In the fall of 2007, I went to study kung fu in China. The experience was one of the strangest and most painful of my vagabonding travel adventures.

If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to study kung fu in China (specifically, Shaolin in the place where it all began), this may provide some insight into daily life and training.

2022 Collection of Posts About Kung Fu Training

I decided to consolidate all the old, fragmented posts documenting life at the Xiao Long Wu Yuan Shaolin Temple school into one mega post here.

Please keep in mind that these posts were originally written in 2007 with pen and paper after our “lights out” time. That means some were scrawled in a hurry and under duress of getting busted by an angry sifu (master).

I then had to either request a pass to go into town (often denied due to a bird flu pandemic) or sneak out by literally climbing a wall. I would then find an internet cafe and type posts on broken, Chinese keyboards while enjoying a rare luxury (pizza) before sneaking back into school at midnight.

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Daily Life While Studying Kung Fu in China

September 1

Despite my last post sounding negative, life here while studying kung fu at the 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. I also have to listen to my neighbors literally moaning (not from passion as you often hear in hostels, but from injuries).

There are many parallels to my time in Basic Training for the U.S. Army.

I dream of summer nights back in Kentucky. Nights outside McCarthy’s pub and other luxuries such as warm water or flushing toilets seem a world away — and they are.

Wall at my Shaolin kung fu school in China

Where Martial Arts Began

Still, there is a lot to be said about getting up with the sun (and 4,000 highly motivated Chinese students) and running a few miles under the watch of the cloud-covered Song Shan mountains. I am literally minutes away from the cradle of where all martial arts evolved: the original Shaolin Temple in Henan, China.

It is hard to believe when I look up that Bodhidharma (or Ta-Mo) purportedly walked and meditated in these mountains.

He’s accredited with carrying Buddhism to China, and also teaching exercises to monks that evolved into Shaolin training (and eventually most other martial arts).

Kung Fu Training in China

Our morning runs are followed by lots of stretching. This isn’t the pansy touch-your-toes static stretching 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?

Apparently Shaolin “power stretching” as they call it can indeed be heard, along with other students sometimes crying out. It sounds medieval.

After stretching, we then march to the courtyard or the training hall, which despite being newly built, already 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.

Tray of food at Xiao Long Wu Yuan while studying kung fu

The Food

When all the sweating, cursing, and falling down are finished, we limp over to the ridiculously filthy food hall.

The floor is literally slippery from people spitting, clearing their nose, or discarding food they didn’t want to eat (leaving it on the tray isn’t allowed).

Students gorge themselves quickly on mysterious objects such as black eggs, chicken skins in oil, and other things that belong on my list of nasty travel foods.

Keep in mind, they’re feeding us gaggle of Western students alongside 4,000 Chinese students. No doubt they want to keep it cheap.

I don’t care: I came to study kung fu in China, not eat delicious food. My calorie-starved body certainly doesn’t care, and I usually go back for more of the slop! Despite this, I’m losing weight at an alarming rate.

[Update: By the end of one month of training, I lost 19 pounds (from 165 pounds to 156 pounds)]

I have learned to eat strategically here. My torn muscles are screaming for precious protein to begin repairs, but protein is a rare luxury. Returning students (there are a handful of Westerners crazy enough to come back) bring big tubs of protein powder with them.

Since I don’t have any supplements, I always eat the egg and tofu, if we are lucky enough to get some.

Meat is an extreme rarity, but sometimes you get lucky with some squishy chicken skin or fat.

I eat the plentiful tomatoes and bean sprouts as much as possible for the vitamin C. Everyone here seems to stay perpetually sick because of the close quarters and filthy living conditions.

Finally, there is always rice, the old standby. We get as much as we can eat. It fills my stomach and burns quickly to get me through the afternoon workout.

My Shaolin Kung Fu Teacher

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 month’s tuition — a substantial wad of cash — when I first checked into the school? It seemed sketchy, and there would have been no receipt, so I politely refused. He has treated me differently ever since.

As much as I had hoped for a Shaolin kung fu teacher I could respect, unfortunately, I didn’t get one here.

My sifu is the lazy type who relaxes in the shade while ordering you to run another lap. The other teachers, in contrast, run at the front of their group formations. They lead from the front, as I learned in the Army.

