Kung Fu Training, Trekking and Chillaxing in Yunnan
08.09.2012 - 28.09.2012 22 °C
From the sun soaked and relaxed atmosphere of South East Asia, I returned to a more rigid social system and white wash skies of China. I had spent some time in tropical Sanya, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, however, I had never really travelled the south of this giant country. This was my new mission.
Since I entered China from Laos, my first stop was Yunnan. This province is one of China’s most ethnically diverse. Countless small hill tribes each with their own distinct language and culture call this region home. Many of these tribes do not even know how to speak mandarin. In addition, Yunnan shares a border with and is heavily influenced by Tibet. Tibetan people, architecture and culture can be found throughout the North of the province adding another interesting dimension to travel in the region.
For outdoor enthusiasts, Yunnan has plenty to offer as well. From the lush rain forests in the south to the snow covered mountains in the north, there is no shortage of breathtaking scenery and outdoor activity to keep adrenaline junkies entertained. I became somewhat of an adrenaline junky myself while traveling through.
The striking contrasts between Laos and China were no more apparent than on the trip across the border between the two. It was amusing to say the least. The Laos border control consisted of a dirt path and a shack where patrollers in raggedy outfits took turns sleeping through the day. The guard whose turn it was to stay awake quickly glanced at my passport, stamped it and told me to be on my way. Across the road from this small shack, however, was a large intimidating glass complex built between two cliffs and surrounded by dozens of men in uniform. Before we even reached the gates of this complex, we were forced to drive through a disinfecting apparatus which sprayed the exterior of our bus with god knows what. I was just glad all the windows were closed. Soon we were all forced out of the vehicle to have our bags searched by small soldiers with big guns.
When my bags were cleared, I proceeded to screening where a straight faced man in uniform studied the picture on my passport for a solid two minutes then left me in suspense for another five while he furiously typed into his computer. I assumed he was writing some sort of description of my belongings. He paused from time to time to shoot me disapproving looks. Since my previous Chinese visas were not exactly credible, I was a quite anxious about passing through customs. I think the guard noticed this but was unable to find anything wrong my paperwork. After a ten minute wait which felt like an hour, he finally stamped my passport and sent me on my way.
When my two Aussie friends were cleared, we jumped back into our disinfected minibus and continued the journey north. On the Chinese side of the border, Laos’s little dirt road was replaced by a recently built smooth running highway, its untouched virgin forests were dissected by dense power lines and its beautiful natural terraces were replaced by rice patties and bamboo farms. Welcome to China.
With plenty of time to spare before our arrival, I got to know my new travel mates a little better. Rosa and Ami were both Australian high school grads who had spent the last six months volunteering at a school in Yunnan. They were both blonde haired, blue eyed and beautiful. I could only imagine the kind of attention they received in the small Chinese city in which they were living. But beneath their bubbly appearance, they were clearly rugged travelers who knew how to take the road less travelled. They could speak a little Chinese and knew Yunnan province quite well.
Our first stop together as a traveling unit was a small city called Jing Hong in Xishuangbanna. This region is famous for its wild elephants and excellent trekking. We were all a little trekked-out after traveling through northern Laos so we spent most of our time in Jing Hong watching movies at the hostel. One night we celebrated Rosa’s birthday by hitting up Jinghong’s only club. The smoky bar was packed full of young locals getting trashed and dancing wildly to intense techno music. By the reaction we received when we walked through the door, it was clear that we were some of the few foreigners to have ever frequented the establishment. I don’t think the local Jinghongians had seen too many blonde Australian girls pass through their small city. We had more free drinks thrown at us than we could handle.
It is drinking tradition in China for friends to each fill each other’s glass, yell “ganbei!” (dry glass!) then take it all down in one big swig. I assume this behaviour is drawn from long held traditions which ensure everyone receives an equal share. You see similar customs with food in several parts of the country as well. These customs, however, are taken from typical family restaurant or small gathering settings and do not transfer smoothly to a club environment where you have hundreds of people ordering drinks.
Within ten minutes of entering the club, locals were lining up for a chance to ‘ganbei’ with the foreigners. We were pushed and pulled from one table to the next as party goers competed to keep us with their group. Since it’s quite rude to refuse a drink in China, we were forced to drink glass after glass. The bathroom was our only refuge from the onslaught of cheap Chinese beer. By the end of the night we must have ‘ganbei-ed’ with close to a hundred people. It was exhausting but great fun nonetheless. I’m pretty sure the birthday girl enjoyed herself and that’s all that really matters.
