has promised to bring in for me tomorrow.

I carried on…. my rolls getting wilder and wilder and the pain getting worse until I started ghosting the worst bits. Apologising to him through our interpreter, Chen, saying some of my moves were like a madman’s. He said not to worry many of his students begin in ignorance then go on to the stage that I am at now where nothing is clear. Then they reach the stage when things become easier before reaching the final stage: Enlightenment. A long way away for me I think.

By the time the session finished we have learnt the next section of the pattern and now have only two more new moves before the final section that repeats the opening. So, even if I have to be carried to class in the morning, I am certain that I will learn the whole pattern and some cool new ground fighting techniques.

It all ended with the Shaolin monk, known as Coach E, who has been helping out with our class, giving me the thumbs up and some really encouraging words about how impressed he was by my sticking at it. Master Lin was repeated the thumbs up and I felt truly chuffed.

Back at the hotel, I lay on my bed and woke up a couple of hours later to the sound of Buddhist chanting that I had on repeat on the laptop. I felt really good after one of those sleeps of the righteous.

All that concentration and seriousness needed a bit of a holiday so an impulse after a shopping trip into town lead me to take a motorbike taxi back to the hotel.

Complete with crash helmet and a flimsy hold on the back of the bike, I speeded off into the chaos that is Fuzhou’s rush hour…it brought a new dimension to the wildness of the city’s traffic as lorries and cars perilously close. Great too were all the cries of Ni hau – hello – from fellow bikers when we all stopped at the traffic lights.

We were all well and truly exercised by this time so we ended up in the hotel’s sauna where muscles purred with delight as heat came to the rescue…. it was luxurious but monastic stuff…. men and women segregated but three pools of different temperatures: brass monkeys, boiling hot and boring. We alternated between the three, the sauna and the steam room and emerged much refreshed and pampered by the two uniformed attendants. We also found the opportunity to have a polite conversation with a naked Chinaman.

After our personal firework display we came back to the hotel for some practise…the babullion pattern from the first Master Lin and then the Dog style pattern up to where we have got. I left out the ones that really challenge my hip and, with a lot of encouragement from the others got nearer to mastering some of my rolling nightmares.

I cup of Jasmine tea and the thought of bed now drag me away from here after another mind expanding day.

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