Thursday 7 February 2008
Well folks, we are off to China on Sunday for just over two weeks Kungfu training with two Chinese masters in Fuzhou in South East China. It is the dream of everyone who practises martial arts.
It will be two weeks of early starts, culture shocks and some pretty challenging experiences I reckon as five of us from the Lewes and Burgess Hill club go into serious training mode – Dave, Pete, Bryan and me plus our unshockable instructor, Neil. And, by training, I don’t mean just doing a few weights before going down to some old Chinese pub where they sell chilled Guinness.
We soon received animal nicknames in the spirit of the Crane, the Tiger and the Dog…I was Wolfie, the wolf, Dave, the crocodile, Pete, the badger and Bryan, inevitably, the Golden Pig. Don’t ask why – it was a lad thing – oh, and Neil was the Shark.
The two masters that we will meet will teach us patterns in their particular disciplines within the White Crane Kungfu style, which has its origins in this part of Southern China – Fujian Province.
The first specialises in Shaking Crane, which uses a series of sophisticated techniques of body shaking that allows you to summon up all your energy through your body to your fingertips to devastating effect. If you remember the end of Kill Bill Two you will know what I mean.
The second master is, appropriately enough, a Dog Style specialist. This is seriously scary stuff – with a lot of emphasis on ground fighting and rolling around. So the Wolf will feel pretty shaken up by all that jumping a round. Will he survive it? Will the Masters chuck him out? Or will he come back transformed?
Watch this space to find out.
Tuesday 12 February 2008
Well the Wolf has landed. So we were in Hong Kong yesterday where we had a day before flying on to Fuzhou today.
Hong Kong was cold and misty so I couldn’t see any of the famous sights but I did find a good camera shop and bought myself a digital camera for £100 less than I would have paid in England.
Ashamed to say the rest of the Hong Kong day was spent getting totally wasted in various drinking establishments with my four travelling companions. When I say wasted I mean wasted/hammered/rat-arsed. Don’t remember how I got back to the hotel but I did and woke up today feeling as you do after these moments.
Sorry Hong Kong, I may have missed your great tourist attractions but I had a bleedin’ good time and in a way saw a lot more of it than if I was just simply doing the sights.
We’ve now flown to Fuzhou and got established in a really cool hotel – my room has views over the lake with lit up pagodas and stuff reflecting in the water…haven’t seen in by daylight yet.
We met up with our interpreter, Chen, who is cool, friendly and Chinese.
There were too many of us for one taxi so we split up into two. Chen and I soon lost the others so I ended up in a really traditional back street restaurant on my own whilst Chen went off to find the others. Forty minutes was spent trying to communicate in Chinese and I did manage to tell the amazed locals that I was English and five others were joining me…. also I could order tea (I had a hangover remember) and actually got some.
We all met up in the end and went for dinner…delicious fish, sweet and sour pork, chicken doughnuts (?), noodles and, amongst other things a soup with snail like slithery creatures in it with wobbly antennae which tasted salty and gritty. I didn’t ask what it was ‘cos I didn’t want to know.
Well the training starts tomorrow…. it is nearly half one in the morning here and we’re up at 6.00 so speak to you all later.
Wednesday 13 February 2008
Today was the first day of training with Shaking Cane Kungfu Master Linn who is teaching us a Shaking Crane pattern called Babbulian which challenges our Western muscular stiffness as it is all about suppleness and flexibility. Much to his surprise, the Wolf wasn’t nearly as at sea as he had feared…not that he was good or anything mind. We were put through our paces in horse stance for most of the time for three hours. We were in a room in the gigantic government sponsored sports hall and what began as rather a forbidding experience turned out to be fun even if it really tiring.
We spent the afternoon sight-seeing around Fuzhou with only two of us having any Chinese words but we managed to find our way to two of Fuzhou’s most famous buildings: The Black and White Pagodas. They are nearly a thousand years old and not over loved by the turbulent history that has surrounded them. It looks like they are about to be restored though by the new China.
The every day sights of Fuzhou were even more interesting.
The crowds in the early morning who fill the parks with their taichi, ballroom dancing and taichi sword patterns.
The wild horn-blowing traffic where bicycles, mopeds, posh cars, taxis and buses manoeuvre past each other with no apparent regard to regulations but with no obvious casualties.
The man who climbed over a bridge then clambered along some pipes over the river for nothing more than a good wash.
The old lady on her bicycle with her shopping and her Taichi sword blade sticking out in front of her.
I am definitely in China folks.
We did some more Kungfu practice this evening before going to a massage parlour (not one with naughty extras I promise). We lay on beds, three to a room, fully clothed (I promise) as three beautiful young Chinese women in traditional dress battered us with unbelievably strong fingers before quite literally walking all over us. Chinese massage is brilliant for all those stressed and over-used muscles.
The Wolf is now fully restored.
Fuzhou is a busy and developing city but unlike many busy international cities, its people seem friendly, happy and obviously relaxed. That is how they come across any way and we have seen to much friendliness and hospitality since we have been here that, so far, I have nothing to complain about…. even all that talk about the food. We have eaten superb, fresh tasting meals ever since arriving.
In a sentence, we are having a whale of a time.
Thursday 14 February 2008
It was our second day of training with Master Linn today. A lot of the formality wore off as we got to know each other better. As he does not speak English, our attempts at Chinese helped to warm up relations and, at times we were able to communicate without our interpreter, Chen.
Beginning with a series of stretches and stretching patterns, we felt much more relaxed than yesterday – the massage helped a lot and we decided we would have one every day on the trip – especially as one hour of really expert treatment costs only £3.
Master Linn taught us the next section of our pattern and demonstrated a lot more, showing his amazing technique- eye-watering low stance, unbelievable suppleness and flexibility and a devastatingly rapid ability to attack.
On one occasion he showed me what a Shaking Crane attack would feel like and sent me giddily off my balance with a series of rapid-fire moves. Showing his power by hitting the wall with the punch that would otherwise have been mine.
It was three hours of solid hard work but felt much less exhausting than yesterday.