Dorm room for Westerners studying kung fu in China

Life in the Dorm

Around 20:00, we begin our personal lives; we get about 1.5 hours before mandatory lights out. Then the door to our dorm gets locked from the outside!

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 muscle-fatigued arms can barely lift the thermos!

I coax my wobbling legs up the several flights of stairs back to my room where I mix it in the sink with icy cold water to make just enough for a warm shower. I then ladle that water over myself with a scoop.

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. The adrenaline it produces messes with sleep too much.

I do my laundry in a wash basin with shampoo and hang it in the room to dry. They have 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 your laundry right, the poisonous smoke from the burning plastic drifts across your wet clothes and they smell worse than when you dropped them off!

Doing laundry in the sink at the kung fu school in China

Getting Some Shuteye

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 and then I daydream about backpacking the rest of China in a few weeks. At some point I will trek through the Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan.

Outside, a bugle plays the Chinese version of the retreat on loud speakers. Much like the Army, flags get lowered. It’s a sad melody telling us that the day is officially declared over.

I have survived another day of studying kung fu in China without injury. And despite my complaints, I feel fantastically alive!

Students ready to study kung fu in China

The Truth About Studying Kung Fu in China

All this may sound negative, but the truth is that none of us would be here to study kung fu in China if we did not want to be.

There is a wall around the school compound but no barbed wire. We don’t have armed guards on the roof.

Nothing is forcefully keeping us here. We may leave the school anytime we wish, but doing so is a one-way decision. A decision I think I would regret for years to come. So, barring any nasty injuries, I am going to stick it out here.

Coming to study kung fu in China has been on my life adventure bucket list for many years. I don’t want to blow it now.

Did I mention that I feel alive?

I will leave you a with a picture of this hardcore monk running straight up TaiShi mountain. He passed me like I was standing still — and the bastard was smiling!

A Shaolin monk running in the road while training in China


Kung Fu School Fun and Games

September 3

There has been a breakout.

I knew that something was up when, for no explicable reason, training on Friday turned soft.

Our morning run was more or less a glorified shuffle, and forms training was shortened so that we could “go clean our rooms” — that’s the sifu way of saying “go hide.”

The promised room inspections never came (good thing, because mine smells like wet dog). I was really starting to get nervous when our training day Saturday turned into a “field trip” up the nearby TaiShi Mountain.

Sure, it was still a brisk, 12-kilometer walk uphill, but we were allowed to bring cameras, guitars, food, and smiles. That doesn’t ordinarily happen while studying kung fu here at Xiao Long Wu Yuan.

The weather was perfect, almost too hot really, and I got a little sunburn. No complaints here though; it beats the hell out of sweating away in the training yard with everyone else.

A break from the monotony of training was welcomed.

Litter on the ground in China

Lockdown

Then in formation on Saturday night, all of my fears were realized. They had been soft on us the last few days because they were prepping us for a demoralizing blow.

Our sifu stood in front of our group and told us that no one would be allowed to sign out on Sunday, our usual day off.

Suddenly, the smiles and giggles from the mountain trip earlier stopped as we let the news sink in. The tactic worked, and we retired to our rooms with only murmured resistance. They knew what they were doing.

The explanation given was that there was a serious virus going around town and they did not want it to get into the school. That sounds logical from afar, but not after you see the living conditions here.

Children are allowed to literally piss and poop on the ground wherever they want. Toddlers (visitors occasionally bring them) don’t wear diapers. Instead, they wear pants with the seat cut out so they can poop in place, like a dog.

One look at the mess hall (and the smell as you walk in the door) should be an indication that all evil viruses probably start here at the school. And latrines don’t have any soap.

Forget the wet markets. I believe dangerous viruses are born in the ungodly filth of my kung fu school. [Note: this was written in 2007, long before COVID and the global pandemic]

Put 4,000 Chinese kids into one place, don’t give them a way to properly wash their hands (no soap) or teach them any hygiene (it is perfectly acceptable to pull your pants down and piss on the wall in the yard) and imagine what happens.

Was there really a bird flu epidemic popping up outside the safe confines of our school? The internet is not a reliable source of info because of the government’s censorship here, so a few people began calling home from payphones.

We considered the idea that it could all be a ruse to get students to pay for a longer stay within the “safe” confines of the school.