The next morning was rough to say the least. We had to wake up at six to start our journey to the YuanYang rice terraces. There was no direct bus so an overnight stopover in a mountain town called LuChun was necessary. Not only were we hungover, but the thirteen hour bus ride to LuChun was one of the most disgusting I had ever experienced. There was so much spitting and vomiting going on that the bus aisle quickly became a river of bodily fluids. Half way through the journey a farmer boarded with a large bag of manure. I had my head half way out the window but the stench was unavoidable. At least the stunning green mountainous landscape acted as a distraction from the means of transit.
LuChun was, in true Chinese style, much bigger than I expected. The snake-shaped city was built at high altitude atop a long mountain ridge. As we drove down the main strip, the city seemed to go on forever. When we reached the bus station at the opposite end of town, we quickly found accommodation nearby.
Our guesthouse was nearly as disgusting as our bus. A shower was not possible. I slept fully clothed to minimize the risk of a skin infection and didn’t dare use the bathroom. Early the next morning we caught the second bus of our two leg journey. Thankfully, bus number two was much cleaner than the first. We arrived in YuanYang mid-afternoon and found a quiet room with a TV, a clean bathroom and a fantastic view for about $2.5 each. The warm shower was fantastic.
YuanYang is one of China’s most photographed areas. Although it is difficult to reach, many famous photographers have braved the tough conditions for a chance to shoot its majestic hill side rice terraces and remote villages. The terrain is steep and mountainous but the local ethnic minorities have managed to build an intricate network of terraces in order to make the land productive. They began this work hundreds of years ago using simple tools. Now, almost every mountainside and valley for miles around is farmable. It was built to be functional but the result is sheer beauty. Thousands of bright green contours follow the natural patterns of the slopes creating a surreal site. The whole area is simply spectacular.
There are four viewpoints in particular which are especially striking. We chartered a tuk-tuk and left early in the morning to see all of them in one day. At sunrise it was cool and misty but the rolling fog made for some fantastic shots. In the afternoon it warmed up and we got to spend a little time in the small farming villages. Some had clearly been renovated by tourist dollars but others were more authentic. The locals still dressed in traditional colourful clothes and lived in straw roofed homes. In the evening we returned to town to taste the local cuisine. It was spicy and delicious but made for a bit of a difficult night.
Since Ami was in a rush to reach Kunming we caught a bus early the next morning to Yunnan’s capital. This city is considered to be one of the most liveable in China. While it did not have much in the way of tourist attractions, it was easy to recognize the reasons why it would be a nice place to spend a year or two. The weather was temperate, there were more than enough western niceties to keep a foreigner entertained and the city was much cleaner and more developed than other Chinese cities of a similar size. We stayed in a trendy downtown hostel which sported a great bar that was popular with travelers and locals alike. Unfortunately, the dorms were a lot less appealing. In my twelve bed dorm, some guy was snoring so loud that I had to take my blanket and pillow into the lobby to sleep.
I spent most of my time in Kunming just walking the city and chatting with locals. During the evenings, I sampled some of the city's famous nightlife with a few other travelers from the hostel. Through a couple long nights on the town, I came to understand how Kunming acquired its reputation as a party city. The music was loud, the lights were intense and the clubs remained busy until after sunrise.
After a particularly long night on the dance floor, I was woken up bright and early by what sounded like a large protest outside the hostel. I climbed up to the hostel balcony to see what was going on. From this vantage point, I could see thousands of people marching through the streets loudly chanting indiscernible slogans. Soldiers and riot police surrounded the crowd but refused to intervene. I didn’t understand. This was China; a place where protests have always been brutally crushed whenever they occurred. Why was this one being allowed? When I looked closer at the crowd, however, I began to understand. The angry protesters were carrying old anti-Japanese propaganda posters from the Second World War and chanting “down with Japan!” I quickly checked the BBC world news on my iPhone. The top story was Japan’s annexation of the disputed DiaoYu islands in the East China Sea. The move had sparked protests all over China and Taiwan. Pictures of Chinese nationalists flipping over Japanese cars and destroying their own Japanese made cameras made headlines all over the world. I imagine Chinese branches Aijisen Raman lost quite a bit of business. The protest in Kunming lasted only a day. By sunset, everything had returned to normal.