We went to a Calling Crane Temple in a place called Ming Her in the afternoon. It was built in the 6th. Century in the countryside outside Fuzhou and even though few visitors go there it was actually one branch of Karate began before being exported to Japan. Our White Crane Kungfu style has many similarities with some aspects of modern karate so it was great to see one of martial arts’ special places.
Today it is wonderfully run down; looked after by an extremely old woman who keeps her card table, transistor radio and knitting in front of the Buddhist altar. It is none the less spiritual for this – if anything, it is more impressive than many a grander religious institution.
Local villagers come up here (it is up a really steep hill) to pray for dead ancestors and to collect water from the well that they still carry back with buckets on yokes on their shoulders.
This wonderful place is now also a building site with work starting on the new buildings for the temple, which will become a major Buddhist centre with much more focus on the origins of Karate. I hope they will not loose its special character. Imagining those monks practising their martial arts in this idyllic but also strangely human setting really brought home the message that martial arts are more than just a way of beating people up. I lit some incense sticks kept by the ancient woman and placed them in bowls of sand in front of the many Buddha statues. It was with respect for all those wise and wonderful people about whom we know so little in the West.
To get there we hired a minibus plus driver who negotiated the perilously narrow and winding roads up to Ming Her. We travelled through an extraordinary landscape of newly built factories bordering on charming but obviously extremely poor villages where people were living close together in tiny houses populated by all generations of families. It was as different from English rural life as anywhere could possibly be.
One local shop was made of wood with a snooker table outside under an awning with two teenagers playing a game with no adults in sight. Inside the tiny colour television was showing what looked like a soap whilst all the provisions, racked around were left entirely unsupervised. One got the sense of a community that may be deprived in many ways but which seemed united in its own sense of community.
We got back to Fuzhou for some welcome muscle relief on the massage table. Today I tried an acupressure one which concentrated on the main pressure points on the body (as in acupuncture), which is anything but the luxurious pampering massage beloved in British Health Clubs. The young Chinese woman – why are they all so beautiful in this place? – belied her appearance and set to pummelling my pressure points and even clambering on top of me to get a better angle on her viciously accurate elbows. Whatever Chi is, if you believe in it or not, there is something about acupressure that releases some sort of energy whilst relaxing hard worked muscles. I left feeling genuinely spaced out.
Dinner in a local restaurant consisted of some delicious beef with hot chillies, some vegetable flavoured rice, succulent aubergines, a plate of peanuts, some cured duck (including what looked like its beak), and some chicken in a subtle sauce. Less subtle was one of the late animal’s feet and the creature’s head – including comb and beak. I am sorry to say I was selective of what I ate.
After a bit of wandering round downtown Fuzhou, we bought an array of Chinese medicines (mostly for Kungfu injuries naturally!) and then I got persuaded by my Kungfu instructor to play the piano in a well-stocked piano store. Not frightened of causing a scene I took up the challenge without realizing how loud these instruments were. A crowd of assistants gathered round and were all really kind about my playing. Feeling a bit of a fraud, we left them all beaming with pleasure. Maybe I missed my vocation as China’s answer to Liberace. More likely, this was another example of how charming Fuzhou people really are.
It was then back to the hotel for an hour’s Kungfu practice followed by some games of pool that I lost every time. For the record, Dave is maestro of the pool table.
Friday 15 February 2008
Day Three of our training sessions with Shaking Crane Kungfu Master Linn and we learnt some more moves in our pattern. The acupressure massage from last night had its effect though as it really drains you and I found that I was quite woozy which didn’t help in learning the moves or doing them in co-ordination with my three fellow students.
I mustn’t underestimate how lucky we are though. The lessons, as I’ve said before, take place in the Government Sports Hall. We use a room usually devoted to table tennis (ping pong) but we have it every day for three hours when the doors are locked and the curtains drawn. We are, after all learning, a pattern that is jealously guarded by its practitioners. Also, we are just four people, plus our instructor, having one to one tuition from a highly respected master. Unlike the Shaolin Temple where you are just one in a thousand.
Pity I’m not better at it! Great experience though.
Master Linn is also able to communicate better with us now and we are really learning from him eyeball to eyeball.
Today he arrived with a man who had swords and other weapons for sale. We are all going to buy straight swords – this will be my third – they are really well made and in Master Linn’s opinion well suited to our style. They also work out at about £30 odd quid each. Will be fun at customs I expect.
Afterwards, we went to a teahouse in the park and sat by the water with teacups and small pot and all the stuff needed for traditional tea making. Very civilised and very tranquil, even when two old ladies, with more metal teeth than ivory, joined in a conversation full of smiles and attempts to understand us in spite of our elementary Mandarin. I think they were saying that it was good to be by the water but I may well be wrong.
We had a free afternoon, which we spent wandering around the shops in the downtown area. This is vast and, as China has such a large population, you are never away from crowds of people. To put it into context Fuzhou has a population nearly twice the size of Ireland and it is not a particularly major city. It seems that you can go anywhere in China and you will always see loads of people – there are just so many of them. It is more extraordinary that they seem to live together in much more harmony than a similar crowd would do in Europe. Everywhere we have been, with only a few exceptions, has been relaxed and, dare I say it, joyful.
Whatever we may think about the politics, there are definitely many things we could learn from China.
Crowd wandering is a real pleasure here as people are so friendly and interested in strangers. We have seen no other Westerners since we have been here and we do seem to cause a stir wherever we go. When we walked past the medicinal shop that we had been in yesterday all the staff came out and said hello…and this is on a really busy thoroughfare. I think trying to speak the language has made us very welcome here.
The rat we saw in the middle of town looked healthy and frisky and not at all shy of people. Maybe the Chinese look after them in the year of the rat. That and the stomach turning smell that comes from the public loos were the only blemishes on a day when the population of Fuzhou seemed to be out and about enjoying itself in the spring sun.
We didn’t see the problems so I guess you can only imagine that there must be some people here having a less than joyful time.