Shaolin students in China with red flags

Going Over the Wall

The Sanda (Shaolin boxing) team here decided to take matters into their own hands.

The hardcore bastards went over the wall on Saturday night. They made it to Zheng Zhou, the big city 90 minutes from here, and had a much needed night of partying. They did not return until Sunday afternoon!

They were promptly met with a welcome party of sifus ready to kick some ass. The group spent three hours being yelled at in our small common room. We watched in hysterics as the sifus actually STRETCHED OUT just outside the door before going in to yell at them!

They may have caused a lot of trouble, but if you ask any single one of the escapees, they will tell you that going over the wall was worth it.

The price of freedom.

Like I said before, we are all here to study kung fu in China because we want to be. But no one wants to pay money to become a prisoner. Enforcing such a rigid routine without hope for recovery time is unrealistic

Many of the students are backpacking travelers, and I can tell a few are going to crack. Things are going to turn ugly someday and there will be an exodus.

Hell, I might be one.

When Sunday came around, I made an escape of my own, but directly out the front gate.

With some social engineering on my part, a sifu from another group signed off for me to go to the internet cafe. Woohoo! Not exactly a party, but at this point, I will take what I can get. And I was able to upload this post.

Hard training I can handle, but loss of personal freedom, I cannot. Amanda warned me that authorities here will lie directly to your face, and now I have seen it many times.

I’m not too worried, though. Now that I know the rules, I can play.


Young martial artists training in China

Studying Kung Fu in China: The Pain

September 6

I could tell by the look on Sifu’s face that something was up.

Once again, we stood in formation and waited on whatever they could throw at us. You never know after coming to study kung fu in China. I started weaving my mental defenses as fast as I could.

Again, we were told that no one can leave the grounds on next Sunday as well. Here it was, seven days before a potential day off, and now the icy fingers of despair were taking that small pleasure away from us. So soon?

The good news did not stop there. He became serious for a minute and gave us all a stern warning.

“Be prepared for the hardest training,” this week he said. The reason cited was a school-wide competition that takes place the first week of October. That seems to be the #1 priority for all the sifus lately, as they have been pressuring everyone to extend their time at the kung fu school for it.

Harder training? WTF?! You mean, I have been doing the easy stuff so far? Students are injured (sometimes seriously) nearly every day.

No doubt about it now, my body is toast.

In some ways, staying on longer to study kung fu in China could be tempting. I am set to spring this place on September 27, but I declined.

The icing on this bitter cake came with his final word of advice:

“Don’t be afraid to be tired; don’t be afraid of the pain.”

Just lovely.

Injuries Are Coming

I have survived 25 percent of my time allotted for studying kung fu in China, but I’m afraid that my body is 50+ percent used up.

I have two serious, festering blisters on my feet, a strained groin muscle, a right shoulder that pops in and out of socket with movement, and a knee that won’t cooperate.

If the training accelerates, then I’m in for some trouble. Sure enough, I am destined to join the bandaged masses that sit grimly on the sides of the training hall, while the rest of us, the fortunate ones, practice our kung fu.

I paid to train Shaolin kung fu in China, not sit around and watch others do it for me!

I am not afraid. I might leave here in a wheelchair, but I will be solid.

Henan Shaolin Temple with mountains in background

Seeing the actual Henan Shaolin Temple at the base of the mountains always gives me strength. And the chills.


Injuries While Studying Kung Fu in China

September 8

Pain is a part of daily life here. It is colorful, and there is plenty to go around for everyone.

I no longer even ask if someone is OK now when I hear them groaning in agony as they ascend the steps back to our rooms. In fact, I barely even notice the sounds of suffering anymore.

Pain has been pushed to the back of my mind like some nagging sensation that rears its ugly head when I move the wrong way…or do something silly, like breathe deeply.

No One Is Immune

Fortunately, the pain comes not just because I am new here, or seven years older than most of the other students. The veterans of several months here studying kung fu (crazy bastards) tell me that they still hurt.

Judging by their cursing and moaning, I know they are telling the truth. People hide broken toes and cracked ribs so they won’t miss training.

I am finding out that the experienced ones are not immune to the more serious injuries, either. Yesterday, Troels, one of my favorite people in my group, had his head split open.