The following morning I said goodbye to my Australian travel mates and caught a bus north towards my next destination. As the bus climbed into the mountains of Northern Yunnan, the climate cooled and the landscape became more rugged. We chased rushing rivers and straddled steep cliffs until, eventually, the ancient city of Dali was revealed.
This antique city and its surroundings were simply beautiful. Dali was set upon a shallow lake at the bottom of a deep valley surrounded by forested mountains. The old town center was built almost completely of stone and wood. Walking along its cobblestone pedestrian streets along side its shallow stone carved canals was like stepping back in time. That is if you were able to ignore the hoards of Chinese tourists wielding around DSLR cameras like baseball bats. I am typically quite bothered by that sort of thing but Dali was so beautiful that it was impossible not to enjoy its relaxed atmosphere and ancient ambience. I didn’t travel there to peruse the old town anyways; I went to study Kung Fu.
My old kindergarten partner Amanda had been to Dali several months before me and spoke of a monastery an hour outside of town where one can pay a small fee to study martial arts with the monks. This was my goal and I only spent one night in Dali before making the trek up to Wu Wei Monastery by means of a rocky dirt road. The monastery was high in the mountains tucked amid dense green forest. It took more than an hour to reach it. I arrived just before noon.
The temple grounds were clean and well kept but there were no monks to be seen. The place appeared to be abandoned. I wandered aimlessly admiring all the beautiful wood carvings until, eventually, an orange robed monk emerged from a dark doorway and bowed. He motioned for me to follow him into a small dining hall where there was three tables filled with his peers. All were silently waiting for their lunch. At a smaller table in the corner, a group of foreign students sat quietly. I received only a nod of the head from a couple students as I entered. Clearly, they had been instructed not to make any noise.
Unfortunately, since I was not given the opportunity to read the monastery rules before entering the dining hall, I made several mistakes during lunch. I did not bow after the master rose from his seat, I reached for food with my own chopsticks, I crossed my legs under the table and I did not finish every grain of rice in my bowl. Luckily, since the master knew I had just arrived, he was forgiving.
After lunch, one of the monks gave me a contract clearly stating what was expected of students at the monastery. At the top of the page read a warning: “This is not a hotel! This is a place of study. If you are unable to abide by our rules, please leave now.” Indeed, most of the rules involved table manners. During meal time, one should not begin eating until the master has said ‘A Mi Tofu’ (praise Buddha), one should not pick up a communal plate unless they are serving another, anything that one places in their bowl must be eaten, this includes every grain of rice, one should not leave the table alone, one should wait for others to be finished and leave in groups of two or three saluting every other table before departing, each student is given one bowl and one set of chopsticks which must be cleaned after every meal and stored in the student’s room. Other rules maintained a respectful and peaceful setting in the monastery: One should not make excessive noise during the day or any noise after nine in the evening, one should not consume any animal products, drugs or alcohol on the temple grounds, one should not wear shorts or sandals in the monastery nor during training, one should not play any games except for Chinese chess, one should not laugh during training. I was given permission to play my guitar but only if I was far enough away from the temple grounds to not disturb the peace. The temple had a small library and the monks encouraged students to read and study during their free time instead of chatting.
The complex consisted of several beautifully decorated traditional buildings. Each served its own purpose. The main hall was the largest structure and acted as a sacred area of worship. The monks spent much of their day chanting and performing various rituals behind its closed doors. Students watched from a distance but didn’t dare enter. The main hall overlooked a small courtyard which was lined with sleeping chambers for both students and monks. The rooms were small and basic but comfortable enough. From the courtyard, a carved gate led to a large stone terrace where training took place. On either side of the terrace were various shrines, temples and statues. A stone path led from the terrace down the mountain towards Dali. The path was lined with various pagodas and shrines. It provided a nice stroll during the day but we were advised to avoid the path at night since dangerous creatures lived in the forest.