We went, yet again to the massage place and this time I had a foot message – which actually took in everywhere up to the thighs. This was a weird mixture of pleasure and pain. Your feet are plunged into a barrel of very hot water whilst thighs, knees and calves etc. and given a strong pressure point massage. No old injury went unobserved – the masseuse went straight to where I had my knee operation and also spent a good deal of time with one of my big toes (poor woman!) which was the victim of one of my early and ill advised kicks in Kungfu class. When she got to the feet she pressed all the really painful pressure points – so painful at times it was like having a filling at the dentist’s without an injection – but somehow it works and you don’t run screaming from the room. We talked away in Mandarin (!) not always having any idea of what we were saying but communicating just the same. It ended up, after some excruciating toe clicking, with extremely hot towels being wrapped around feet and legs. Even though it concentrated on legs and feet, it actually affected the whole body making my fingers twitch involuntarily and sending all sorts of energy through my body. Powerful and slightly unsettling stuff.
We had a good meal in town…beef with very hot peppers, a fish opened up sideways and served gaping mouth forward, some bony chicken, probably best described as chicken bones in a fragrant sauce plus a tempting chicken foot accompanied by steam cooked vegetables and fragrant noodles.
Back at the hotel we did another hour of Kungfu training before the Wolf came up to write this.
Only two more days with the first Kungfu master and then it is the dreaded dog style………will I survive? Think of me…owwwwwwwwwwwwww!!
Saturday 16 February 2008
Only one day left with Master Lin after today so we went to the Fuzhou Gym expecting to get well on our way with the Shaking Crane pattern. I had practised with the others last night and on my own back in the bedroom and again this morning before breakfast. Feeling a bit out of it after the acupressure massage, I had got really worried about the whole thing collapsing around me. Unsurprisingly, it is a big challenge not only to learn the whole pattern before the end of the session but to even begin to get body and mind round the moves, let alone to do them with any real understanding of them.
We arrived at the Gym to find Master Lin already there with the sword man. We all got our straight swords as expected but were then tempted into buying a broad sword each too…both ridiculously cheaply. I won’t mention Bryan buying some very silky white Kungfu pyjamas though, in case you laugh. So we are now armed to the hilt and ready to take on the world…only joking customs people, police, soldiers and any one else wanting to stop us getting our swords back to England. Here people take their weapons to the park to practise but we are not allowed even to take a wooden staff into the park at home. The hotel does feel the need to specify though that no weapons should be used in the hotel. Imagine a sign like that at the Dorchester.
Well the session went really well…the Wolf actually got through it all with minimal embarrassment and we actually got to learn the rest of the moves in the pattern a day early. Now we have one more full three-hour session tomorrow to get better at it before moving on to the Dog Style Master.
In reality this pattern is one of the most important things I will be taking back to England because if I ever get good at it, it will improve all my other patterns but will also open some doors for my stiff English body to loosen up in true Crane style. Well, one-day maybe.
Armed with a virtual armoury, we returned to the hotel quietly chuffed by our progress.
The afternoon was spent going to the Buddhist temple on Drum Mountain, which is approached quite literally up a mountain by climbing several thousand steps. Just what your calf and thigh muscles are crying out for after a morning of lower horse stance.
I assumed that a mountain walk to a Buddhist temple in the open countryside would be an inspiring and tranquil occasion…communing with nature and higher things. Well it was certainly inspiring but it was any thing but tranquil. Thousands of people were walking up those steps…. old, young, athletes, Saturday afternoon walkers in their smartest clothes…Fuzhou people in all their variety.
By the path side were beggars enacting their disabilities with dramatic gestures. One woman had brought her nearly grown up son to near the half waypoint. He lay in her arms obviously severely brain-damaged. Without being callous, we wondered how she had got him there. The Chinese we met seemed highly critical of beggars saying that they were mostly professionals who did not need to be doing it. Well I just don’t know the answer to that one but some of them looked in a pretty bad state.
It was fantastic though joining the massive throng of weekend climbers going up the mountain quite literally cheek by jowl. We stopped for a thousand year old egg at one of the outdoor eating stations on the way. Somebody’s great idea – not mine. They look like hard boiled eggs soaked in urine but I’m told unreliably that it is really tea. Whatever it was the eggs were actually delicious just a pity that they were dyed the colour of stale urine.
Up at the temple, welcoming saffron robed monks were preparing for some kind of service in front of a gigantic golden Buddha. Incense, the surprisingly fast and rhythmical solid wooden drum and an occasionally sounding bell accompanied the chanting which was mostly divided into two lines of voices singing four notes apart with individual singers and elaborate ornamentation. It was deeply impressive and much more complex than mere generalised chanting. The courtyards were full of people lighting incense candles to departed relatives, the smoke wafted through covered walkways lined with scarlet lanterns. Everywhere you looked there were dragon ornamented pagodas and in the distance a further and higher mountain. Not a bad place then.
We came back down by cable car…elderly, rickety metal boxes that screeched and crunched over cables. Wolves don’t like cable cars but this first ride in one was
inspiring and really not worrying at all. In front was the mountain sweeping down before us and beyond that Fuzhou in its extensive valley with the massive River Min rolling to the South China Sea via a rapidly expanding harbour. The old town now emblazoned with skyscrapers is now surrounded by building works…. in every direction major construction work is taking place…. from our creaking viewpoint on Cable Car No. 259, it was the image of a new world being born.
We went to a more up market restaurant for dinner tonight and were ushered into an upper room by a young hostess in a long, slit to the thigh, scarlet dress. She put on the customary colour television in the room and tuned in to a soap opera involving two young girls sitting on a sofa and then moved on to a quiz show before we stopped her channel hopping when a pair of copulating wolves hit the screen. Perfect! Strange just the same to have a noisy television dominating the ambience of a supposedly sophisticated venue.
We had to go back downstairs to choose our food. We had seen a waiter fish out a large flat fish, which he left flapping around on the scales before being taken away to the kitchen. We settled to the murderous task of choosing our lobster. A rather lively creature that put up a fight as it was dumped into what looked like a small plastic laundry basket.
In our best but hugely flawed Chinese, we then had to discuss with, by now, six laughing waiters and waitresses how we wanted it cooked. It was truly odd choosing the vegetables whilst our victim scratched around next to us. Tasted great though…. sorry veggies! It was never going to get out of there alive anyway.