I watched as blood streamed into his squinting eyes and then dripped off his chin onto the thirsty concrete. We walked him to the school doc who cleaned the wound and sutured it on the spot. Every day seems to bring a new injury to someone who I know and like.

Fitness level and training experience make little difference.

An injured Shaolin student in bed with IV

Personal Training Injuries

In my first seven days of studying kung fu in China, I have suffered strained muscles, blisters, bruises, the flu, and a blown shoulder from trying some of the acrobatics. All minor but annoying.

The shoulder is the only injury that worries me. Add it to the list of adventure injuries from over the years, and these annoyances start to add up.

Still, I have, no doubt, been one of the lucky few. With training this long and hard every day, broken bodies are inevitable. Everyone here knows that.

My Danish friend Troels spent a day in the infirmary recovering from his head wound. He was back at it the next day.

I Love the Kung Fu Training

Fear of broken bones aside, I am actually loving the kung fu training here.

Call me nuts, but the “power training” as a group (standing in formation in horse stance and punching with a loud hah! as we switch stances) still gets me excited.

Commands are shouted in Mandarin, a reminder of where I am training.

I saw the actual caved-in bricks on the floor where centuries of monks did the same exercises, stomping in place.

Caved in bricks on floor of the Shaolin Temple

I am also learning new things as I study kung fu in China. Through the haze of pain, I can see some progress — and it is exciting. I feel my breaking point slipping a little further out every day.

As I mentioned before, the hardest part about being here is just being here!

With a visa burning a hole in my passport, and such a huge, diverse country just outside the walls of the school, it is damn hard to stay in one place. Torture for a vagabond.

This is a voluntary incarceration. We wear uniforms with numbers on them, eat the worst food imaginable from steel trays with chopsticks, and rain sweat on the ground from morning until night.

I do take training very seriously, and always show respect to the sifus, no matter how insane their requests. But, one of the many lessons I have learned from the road is that you have to do whatever it takes to stay happy and alive. Survive.

Some of the rules here may be bent, and others may be broken.


Studying Kung Fu in China: Living Conditions

September 10

I told myself that the next time I fell into a chair in front of a computer, I would write something positive. Otherwise, I must change the name of my blog from Vagabonding Begins to Complaining Begins.

Here’s the problem: We live in filth!

But there is always a positive way to look at every situation. I do, after all, still have two arms and two legs mostly attached.

Granted, they don’t quite function as well as they used to before I began to study kung fu in China.

Now my appendages are more or less just bags of meat attached to a tired torso that I flail in whatever direction Sifu tells me to. But, for the present moment, they are still attached.

Check with me again after evening training.

Trash on ground at Xiao Long Wu Yuan

Staying Clean

Staying clean around here is difficult. I do my best, but when you sweat for 10 hours per day and only have one uniform, things can get pretty sticky.

I swear when I woke up this morning that my uniform walked over to the bed on its own accord. Yes, it’s that gross.

Body odor and other salty smells float around on the breezes. You can never tell if you yourself are the offender. I’ve smelled some foul things while traveling and in the Army, but this is highly unpleasant.

And I’m afraid that it is only going to get worse.

The Well Runs Dry

About three out of five times that I try to wash my hands, the faucet only groans in effort and offers some sputtering wet air on my hands.

This has been happening more and more frequently, so we finally asked our sifu what was up. He explained very casually that “the well is dry.”

All of us city boys stood bewildered. Apparently, the kung fu school is running out of water — which can make it pretty damn difficult to do simple hygiene tasks such as washing hands, taking showers, doing laundry, or even flushing toilets.

The last is the worst part: We all have roommates.

No wonder everyone is sick. The bacteria are having an orgy on my body, and right now there is nothing that I can do about it! Given the Chinese capacity to lie directly to our faces, I half suspect that this might be some sort of money-saving tactic.

I have seen people water the plants around the school in the morning — WTF?

Like everything else, a water shortage won’t kill us — it will just make us meaner. And stinkier. On those rare and beautiful occasions that I get a pass to go into town, at least I will not have to worry about defending myself from students in other schools (fights do occur).

I don’t think anyone will be brave enough to get close.

Have garbage? No problem. Just throw it out of the bloody window like everyone else does here!

Like I wrote earlier, I’m convinced that new viruses mutate here at Xiao Long Wu Yuan then circulate the globe.