A short walk from the temple grounds there was a basic washroom. The faucets were fed from a nearby stream and the squat toilets did not flush. The master had a small generator which he used to charge the monastery’s one cell phone, however, there was no access to electricity for anyone else. After sunset, all activity was done by candle light. Since the complex was built almost completely of wood, all the open flames were a little unsettling. Nonetheless, with no electronic devices within a twenty kilometre radius, the atmosphere was always peaceful and relaxing.
When I arrived, there was already a group of six Israelis living at the monastery. Five of them had been there only for a few days. The sixth, a friendly character named Dor, had been studying there for over two months. Dor had over six years of kung fu experience under his belt and was full of interesting tidbits of information. During training, he often explained things the monks were unable to due to their very limited English abilities. While we were learning the basics of kung fu, Dor was often wielding swords, staffs and nun chucks in the background.
On our first day of training I was introduced to our training master, Xing Yun (Happy Cloud). He was both an incredible Kung Fu artist and an interesting character. At first, he seemed naïve and innocent. At the sight of a squirrel, he would jump to his feet with amazement and follow it around the courtyard. He often took long walks in the forest to collect chestnuts. I never saw him eat one. He just enjoyed collecting them. During training, however, Xing Yun transformed into a hardened drill sergeant who would not accept anything less than his students’ best efforts. On one occasion, he brought a girl to tears with his relentless ‘encouragement’.
Xing Yun and I got along very well. Since we were both interested in expanding our language abilities, we began a sort of language exchange. He often turned to me for translations during training. After class, we would reconvene in the library to chat in either English or Chinese. We got to know each other quite well over the course of the week.
Xing Yun’s assistants were all younger monks aged twelve to sixteen. Some had clearly been studying for years and could easily perform even the most difficult manoeuvres. Others seemed as though they were just beginning their training. One of the older kids wore grey robes signifying that he was being groomed to be a master. He was more advanced than any of the others and could perfectly execute anything from a spinning back kick to a handless cartwheel. But even the best trained of the young monks were still just boys. Outside of training hours you would often find them goofing around in the forest outside of master’s earshot.
As new students, we followed a strict daily schedule. At 5:30 AM we were woken up by a large gong which signified the commencement of morning prayers. These would last for about an hour. At 6:45 AM we would jog to a river about a mile away. From the riverbank, we would take a large stone, balance it atop our heads, briskly walk back to the monastery and deposit it on the terrace. The purpose of this exercise was to strengthen and align the spine. Most of us foreigners required a hand to keep the stone steady. The monks, however, were able to jog with stones twice the size as ours balanced perfectly with no support whatsoever.
At 8:00 AM we would gather for a breakfast which usually consisted of either spicy noodles with tofu or baozi (rice buns stuffed with mushrooms and tofu). I was never disappointed. At 9:00 AM, training would commence with stretches, lunges, push-ups and a group massage. After the warm up, we would form a line and practice fifteen to twenty basic kung fu moves moving from one side of the terrace to the other. The moves included anything from basic punches to reverse spinning kicks. None of us beginners could pull off the more difficult manoeuvres but Xing Yun and the monks made it look easy. Once we had worked up a good sweat, we were paired off with one of the monks to learn a simple kata routine. This was a set routine which had to be memorized and perfected over the course of the week. It included several basic and more advanced moves.
It was an exhausting morning ritual and by noon we were always dead tired. Lunch consisted of a vegan selection of spicy tofu and vegetable dishes along with soup or rice pudding. The food was always outstanding although it took some time to adjust to the small helpings. We were burning a lot of energy during training and consuming fewer calories than usual at mealtime. By the end of the week, however, I was well adapted to the regiment. I no longer felt hungry and had far more energy than usual. It was as if my body had learned to work with what it was given.
After lunch we were allowed a three hour break during which I typically walked down to a pagoda to practice guitar. At around two in the afternoon, Xing Yun would request that I teach a short English class. Using a makeshift wooden chalkboard and limited mandarin abilities, I taught the young monks basic verb conjugation as if they were my kindergarteners back in Yantai.
At three sharp, the sound of a small bell signified the resumption of training. The afternoon routine was similar to the morning except we spent less time on warm up and more time on kata training. Each pose and move had to be practiced over and over then put together into what felt like a dance. The trickiest part of the routine was making one move flow smoothly into another. The monks constantly stressed form and flow. They told us to remain loose and let our body do the work. Even though his movements were powerful, Xing Yun would often demonstrate how his muscles were almost completely relaxed. He used his body and momentum to ‘throw’ his first at his opponent. This saved energy and resulted in a more forceful blow.