One of our number, Pete, a chef of course, went down with what looks like food poisoning…nothing we ate too, we thought selfishly. Hope he’s better in the morning though.
The rest of us did some Kungfu training before unwinding at the hotel in anticipation of our last day with Master Lin.
Sunday 17 February 2008
We had our last lesson with Master Lin, the Shaking Crane Master today. It was asking a lot to master the pattern in 5 days – and, of course, no one expected us to master it, only learn the basic movements. That has been difficult enough but we have done it and the session was spent showing Master Lin how far we have got. He has wanted us to learn to perform it together, the four of us, so that we help each other on and learn from each other – mostly by our mistakes. Sometimes I’m pleased it all takes place behind closed doors because when it goes wrong one of us, usually me, is left looking like the one in the chorus line that’s forgotten their words. We had to go through the complete pattern several times before doing it solo.
Oddly, I was less nervous doing it on my own than in a group. It was more relaxed and I got do it in my own time. It is great that I have at least got all the moves but as I am the most uncoordinated person that I’ve ever met I have to really drum things in before I stop repeating stupid mistakes. Our instructor knows the pattern and will be able to work with is on it when we are back in England. In a year or so, it will be much more internalised and I shall always be pleased that I crossed the world to learn it from one of its leading practitioners.
The end of the session marked the trips halfway mark. We took some time out but had an excellent practice session in the park by our hotel in the afternoon. It brought home how important it is to do your own practice after what was in many ways a master class. Whilst the ideas were fresh in our heads we were able to go through the stuff without the nerves of performing before critical eyes…except our instructor of course who never misses a thing…he’ll keep us at it when we get back – no question. Master Lin reckons we should repeat it ten times a day for the rest of our lives…. he certainly does and more. He practises for two hours every morning from 5.00 before going to work and then one hour when he gets back in the evening.
Two park gardeners watched us with unblinking concentration…it was probably that staring at Westerners was more interesting than getting on with their work but it may have been that we were foreigners doing a traditional Eastern tradition by a pagoda on the lakeside with bamboos rustling in the wind and the magnolias now fully in bloom.
Like so many people out here, martial arts seems to be a part of their lives and they probably wanted to join in. Certainly you see people practising Kungfu, Taichi and other martial styles in most available open spaces. Apparently, the government has announced that the country cannot afford to look after billions of unfit people so it is running a campaign to get people to take care of their own fitness. They have recruited instructors to teach Taichi in the parks and to show people techniques like the bizarre and very commonly seen activity of walking backwards whilst clapping hands. Clapping is good for your circulation and walking backwards is kinder to your knees than walking forwards – this is mostly done by very fit but elderly women with all the intensity of marathon runners. It is amazing that they can do it without wearing real-view mirrors. Still looks really silly though.
There is no question that we have all got really fit keeping up with this schedule…we trained before coming out here and have been doing about 4 hours a day since. We have eaten really healthily as well – with a welcome absence of dairy products. We have only had one casualty so far when a mysterious stomach bug got Pete – he is on the mend now thankfully but not before having a pretty unpleasant night in his bathroom.
We went into town again tonight and clubbed together to buy Master Lin and his family a farewell dinner. We went to a large restaurant where the downstairs had been taken over by a Birthday Party – everyone was dressed up and a woman in an evening dress stood in front of a band of guitars, drums and piano, to lead a stirring rendition of Happy Birthday To You…first in English and then in Chinese. As we walked through, we were given a number of giggly greetings from some of the girls…. as the only Westerners around, people seem to get a kick of shouting out “Hello” – it’s usually their only word of English. I suppose He Lo does sound quite Chinese.
We had one of the private upstairs rooms after choosing dinner from the usual array of aquariums that are so popular out here in superior restaurants even though there were some awkward moments when the language barrier slowed things up. Things took a bizarre turn when Master Lin’s daughter who speaks some English asked how we said “tomato”…inevitably it fell to yours truly to make his impromptu Chinese singing debut with the inevitable song: You say Tomato and I say…” I still can’t believe I did it. The incredulous Chen asked if it was a children’s song. No, I told him, it’s a great American hit.
We all managed to communicate well enough, to express thanks and friendship by drinking many toasts in beer from small quarter pint glasses before the evening drew to a close.
We have now all gone to our rooms feeling pretty much as tired as any one would after all this exercise. Sleep will not be far away.
Monday 18 February 2008
We had a day off today but filled it in interesting ways.
We went off to a local park early this morning…. 6.30…. before breakfast to see all the people who gather there every day to do their exercises as discussed in an earlier posting. The park is round the corner from our hotel and backs straight on to West Lake. It was a moody grey morning but the trees which are every where in Fuzhou added a rich luxuriant green brightened up by many multi-coloured flowerbeds full of red poinsettias and salvias then orange marigolds and yellow chrysanthemums which are all grouped in separate beds crammed together in their flowerpots behind short box hedges. No boring planting then…you just replace one pot plant with another. Clever stuff.
The park was full of Taichi and morning exercise people much as I have described before but most memorably, remember we are talking 6.30 in the morning, old couples doing the jive and a group of women, all over 60, practising their Taichi sword routines together. They were a truly amazing, not only because of their smooth movements and impressive low stances but also their prowess with the swords which they wield with fluid grace but lethal precision. They are flexible and slim to a degree you would never see in such a large group back in the UK. This fantastic way of staying healthy would be illegal in Britain though in case old age pensioners went ballistic with their swords.
On the way back we saw the Taichi sword women doing a different exercise…this time they had what looked like badminton racquets with a soft ball on it. They were doing similar flowing movements without dropping the ball…including floating the racquets. Just when I thought the balls were stuck on, they included a movement where the tossed the balls to the woman next to them. This was all done with laughter and grace. Respect.
We found a free corner by some bamboos and over-looking the lake where we could practise our Da Mo exercises. I do these moving meditation exercises every morning at home but here, with the shared energy coming from so many Chinese participants; it was a truly powerful experience.