Making Progress at the Kung Fu School in China

September 12

Despite being sick like everyone else around here, I am pleased with my progress while studying kung fu in China.

Even with injuries, I have never been late or missed a single minute of training. I have also never sat out on the morning run, which seems to be much easier now.

The first month (or two) of training is oriented around fitness and flexibility, as expected. Your body has to be prepared for a life of kung fu properly, and that is probably why so many first-month students like myself get hurt.

Other than getting into decent shape from the cardio, I have learned a large portion of the first Shaolin form. It focuses on stance and leg training.

On top of that, I have picked up some basic acrobatics and am learning Tai Chi form #26. No weapons training yet, but that is next. I will probably choose the staff (or “stick” as they say here).

Teacher and blackboard for Mandarin class in China

Studying Mandarin

I study Mandarin Chinese in class three hours a day and am learning to recognize and write common characters as well.

The class is very difficult, but I don’t mind. It keeps me sharp and gives my muscles a much needed break to recover for a few hours. Plus, with so many Chinese people spread around the world, I have a feeling that Mandarin will come in handy for years to come. Technically, it is the most spoken language on Earth.

As I keep reiterating, I take my kung fu training in China very seriously because, bottom line, that is why I am here.

There are much nicer places to just hang out for a month, believe me!

Mass of Shaolin students wearing rer

An Update

I have now officially survived two weeks of 12+ hours a day, six days a week Shaolin kung fu training. Woohoo!

Two weeks seems like such a short time, but when you consider that the average person studying martial arts at home gets maybe six hours a week of practice time (three days a week x two-hour classes), I am racking up the training hours.

And the environment is intense.

INJURY UPDATE:
Groin: Healed
Right foot: Getting better
Right Shoulder: Fubar
Left Knee: Enough pain to affect training
Flu: Just a nasty cough now

Life might be sore, dirty, and hard — but it is still good!


Just Another Day of Kung Fu Training in China

September 12

Every muscle in my body was quivering in protest.

The veins in my neck looked as if they would burst and send a bluish-red flood onto everyone around me. The filthy concrete just below my nose was drinking up the sweat dripping from my body.

Yes, it was 6:15 a.m. Yes, I was standing on my head on a dirty street in China. That’s an interesting place to find yourself at such an hour in the morning, for sure.

I tried to take my mind off of the pain by thinking of how people at home, with the 12-hour time difference, were either stuck in traffic or were just sitting down to a nice dinner.

Here I was, on the other hand, in an awkward push-up-like position, with only my toes and head on the ground. My body was arched toward the sky so that all my weight was on my head. My hands were locked behind my back to prevent the temptation to cheat.

Our sifu prowled around the group looking for an opportunity to pounce on someone who was having trouble handling this morning’s workout.

He had a bamboo stick.

Chinese pedestrians stopped to watch and chuckle at us laowai (foreigners) paying penance to the concrete. They knew we had come to study kung fu in China — and that we paled in comparison to the Chinese students.

Man pulling cart in Deng Feng, China

Tough Training

Finally, I collapsed, but I knew better than to lie on the ground. I sprang to my feet, but it was too late.

“Are you finished resting?” Sifu was asking me.

This was a loaded question, if I ever heard one. An answer of “yes” would give him the opportunity to dig deep into his mental Rolodex of torturous exercises for something new that I was sure to enjoy.

A “no” would mean that I would be kissing concrete again. I chose not to answer and just gave him a dumb look like a fish gives to someone holding it above the water.

It didn’t work. He pointed to the ground with his stick, and back down I went. I did all my cursing in Italian because I’m sure he knows all the colorful English words by now.

Kung fu students at the Shaolin Temple

Breakfast Time

We finished our tough morning workout, and by 7:00 a.m., I was in the chow hall watching as a ladle of the default breakfast (fried rice and eggs with tomato skins) hit my steel tray with an oily plop.

And so, for the next 15 days, this scenario would repeat itself in different variations of unpleasantness. Until I get on the bus out, I mark the days off one at a time and smile to myself when they are finished.

Just another day of studying kung fu in China!


Xiao Long Wu Yuan and Deng Feng, China

September 16

Deng Feng is the name of the little town nearest to my kung fu school, the Xiao Long Wu Yuan Shaolin Temple school.