The dinner bell was always a welcomed sound. After seven hours of lunging, punching and kicking we were usually pretty beat. After dinner I would go for a walk in the woods or read by candlelight. Now and then Xing Yun would challenge me to a game of Chinese chess. Once they were finished with their nightly prayers, monks often approached me to help them with English pronunciation. They were certainly dedicated learners.
Around mid week the monastery had an unexpected visitor. The master enthusiastically greeted a middle aged German man who showed up at the main gate with his gorgeous Chinese girlfriend. The man had studied at the monastery for two months eight years previous. Soon after completing his training, he wrote the movie ‘Kung Fu Panda’. He had become somewhat of a legend at the monastery. I could see where he had gotten the inspiration.
At the end of the week we were given the option to return to Dali for a night before continuing with training the following day. I took the opportunity to take a desperately needed shower and recharge my flashlight.
When I returned to the monastery the following morning, I was very surprised to find thirteen Israelis and a couple Austrians signing up for the next week’s training. The monks were unsure what to do as this was clearly the largest group they had ever handled. They scrambled to organize enough rooms. The girls had to share.
Unfortunately, many of the newcomers were quite rude and disrespectful. Immediately after reading through the monastery rules and signing their contracts, some began yelling obscene jokes to each other from across the courtyard. The girls quickly formed a gossip circle out front the main hall and began chatting loudly. Even after nine in evening they had difficulty staying quiet. The monks were clearly becoming agitated.
Some of the Israelis showed up to training in sandals and shorts. I was unsure from where such people heard about Wuweisi, but they were clearly unprepared for monastery life. They complained during training and often slacked off. Only a day after paying for an entire week, four gave up and returned to Dali. Another two left on their second day and three more in the two days that followed. This parade of coming and going was detrimental to the peaceful environment. I spent a lot more time in the woods to avoid all the increased commotion. The newcomers that stayed, however, eventually came to understand that they were not in a hotel and had to follow certain rules. Things had returned to normal by the time my training was complete.
After my final session, I thanked Xing Yun for his assistance, cleaned my rice bowl for the last time and began my trip down the mountain. In one week, I had practiced some basic kung fu moves, memorized a decent kata routine and had gained strength in muscles I did not know I had. I learnt a lot about the life of a dedicated monk in which perpetual devotion to self-improvement seems to be paramount. I felt both physical and mentally refreshed as I descended the mountain. Living in the monastery was one of the most interesting things I had ever done.
Upon returning to Dali, I checked into the same hostel. I wanted to spend a little more time in the old town before moving on. That night, while enjoying my first beer since beginning training, I met an interesting young Yunnanese girl. Her name was Zhu Qi and she was a twenty year old Bai (Chinese ethnic minority) from a small village near the Burmese border. We sat and chatted for several hours during which I learnt a lot about her life.
Her parents were both public school teachers and pushed her to study from the time she could walk. At eighteen, she made it into a hydro-electric engineering program at one of China’s most prestigious universities. However, after a year of studying, she was not happy with the direction she had taken. She dropped out to take some time to travel during which she hitchhiked through Tibet, volunteered in India and backpacked around Laos. All this was accomplished on her own and before her twentieth birthday. Since it would bring too much shame on her family, her father kept her adventures a secret and forbade her from returning home. As far as her cousins were concerned, she was still studying in Wuhan. When I met her, she was living in a hostel in Dali where she studied all day everyday in hopes of passing an English proficiency test which would allow her to apply for arts colleges in America. I found her story unique and interesting. It was not typical of a young Chinese girl.
She had been in Dali for a few months and knew the area quite well. In between study sessions, she took the time to show me around the town and its natural surroundings. It was not a typical tour. Sights included a Buddhist restaurant / learning center where we paid eighty cents for a delicious selection vegan food and access to a large Buddhist library, a tailor specializing in kung fu clothing and a walk along the town’s ancient wall in the wee hours of the morning. Since she had a tent, we spent a day hiking into the mountains and spent the night on a natural terrace overlooking the city.