We then did our Taichi form, which, again, seemed to be coming home. Spookily, when we got to the move called The Golden Cockerel Stands on One Leg, a cock crowed from the other side of the lake and we were at one with our surroundings. The Taichi has really benefited too from our work with the Shaking Crane Master, I felt much looser and more flowing than I remember before. This, our temporary Taichi spot, will always be somewhere in my mind whenever I do it in the future.
After breakfast, we took a minibus, plus a driver, on an epic four-hour journey inland to the Southern Shaolin Temple, which, with its Northern twin, is the birthplace of formalised Kungfu. Here the monks are mostly all Kungfu experts specialising in a highly theatrical form of Wushu and a version of Chinese Boxing very similar to the one that we practise at home…except we have more floor work in our style.
The original temple was burnt down in the 18th. Century and is now being rebuilt…. only the original entrance arch exists and it is now bizarrely isolated in a field of rubble. I pocketed a small piece of brick to take home. Well it is a special place.
The new temple is very successful even though it is a new construction and a lot of building is still going on. It is in traditional style with courtyards and shrines separated by large stoned squares, which are used for Kungfu demonstrations. Sadly none were happening today but under the two giant trees in the middle of the central courtyard, any Kungfu artist wannabe like me, could only take in the heady mix of Kungfu history, Buddhist tranquillity and the all pervasive smell of incense and chrysanthemums – red and orange this time and planted in ceremonial rows like soldiers.
The view only a couple of years ago was of open countryside but now the landscape is the modern architectural equivalent of seeing the whole of the City of London from the top of the Post Office Tower. An entire city has replaced the forest that had been there only really recently. It looks fine – or as fine as any city landscape can look when compared to Madam Nature but there you go…. there are billions of Chinese people who are entering the brave new world of international capitalism. It is worth seeing, maybe, from a sacred Buddhist site just to remind us that nothing should distract us from the main issues in life which are all to do with a journey in the head and should be just as vivid in the middle of the bustling modern world.
We also visited a bridge, over a thousand years old, which crosses a murky river with mud flats and white herons. An old lady with a wooden water carrier (a yoke for buckets etc.) staggered over towards us with big bags of mussels on each end. We asked if we could buy the mussels, which we did but our instructor bought the water carrier too as it is one of our traditional fighting weapons. Soon it will be in our kung fu club’s weapons collection.
After she had gone and sun darkened man came running along the bridge. He too had a water carrier with two heaven larger buckets of mussels. He was also carrying a third bucket that contained his shoes and Wellington boots. He was running barefoot to the other side of the bridge to carry on his harvest. He was barefoot…totally bronzed and probably aged in his sixties or seventies. When he saw my camera, he put down his load and gave me his best Hollywood grin before running off down the muddy bank into the water.
Further down stream, women were washing clothes in the river; scrubbing them and beating them on the rocks – the Middle Ages in the 21st Century.
The bus journey was vivid and massive…. in the four hours of the journey we were hardly ever in open countryside…hundreds of miles of joined villages where the old was being replaced by the new…Nissan, Mercedes and other international companies are buildings factories right through Fujian province…. sky scrapers are going up, constructed around bamboo scaffolding because the climate is too hot for metal. Just when you thought that was impressive, the van would come to a crossroads and you could see the vast townscape ran off equally far in every direction. It was a crazy, dusty and rapidly growing concrete prairie.
Lorries, cars, motorbikes and bicycles in their thousands competed chaotically on this road full of building dust. Suddenly out of the mist is an old lady with another water carrier. This time she is carrying two pales of water.
It was always the contrasts that amazed. The modern buildings were coming up next to streets of simple shops that look like domestic garages but set out with shoes, vegetables, televisions and motorbikes. Everywhere people were a bout their business as if they were in the deepest country. Tethered oxen grazed optimistically on the side of what in England would be a motorway. Hens strayed into the road and motorbikes with trailers carried anything from a distressingly large number of caged pigs, brand new motorbikes or piled 8 to 10 feet high bags of grain or whatever.
They were not outdone by the cyclists who were using pedal power to drag trailers piled four or five times higher than the cyclist who was steering in and out of the heavy industrial vehicles and speeding horn honking cars.
At the side of the road were mechanical diggers but also two men loading a van with large concrete blocks suspended on their shoulders by a large piece of bamboo. No wonder they have produced such fantastic martial artists.
There was much to describe about this journey but it is late and we have our first meeting with the Dog Style Master in the morning…help! Could I say that I’m not feeling very well? Maybe not.
Tuesday 19 February 2008
Well today was the day I have been dreading and been really excited about…the beginning of our Dog Style lessons with our second Kungfu master…also called Master Lin….. sometimes I think there are only a handful of words in China for everything.
I got up early to practise some rolling backwards and forwards – as you do – in my room before breakfast.
Master Lin 2 was meeting us at a school ten minutes away for our five three hour sessions this week. He is an elegant and obviously ferociously fit man of 64 who met us outside and waited with us for Chen our interpreter…who has become our friend… and then his son who is also a brilliant martial artist…. one of his top students came along too.
Far from him being an ogre, he was both charming and highly sensitive. We all entered the empty school – it is Spring Festival holiday time. We walked up the twelve flights of stairs, passed a giant outdoor poster of the school kid and their teachers, to a large hall at the top of the building.
Hiding any breathlessness that the stairs caused, we were soon being initiated as honoured guests to his Chinese dog-boxing club. The style is a variant of the one made famous by the Southern Shaolin Temple. I was still thinking how can a mere Wolf take on all this stuff with its athleticism with rolls and jumps and other things that usually make brings down the black curtain on my coordination. Well it was all or nothing now. I few deep breathes and the initiation was over.
It was a polite affair with Master Lin reaching a speech from a prepared paper. Chen translated and we all clapped. We are now officially welcomed to China and to his club where we are also welcome to train and learn diligently.
No more excuses. Master Lin’s son showed us the whole pattern that we are going to learn this week. It looked impossible with all the moves that I had dreaded. Well we will see.
Actually so much was similar but different to our own style that my nerves dissolved and it was really like being back at a normal lesson at home. By the end of the three hours, we had actually done the first 24 moves and, without bragging, the old Wolf had actually kept up.