Xiao Long means “little dragon,” and there are about 4,000 little dragons (Chinese kids) dressed in red uniforms running around this place.

Their parents deliver them into the hands of this school for four cruel years to prepare them for a life of service in either the military or police. A rare few might even go on to star in movies.

There have been a few stars who came out of this school, and you see pictures with Jackie Chan and others in the lobby.

These poor kids live this kung fu training and then some for four years; I can’t imagine. The training would be great, but the environment, not so much. They are not even allowed to leave the school or wear civilian clothes as we occasionally do.

Most people, either through legend or movies, have heard of the Shaolin Temple. But not many Westerners have had the blessing of visiting Deng Feng.

A busy street in Deng Feng, China

The Town of Deng Feng

You aren’t missing much. This squat little town is mostly just utilitarian, but it serves as the base for many kung fu schools in Henan Province. The dirty streets line up directly with the majestic Songshan Mountains where a lot of martial arts history has taken place.

Unfortunately, Deng Feng is pretty much our only option for a day off (on Sundays) when we can get a pass. Western students make a beeline for town, even if it means just a few hours of walking around and window shopping the hardware stores, TV repair shops, plumbing supply vendors, and other completely useless-to-us options.

There is one brief escape from the madness, however: The steak house! Pizza, steak, cold Cokes, and beer. It’s the place to go for a best-effort Western meal, and a nice place to just sit and share stories about power-stretching and angry sifus.

Colorful street in Deng Feng, China

The Future of My Kung Fu Training

With October coming quickly, people seem to be leaving Xiao Long Wu Yuan en masse.

Many have finished their time to study kung fu in China. Some have university to attend or are just ready to get the hell out of here and go home.

A brave few crazy bastards have been convinced to stay behind for the big competition coming October 1 – 5. The tournament, which will encompass the entire school, mixes us foreigners with the hardcore Chinese students.

I’m sure they’re out for blood after seeing how we have so much relative freedom compared to themselves.

I declined  to compete but promised to think about everyone as I sip my cocktail bucket on an island somewhere. I might even make myself sweat by running on the beach and doing some pushups that day, just in honor of the friends I left behind.

Speaking of, I do think the hardest part of exiting here in a couple of weeks is going to be leaving some good people behind.

I have become close with people from all over who traveled here to study kung fu in China. The crazy training, injuries, and difficult environment have brought us together.

And much like the Army, we have built closer bonds than we would have normally developed just as backpacking travelers.

My Kung Fu Training Group

I’ll leave you with a picture of my training group and Sifu.

Western kung fu students in China

From left to right:

Nico (Germany)
Tene (Spain)
Troels (Denmark)
Uni…(Germany)
Sifu (probably Middle Earth or some other dark realm)
Andrew (Australia)
David (Austria)

Jai You (“more gas” or “you can do it”)!!


Counting Down to Freedom

September 19

This place has the eerie ability to make time feel like it is both crawling and flying by.

It seems just yesterday that I was arriving at Xiao Long Wu Yuan to study kung fu in China. But at the same time, the 05:30 to 21:30 days never seem to end fast enough!

Yesterday, I officially started my 10-day countdown for leaving Deng Feng, which puts me into single digits today!

As we used to say in the Army, I’m getting short.

Pagodas at Shaolin school

Preparing to Leave

I managed to sneak out of the school today and made it into town where I stood in line to book my train ticket out of here in one week. My Mandarin classes came in handy! English isn’t an option here.

Due to the big national holiday the first week of October, seats were almost booked up. I ended up with a “hard seat” on an overnight train for the eight hours back to Beijing.

Uncomfortable, yes, but after a month here I will bloody stand in ma-bu (horse stance) for the entire eight hours if it means getting out of here faster!

The idea of staying here longer than necessary makes me grimace, so I will be first in line Thursday night at the train station. I’ll have to find some snacks to survive the journey by train (which will inevitably take much longer than eight hours).

There has pretty much been an exodus of foreign students lately. They leave for various reasons such as injuries, university, cold weather, jobs, etc — but all of them seem bittersweet about leaving.

Xiao Long Wu Yuan kung fu school compound

I will probably be no different. After being in one place for so long, you develop a nice comfort zone and close friends. Even the pain starts to grow on you after a while.