There are few people in this world who I both mentally and emotionally click with. ZhuQi was one of those people. Whether the topic was relationships or Eastern philosophy, there were never any dull moments in our conversation. She was a girl that I would not soon forget. But after spending almost two weeks in Dali, I had to move on. There was a lot more to see out there and my Chinese visa was running out. It was hard to say good bye to Dali and Zhu Qi but the Tiger Leaping Gorge was waiting.
I took a seven hour bus ride from Dali to Jane’s Tibetan Guesthouse at the base of Tiger Leaping Gorge. This guesthouse was quite famous among foreigners. Its dorm rooms were a good place to meet other trekkers and its kitchen served a hearty western style breakfast which provided weary trekkers with the energy necessary to conquer the obstacles ahead. I had heard several accounts within China that the mysterious Tiger Leaping Gorge was the deepest in the world. I was also aware, however, of the Chinese tendency to exaggerate so I didn’t get my hopes up to high. No pun intended.
I began trekking just after sunrise the following morning. The first stretch was difficult but not particularly interesting. Once I made it over the first pass, however, the immense beauty of the gorge was revealed. In the early morning hours, the serrated peaks of the tallest mountains were shrouded in cloud and mist but by mid afternoon I could see these colossal formations in their entirety. The view was unreal. Giant jagged mountains rose near vertically from the tumultuous river below. As I climbed higher and delved deeper, the gorge’s immense peaks all contended to be the most majestic and surreal. The variety of colourful plant life which clung to the shear rock faces only added to the beauty.
I shared the rocky trail with donkeys and local farmers. These ambitious old men had carved out tiny strips of land near the river bed to grow meagre crops. I guess it was worth the trouble to live in such a beautiful place. The path was undeveloped and treacherous. My eyes were glued to the scenery and I nearly fell off the edge a couple times.
It was a two day hike so I stayed in a small trailside guesthouse along the way. The lodge was precariously balanced on a steep cliff overlooking the gorge. The rooms were chilly but comfortable. The bathroom stalls were built on a terrace with a deep drop underneath. The owner had removed the outer walls to allow for a stunning view while one relieves oneself. It was perhaps the best toilet view in the world. I remember doing my business with nothing but sheer cliff below and fantastic scenery before me.
There was an interesting collection of backpackers staying at the guesthouse. After dark, a large group of us convened on the rooftop patio to drink beer and exchange stories. A fun mix of Europeans, Canadians, Americans, Australians and Brazilians dominated the group. There were a few Chinese trekkers, however, the Tiger Leaping Gorge is not particularly popular among locals, likely because the trail is quite challenging. Until someone installs a bunch of cable cars, the gorge will remain backpacker territory.
After a chilly night, I awoke early from a drunken slumber to begin day two of the trek. My mission was to reach the tiger leaping stone at the base of the gorge. Legend has it that a tiger once leaped from this stoned clear across the gorge, hence the name. In order to reach the stone, descending countless make shift ladders was necessary. The locals who built these ladders waited at their base to collect a ladder ‘usage fee’. I must have paid a dozen farmers just to get down to the river. The stone was nothing special. It was just a big stone. But the river was swift and powerful. Several dead cows which had made the fatal mistake of stumbling on a nearby mountainside could be seen floating by.
I was charged several more ladder ‘re-usage fees’ in order to ascend mountainside and reach the main road. From there I caught a bus out of the gorge. A recent landslide had taken a big bite out of the highway so we were required to disembark from the bus, climb over the landslide and catch another bus on the other side. It was a makeshift solution but we made it back Jane’s Guesthouse eventually. From Jane’s, I collected my backpack and quickly caught bus further north towards the Tibetan plateau. In the rear view mirror, the colossal peak of the gorge slowly disappeared behind the late afternoon fog. My bus climbed higher and higher as we approached Tibetan Sichuan. This is where the next leg of my journey through Asia would begin.
From the rainforests of the south to the mountains of the north, Yunnan was a place that kept me in constant awe. In terms of sheer wow value, this one Chinese province has more to offer a backpacker than many of its surrounding countries. A month was not even close to enough time to see it all. Both the Yuanyang terraces and the Tiger Leaping Gorge were spectacular. Dali allowed me to explore Southern China’s past while Kunming provided a look into its future. The culture was diverse, the food was unique and the people were friendly. What more could a traveler ask for.