Dog Style is nearer to my comfort zone than the Shaking Crane style of last week which I know will take ages to master.
We are learning the Dog Style pattern, San Zhan, the three battles… the same name (and philosophy) as our first pattern.
The rough principles of the moves were familiar but the order and the style took some drumming in….then it always does for me. Master Lin bent my fingers and wrists in particular until it felt that they would bend no more. In fact one of my old finger injuries produced a loud and embarrassing cracking sound when he straightened it out.
We have done about half of the pattern but all the most difficult stuff is to come. Tomorrow we start the rolls and jumps and, worse of all for me, there are some moves which will test my left and right coordination beyond their limits.
We all photographed each other…it was really touching that the Lins seemed as interested in us as we were in them. It was also really strange to be filmed fumbling through my practise by Master Lin Jnr. who smiled and encouraged even though he is obviously a supreme athlete.
We are meeting them again tonight when we are invited round to dinner at their house. As Master Lin is also a professional and highly regarded chef. This will be something to look forward to without reservations.
We have now come back to the hotel to have a lunch and to do an afternoon training session in the new pattern and to keep going with last week’s too. My brain went into overdrive but apart from some Ricky Gervais moments, I survive.
Ricky Gervais was sent to this planet to haunt me…whenever the cloud descends when I can’t remember whether I’m supposed to use left or right, I seem to do that infamous dance.
No question though that I will be coming home with my Kungfu improved beyond my hopes. Doesn’t mean I’ll ever be really good at it though.
Just a side thought whilst I’m here. All the hotel staff have English name badges…the beautiful and coy Fanny is really Hou Fan. Just thought I’d share this with you…little does she know the effect that her name has had on this laddish group half way through the trip.
We practised on the hotel’s outdoor tennis court this afternoon for an hour. It was really good to be able to keep drumming in these moves before it gets even more complicated tomorrow.
This week will see less sightseeing and more training as we step up the pace. So far so good…and anyway I don’t think I have ever felt so fit.
Dinner was in the grandest restaurant we’ve been in yet. Master Lin2 is obviously a figure of respect here so we had a real banquet…. typical our interpreter said of a Spring Festival banquet. The circular turntable in the middle of the table
was literally laden and we had many toasts in rice wine.
Master Lin’s wife and second son came too as well as his older son, our other instructor and his student who it turns out was a Buddhist monk from the Northern Shaolin Temple…he is apparently a phenomenal martial artist. So as he and Master Lin’s son will be demonstrating and helping us again. It should be really interesting.
Wednesday 20 February 2008
Back at the school for 8.00 this morning for the second day with Master Lin, the Chinese dog style Kungfu master.
The fact that he and his son and student were so friendly and enthusiastic yesterday made all the difference as I climbed those dreaded stairs, all twelve flights, to the hall at the top of the school building.
After some stretches – including some new ones to me demonstrated by Master Lin which really opened me up, we went straight to the business of the day – learning more moves from the San Zhan Dog style pattern.
The moves are all supposedly based on stylised versions of dog’s moves and by the end of yesterday we had done the first 24 that were all done from various standing positions. We didn’t exactly look like dogs but you could see, in a very Chinese way, how canine movements had been studied to the point of abstraction to produce some pretty impressive Kungfu.
I survived yesterday thanks to the fantastic one to one tuition from three top martial artists and, of course, our instructor from England who is obviously highly regarded by the Kungfu masters here.
Today things were due to heat up or, as Master Lin said ominously and succinctly: “In the next lessons things will become more difficult.”
We were due to learn the next 12 moves today that I was dreading as they involved a lot of left, right co-ordination. Something the Wolf is notoriously bad at getting without a lot of practise. At least we weren’t going to do the rolls today, I thought. That is what I am most worried about…and have been for nearly three months now.
Everyone has been very kind; not only about some pretty dodgy co-ordination problems but also that I have only really been doing Kungfu for three years – a drop in the ocean for these guys.
Well we surpassed ourselves…. not only did we learn all these moves in the first two hours and that’s a lot of lower horse stance not counting all the other positions. Master Lin was so pleased that he said we could move on. No! Not to those rolls…I had been hoping to practise them some more in my room tonight.
There was now no hope for me…Master Lin’s son demonstrated the next four moves and, yup, there they were! A jumping forward roll and then a backward roll. Just the sort of thing Wolves don’t want to do. Well if it is dog style then maybe the Wolf will just have to grit his teeth and go for it.
In the past, I used to just turn off my mind and jump into the dark whenever required to do something that I feared. Today I realized just how well prepared we have been for this trip.
OK I may not ever be the acrobatic type but, admittedly after some comical moments, I managed to do all the moves. What was amazing was the support from these men. Master Lin took a close personal interest in my every move and even, astoundingly, belied his 65 years, as he span through the movements with the athleticism and grace of a young man.
Having just bashed my hip, he came over and showed me how to do the move without need for pain. I had always assumed that these floor jumps and rolls would hurt and you would just have to get used to the pain and sublimate it. Nothing could be further from the truth. With the right movements, this pattern can be done on concrete just as easily and painlessly as on a carpet. Pity I didn’t realise this a moment or two earlier.
The other three students and our instructor picked it all up a lot quicker than me and did it better than me too. I would have been perfectly happy – well maybe not! – to have got on quietly on my own at the back. This was never an option. They watched me and adjusted my every mistake and when, miraculously, I got something right, they all called out and clapped. I even had to take a bow.
I am now so pleased to have got over this hurdle. This has always been one of my main reasons for taking up martial arts. The challenge of coming out of the comfort zone that so many of us hide in for too long in our lives.
So when the class came to the end of its three hours, I had rolled, crouched, squatted and jumped practically every minute of the time…and felt great…well a bit sore actually.
With the hour we do every evening with our instructor, this means that we have been doing four hours of strenuous exercise every day since coming to China. I am amazed that I don’t feel more wrecked…I have to thank my club training for that. Someone just coming to this without grinding in the basics and building up their strength would not survive the first hour.