Even still, 32 days is too long for a vagabond to sit still. The kung fu training was good, but I am anxious to get my feet back on the open road.

One more week. Life is good!


Study Kung Fu in China: More Training

September 21

The days continue to speed by, and I am enjoying kung fu training more than ever. No, that isn’t a typo!

Sure, I still roll my eyes and moan when the alarm goes off at 05:30 every morning, but once warmed up, I do OK.

Our sifu seems to be in a better mood lately, too. We have reached that magical point in our training where my group receives difficult exercises with a smile rather than a groan.

My attitude is one of defiance, much like the later weeks of Basic Training — and I love it.

When we are stretching and Sifu comes to push me down even lower, stretching my tendons to the point of breaking, I just say, “Is that all you’ve got for me, Sifu?”

He just smiles and pushes harder. I can tell he really wants to hurt me, maybe permanently, but he’s running out of time!

Training hall for studying kung fu in China

I must have caught the “Deng Feng fever” or something because I have even been going to the training hall (voluntarily) after our nightly meeting to practice during my free time. WTF?

We call it Deng Feng fever because no one knows for sure if it’s Bird Flu, typhoid, or what. But it is apparently dangerous enough to take guys out.

[Update: It turned out to be typhoid]

Fever Strikes the School

Speaking of Deng Feng fever, I got a first-hand look at it yesterday.

The sifu from another group nearly knocked me down the stairs as him and another guy rushed past me carrying a student from Austria. His head was hanging low and he could barely stand on his own.

My heart nearly froze when I saw his face. It was white as death and sweat was rolling off of him in a river. His eyes were rolled back and sank into his head. They were massaging his hands and talking to him, trying to keep him conscious as they made their way to the school doctor.

Last I heard, he was at the hospital in Zheng Zhou, and they were still trying to get his stubborn fever to break. For weeks now, the sifus have been warning us of a virus that is hitting Deng Feng hard.

At first, we dismissed it as just a scare tactic to keep us from leaving the school (they lie all the time), but now I know better.

The Chinese word my teacher gave for the virus translated to typhoid, an old-school killer of a fever. Between the bird flu and SARS, these guys here really know how to cook up a dangerous virus.

Lucky for me, I paid up and got my typhoid vaccination before I left last year. But I am still not taking any chances.

Of all the places in rural China for an epidemic to pop up, it just had to be here. I am playing it safe with food and water (which is how typhoid is spread) and am out of here in five days, so no worries.

I don’t have time to get sick!


Getting Acupuncture in China

September 23

Acupuncture needs in a student's neck and back

I watched as another long needle slid easily into my knee.

OK, I’m fibbing. I actually had my head turned and eyes closed like a big baby, but there was a long needle stuck in my knee. Nine of them to be exact, stuck between my left knee and right shoulder.

A couple of the needles only had an inch or two showing on the surface. I tried not to think about how long they were when we started!

Some were plunged deep to hit buried acupuncture points.

Under normal circumstances, I would rather be covered with rattlesnakes than needles, but I came for my first acupuncture treatment voluntarily in an effort to get my knee fixed up.

I want to walk out of here proudly carrying my rucksack in a few days, rather than hobbling like a cripple.

Lara, a fellow kung fu student, studied acupuncture and natural medicine in Switzerland for four years. She graciously volunteered to turn me into a human pincushion for free.

She seemed to know what she was doing, and within 20 minutes, I could feel a warm burning sensation all the way up my leg. Maybe it was just the infection taking hold?

OR, more likely, it was the chi flowing again that had been blocked by pain and injury for the last week.

Accupuncture student treats an injury

Medical Treatment While Studying Kung Fu in China

My options here at the kung fu school are slim. The resident doctor is really a last resort.

Some people balk at the thoughts of invisible energy and Chinese medicine, but also consider that their techniques are more than 2,000 years old. Less than 200 years ago, Western doctors were still putting leeches on people.

I can’t buy into the existence of the “Triple Burner,” an imaginary organ that once appeared on acupuncture charts. But I can accept that these holistic methods firmly work. Finally, there’s a mountain of scientific literature piling up about the efficacy of acupuncture.

Later, I finished our afternoon training session for the first time in a week without my knee giving up before I did. Thank you, Lara!

