Despite my last post being so negative, life here at Xiao Long Wu Yuan Shaolin Temple School isn’t so hard.
Sure, I lie awake in my bunk at night, listening to the sounds of students training late in the courtyard, and my neighbors moaning — not from passion as you often hear in hostels, but from injuries — and dream of summer nights back in Kentucky. Nights outside McCarthy’s pub and other luxuries such as flushing toilet paper seem a world away — and they are.
Still, there is a lot to be said about getting up with the sun (and 4000 other students) and running a few miles under the watch of the cloud-covered SongShan mountains. I am literally minutes away from the cradle of where all martial arts evolved: the Shaolin Temple. It is hard to believe when I look up that Bodhidarma (or Ta-Mo) walked and trained in these mountains.
Our run is followed by lots and lots of stretching. Not the pansy touch-your-toes stuff that you get at home. These are the kinds of stretches that require two people. You can actually hear stiff ligaments and tendons creaking! Should stretching be audible? We then march to the courtyard or to the training hall, which despite being new, smells of musky sweat and years of training. For the next several hours we work on everything from acrobatics and stances to Shaolin forms and weapons.
When all the sweating, cursing, and falling down is finished, we gourge ourselves in a ridiculously filthy food hall on mysterious foods like black eggs, chicken skins in oil, and other things I would probably pass on if given other options. My calorie-starved body doesn’t care, and I usually go back for more! I have learned to eat strategically here. My torn muscles are screaming for precious protein to begin repairs, so I pick out the egg, and tofu if any. Meat is an extreme rarity. I eat the plentiful tomatoes and bean sprouts as much as possible for the vitamin C; everyone here stays perpetually sick because of the close living conditions. Finally, there is always rice; as much as we can eat. It fills my stomach and burns quick for the afternoon workout.
When I first arrived, I was convinced that the bumps on my Sifu’s head above his ear were horns that were about to sprout out. Now, I have seen the softer side of him and know that he is at least partially human. As long as I continue to be taught Shaolin, I will stick it out with him and his group.
For reasons unknown, the man really despises me. perhaps because I refused to hand him my tuition — a substantial wad of cash — when I first checked into the school?
Around 20:00, we begin our personal lives; we get about 1.5 hours. I go fetch hot water in a large thermos from the dark, coal-filled boiler room beneath the school. Fetching hot water seems like a romantic notion (as my Spanish friend here put it) but less so when it is raining or your fatigued arms can barely lift the thermos. I coax my wobbling legs up the five flights of stairs back to my room where I mix it in the sink with cold water to make just enough for a warm shower.
Otherwise, the cold mountain water is a shock to your system and there is little chance of sleeping once you step under the shower head.
I do my laundry in a wash basin with shampoo and hang it in the room to dry. They have a cheap laundry service here, but clothes take quite a while to dry when hung in the rain outside. Plus, they conveniently located the laundry next to the trash dump. If you do not time it right, the smoke from the burning rubbish drifts across your wet clothes and they smell worse than when you dropped them off!
After cleaning up and writing a little in my journal, I fall into a moldy-smelling bed that is pretty much just a mat on a wooden platform. The mattress is hard enough to break rocks — which is good for health according to Chinese medicine — but after training all day, who cares? 🙂 A quick check of my alarm clock confirms that it is ready to piss me off at 05:30 a.m. and then I daydream about backpacking the rest of China in a few weeks. Outside on loud speakers a bugle plays the Chinese version of the retreat, a sad melody telling us that the day is declared over.
I have survived another day without injury, and despite my complaints,I feel fantastically alive!
All this may sound negative, but the bottom line is that none of us would be here if we did not want to be. There is no barbed wire or armed guards on the roof. We may leave early anytime that we wish, but it is a one-way decision. A decision that I think I would regret for years to come. So, barring any permanent injury, I am going to stick it out here.
Did I mention that I feel alive!
I will leave you a with a picture of this hard-core monk running straight up TaiShi mountain. He passed me like I was standing still. (well ok, I was…. 🙂 )