After some croissants and chilled coffee, we strolled through the park watching thousands of people enjoying the Spring Festival holiday. Spring-like it was too with a mad mixture of flowers which bloom in England right through the year all flowering together…. marigolds, tulips, daffodils, rhododendrons, magnolias, chrysanthemums and poinsettias, their colours adding to the riotous reds of the lanterns hanging from practically every tree.
We walked for three hours round the park, people watching. Couples with their regulation one child, young couples, groups of teenagers, groups of old men sitting round playing cards and some of the most attractive women you would see anywhere in the world celebrating their newly found ability to wear the sexiest clothes they could decently squeeze in to.
One child parenthood is noticeable everywhere you go. Mothers and fathers obviously treasure their one chance at reproduction and look after their offspring with ostentatious affection. Often really poor looking people walk around with beautifully dressed kids and small, frail women carry their valued children wrapped up in huge bundles of blankets often after the child has grown well beyond its infancy. It is a heart-warming sight to see such love but it is also poignant to see their obvious disappointment of not being able to have any more.
I cannot judge though when looking at a country that is so full of people. Travelling around Fujian province gives you just a taste of the vastness not only of the land mass but of its population which spreads out in front of you round every corner.
After a hot bath, a snooze and an hour of training to drum in our two new patterns, I have limped to my room for, I hope an early night.
That awkward bit of hip bashing has left me sore but still mobile – just. I hope it won’t hinder me tomorrow.
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.
Friday 22 February 2008
Today was the first day since the long holiday and therefore the first day of the new school term so our class was moved from the morning to the afternoon.
I woke up feeling pretty battered but full of that feeling that if I was ever going to crack this thing called Dog Style then I would have to survive today.
We had the special luxury of a 15-minute lie-in before meeting up to go to the park again for Da Mo meditation exercises followed by our taichi form.
As usual the park was full of people doing their early morning exercises…backward walking, hand clapping, fan patterns, Taichi swords…. including one woman doing twin Taichi swords.
The park smelt of marigolds this morning as we made our way to what seemed like our spot by the lake.
The Da Mo was accomplished with that same sense of shared energy that we had experienced before. Looking out over the lake we cold see fish jumping and swallows skimming the water for insects.
Our Taichi fitted into the ambiance perfectly…that cockerel that had accompanied our move called The Golden Cockerel Stands on One Leg, came in on cue again and when we got to The Lion Opens Its Mouth, a lion from the zoo across the water, started to roar. You couldn’t invent things like this.
When we got to the school for our second to last class with Master Lin, the building was transformed from an empty space into the lively, mildly chaotic world of school time…. with sounds that are the same in every country of the world. Kids really will be kids.
We caused that look that we had seen before when passing children in Fuzhou…. open mouthed amazement with a totally unembarrassed stare.
The class took place in a different room…. this time on a stage in what looked like an assembly hall…. thankfully this meant exchanging the hard floor of our usual venue for a stage with a threadbare but very welcome carpet.
Then followed one of the most challenging three hours of my life. With the pattern as far as we had got repeated together and separately several times complete with all its rolls and tumbles.
When Master Lin was satisfied with this we moved on to learn the final section…. and actually learnt its basic shape really quickly.
I could now drop into a gentle coma, I thought and pick up the finer points of the pattern back in England.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. Once we had sorted these movements we returned to the dreaded middle section that is full of all the movements that God decided I was not meant to do. Sadly, Master Lin disagreed.
We kept repeating a short section that began and ended with a roll and which was mostly spent spinning legs backwards and forwards with arched back on the ground.
I had taken the sensible precaution of wearing three pairs of boxer shorts on top of my comfortable but thin Sloggi briefs to protect my injured hip but it was so hot in the room that one pair had to be jettisoned to cool the mini sauna in my pants.
Anyway it made my bum look big.
So we soldiered on…. when we had done this section ten times at least, we moved on to spend some time learning ground fighting movements which, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, began and ended with those dreaded rolls.
So my leg went numb and the rolls kept on coming…. they got wilder and wilder as I got more and more exhausted.
Master Lin, his son and the Shaolin Monk student, were unendingly enthusiastic and encouraging. Clapping every success and then showing me what I was doing wrong…leading to the inevitable repetition of the movements all over again.
With only an hour and a half left to go, we broke off to learn some Dog Style grappling techniques that were all, mercifully done from a standing position. I think I surprised Master Lin by finding my feet in these movements that, in reality are quite similar to stuff that we already do in our normal classes.
Just when it all seemed to be calming down, we moved on to, yup, more ground work exercises which began with a forward roll and ended with a backwards one. I cannot remember how many I did but I was beginning to wander if I would survive the afternoon.
Somehow I did. With a half hour to go, we started going through the whole pattern again. In pairs and then individually…when I did my final demonstration of it, I slowed down the tempo and, with a few wild moments, actually got through the whole thing with only a few blips. The three teachers applauded and gave me the thumbs up. I felt really good.
Then in the last twenty minutes all we had to do was repeat, several times, those ground exercises. I think by this stage we were all just throwing ourselves onto the floor in a battle against tiredness.
The amazing thing is that it was all really exhilarating. I may not have been very elegant, I may have incurred a whole lot of new bruises but I had learnt that pattern and done stuff that I had never thought I would do in my life.
At the end of the session, I felt sore but energised…. Master Lin gave me some of his magic bruise cure that has to be rubbed on after a shower. Then you have to wash your hands so that you don’t poison yourself. If you get it in your mouth, apparently, you can lose your voice – Master Lin’s version of kill or cure.
The moral of the day was that the better you mastered the techniques the less you hurt yourself. When, if, I get better at it, I should be able to do it on any surface without injury. At the moment I am one of the walking/limping wounded.
The annoying thing was that our instructor, you’d hate him if he weren’t also a good laugh, waltzed through the whole thing making it look like a walk in the park. Master Lin, rubbed it in, by saying that it was an honour to meet him and that “luck has brought us together.”
I suppose that is true all round.
All that was left to do was to go off to a Chinese tea ceremony followed by an oily massage from the best masseuse in our favourite establishment. I changed into a rather fetching pair of silk boxers…pants seem to have been the theme of the day…and then got rubbed all over in the most delightful way…even receiving enthusiastic complements and a thumbs up for my abdominal muscles. She certainly knows how to say what a man wants to hear after a rough day on the floor.