Seeing needles still makes me break out into a cold sweat, but my first acupuncture treatment in China was an experience that I will remember.

I’m sure that it wont be my last.


Leaving the Kung Fu School in China

September 30

Every place I go, there seems to be a new song stuck in my head.

The song for my studying kung fu in China and the experience at Xiao Long Wu Yuan in Deng Feng strangely ended as being Country Roads by John Denver.

My whole team, a group from a multitude of different countries, knows at least the words to the chorus. We have sang it on various occasions to lift our spirits when morale was low or a run was too long.

My German friend Jonathan knows the entire song; he recommended that we sing it after Sifu unexpectedly demanded we sing something one afternoon. I am from the region the song is talking about and I don’t even know all the lyrics!

Shaolin park in Deng Feng

The End of My Kung Fu Training in China

As expected, my exit from the Xiao Long Wu Yuan and the Shaolin Temple was bittersweet. For what seems like much longer than a month, I have lain in my bed at night and thought of this day.

It is hard to believe that the day of my escape has finally come.

I told only a few goodbyes, mostly to the guys in my group, and kept my leaving as low profile as possible.

A Secret Party

There is a tradition here that when someone leaves a group, the sifu holds a party the night before. The group talks, shares training memories, laughs, and swaps emails and hugs.

Not this time.

Unsurprisingly, my sifu decided to dispense with the formalities and did not even as much as mention in formation that I was leaving. He only grunted when I turned in my key, and gave me a weak handshake. No words were spoken.

I have been baffled for weeks as to why he has had such open disdain for me compared to the other students. And I arrived here with some kung fu experience! I definitely never goofed off during training.

Maybe it’s because I consider Amanda (one of his disliked former students) a good friend. Or maybe because I’m the only American — who knows what he’s thinking.

I am going to miss his colorful mannerisms and mood changes though, and I was actually beginning to enjoy being called “soft, like the noodles” — one of his favorite insults.

When it became obvious that Sifu was not going to allow a party, we decided to take matters into our own hands.

Tene and I picked up some fruit and mixed a big bucket of sweet-smelling Sangria (or bowle for you Germans). It was literally a type of prison hooch made in a plastic mop bucket and kept hidden in a closet.

A bucket of Shaolin hooch

Maybe we should call it “Shaolin hooch” and I should let the official Shaolin organization know about it.

The things you learn while studying kung fu in China.

We held a secret, unauthorized meeting in my room after lights out — secret knock and everything. There were music, drinks (shared with one plastic cup), and laughs for hours — much better than the usual going-away party.

We sat hushed around an iPod with speakers; to get busted would mean horrific late-night exercises, or worse.

Before I arrived, one training group’s secret party had involved smoking cigarettes. They were busted, and the sifus made them eat the cigarettes.

Somehow, we didn’t get caught with our hooch. But it did make for one hell of a headache the next day, which happened to be one of our long 10 km, up-the-mountain runs. I participated; although, I probably could have skipped it.

I am really going to miss my training group. I could not have chosen a better team of men and women with whom to experience this bizarre place.

Goodbye, Xiao Long Wu Yuan

Despite the negativity with Sifu, I threw my rucksack over my shoulder and walked proudly out of the front gate today.

Hell, after over a month of kung fu training in China, if you can walk on your own legs, you should be proud!

As I made my exit, a light rain was falling as a mist. The October air felt cool and refreshing on my face. Behind me, I could hear the usual sounds of wushu swords snapping in the air, monotone announcements in Mandarin over the loudspeakers, and students shouting in unison.

I never looked back.

I definitely don’t regret coming to study kung fu in China, but I would certainly choose a different school next time.

I was smiling too much to look back at Xiao Long Wu Yuan. I forgot just how good it feels to hit the streets with a backpack, not sure where you are going or exactly how you are going to get there.

There’s simply no greater feeling than the autonomy of vagabonding — I love it. As I walked to the bus stop, I sang out loud:

Country roads…take me home…to the place…where I belong…

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Thank you for reading this beast of a post about going to study kung fu in China!

Shaolin Temple monk walking by wall

Greg Rodgers
Greg Rodgers

Greg is a full-time vagabonding writer and adventurer who escaped the corporate world. Now he helps others begin a life of travel.