Dinner (beef and peppers, sweet and sour pork, egg rice, steamed green vegetables and very recently deceased fish and a fried doughy thing with red things in the middle), was followed by a speedy taxi ride home to the faithful lap top and in a few moments, bed.
Tomorrow will be our last Kungfu class…. I can’t believe it has all gone so quickly. Let’s hope that the old body survives.
Saturday 23 February 2008
The last day of Kungfu training in China…part of me feels really disappointed…another pleased to have got through so far and another one over the moon that I won’t have to keep rolling on my injured hip.
We went down to the school and got there ten minutes early. That was good because I could spend more time doing stretches and ironing out that hip problem as much as possible. It was really exciting reaching this final hurdle but I did wonder if I would actually get all the way through. I knew I would feel bad if I had to step out because of the injury.
We have learnt quite a few really excellent stretches over here and even though I have always done it, I have really seen the benefits of it since being in China. My hip actually calmed down and I felt relaxed and elated.
We got on with recapping the final moves of the pattern and then…with video camera there to add permanency to my humiliation, we ran through the whole thing for the final time.
The Wolf made it folks…probably the best I have done!
Well there were a few odd moments in those rolls but they happened and I stayed in synch with the others…. actually, since looking back at it, we looked pretty damn cool!
We then went on to repeat the dog style grappling techniques that we had learnt yesterday…. and we were all really good at it because it is so similar to the stuff we do at home. It was great getting into the rhythm of it and, dare I say it, really pushing the Shaolin monk guy off his balance…he flexed every muscle in his body but conceded his ground. Where he is such a great person is that he laughed broadly and seemed really pleased.
We moved on…. more floor work. This time we were going to learn some ground grappling techniques.
Nice, I thought, having a little lie down perhaps.
No such luck, with no rolls left in my arsenal, I prayed that I could spare my hip but we were about to learn a truly cool manoeuvre where you slide to the floor and then take out your opponent with a variety of moves which included sliding along the floor on your hip.
It was difficult, fun, instructive and felt like having a filling at the dentist’s without an injection. Don’t you just love nerve pain! Well, my body told me to avoid the hip so I slid in on the other leg for the second attempt…that, of course, would not do so I earned myself some truly unwanted repetitions. Good to have learnt it though. Recovery can come later.
The three hours raced away ending with some speeches…. all about diligence and perseverance and that sort of thing and then we were all presented with a framed certificate commending, would you believe it, “excellent performance” in Shaolin Dog Boxing.
Pictures were taken and the Wolf was truly proud.
It has all been fantastic. I came here to China expecting a completely new experience but also knowing that I was going to be training in all the things that I find most difficult.
The country is endlessly fascinating and I can’t wait to return and, as far as the Kungfu is concerned, I may not have become the greatest martial artist in the world but I have certainly confronted many nightmares and I feel really pleased to have kept with it right to the end.
So thanks to everyone here….
…. the masters themselves who showed just how civilised, caring and impressive martial artists can be…
Chen, our interpreter and, I felt, friend, who has made so many things possible…
…. and also to my fellow travelling companions and co-students, Dave, Pete and Bryan. We are amazingly different to each other but we became a single unit and achieved much more than anyone, who wasn’t there, will ever really understand…. we’ve had a lot of fun together too.
Special thanks I guess must go to our instructor, Neil…. who sorted it, trained us up for it and talked me, in particular, through a lot of those nightmares.
We spent the afternoon at Fuzhou’s main Buddhist temple which is a truly inspiring place with hundreds of worshipping Chinese somehow chanting in the main hall and others milling about smiling and welcoming us with a joyfulness of spirit which seems to have coloured this trip from the beginning.
It was a suitable way to snatch a few moments of contemplation before the beginning of the journey home.
I stood in the door of the temple watching the congregation bowing and rising to the chants in a kind of Mexican wave. A woman turned round and smiled…she signalled for me to come in and instantly I had joined that wave of fellowship.
Later, we went out for a farewell dinner with Master Lin and his family.
The dinner was posh and formal in one of those upper rooms but this time, the ice melted and we were all relaxed and humourous. Loads of food and drink and many toasts, which is the custom here. We all proposed and experienced toasts…. heart warming stuff with more than a touch of the irony that we Brits think nobody else understands.
We then said our final goodbyes and ended up in the Last Drop Pub, which is down the road from our hotel and which, I had always assumed was a sad British look-alike establishment filled with a few solitaries taking shorts at the bar.
Actually it was heaving with Chinese twenty-some things who might have come here for the mock oak beams and English feel but probably saw it as dangerously Western in a subversive degenerate kind of way. Its charm was actually in its innocence. The resident band was a two-some performing Merseybeat covers and other stuff with an unembarrassed charm and musicianship that defied cynicism. Oddly, they also accompanied the karaoke performances of the customers…helping them out when ever they lost the melody line and encouraging them even after they had completely lost the plot.
The guest band was from The Philippines…two men – baggy tea shirts and goatee beards – and a woman – little black dress, boots, plunging neckline and come-on manner. They did pop classics and Spanish disco numbers in Spanish that plunged the whole scene into a bizarre pastiche of East meets West, past meets present.
Sixties classics would not have been performed so innocently or so passionately for forty years.
I hope that this new generation of Chinese maintain that innocence in the onslaught of Western “culture” and I hope that we can learn something from them: maybe to enjoy life a bit more and to learn to like other people more too.
We toasted the whole experience in a number of beverages and I found much relief for my battle-wounded hip by sitting on one buttock rather than two.
Luckily we escaped the advances of a very large and mature Thai prostitute whose pimp was a small grinning man who kept dancing in a bizarre fashion behind her. She offered us all loads of drinks…obviously some self-knowledge there…assuming that the only way she would get any custom was getting some gullible victim blindly drunk.
It was time for bed…alone…I thought.
Tomorrow we begin the long, twenty-seven hour, journey home – half a World away and a suitably epic ending for an unforgettable experience.