Day 6 Shaolin Temple

We got up and got breakfast as usual in only a slight hurry.  We needed to hurry and get to the train station so that we didn’t miss our train.  We were going to take the bullet train from Beijing to Zhengzhou and then travel by bus from there through Dengfeng to the Tagou Academy.

We got to the train station and said goodbye to our tour guide up to this point Coco, and met our new guide that would be with us for the remainder of the trip Karen.  Once we got our tickets and got settled we found out that our train was late.  Apparently this is quite common. While we were there I started to get a little hungry and was not sure if we would get the chance to eat on the train or what we might get if we did.  Looking around I noticed that a shop in the train station was selling steamed buns (bāo zi 包子).  I really enjoy the steamed buns that are filled with barbecue pork so I thought I would go see what kind they were.  I walked up to the counter of the ‘Conve nience Shop’ and asked the girl in Chinese if they were barbecue pork buns.  She said no that they were filled with chicken and vegetables.  I decided I wanted to try one anyway and for 2 Yuan it was a good buy.  The bun was easily the size of a large fist and still very hot.  I went back to the group and was pretty proud of myself, I had managed to get food and have an entire financial transaction all in Chinese.  This may not seem like that special of a deal, but to me it meant that no matter what at least I would not starve while in China.  The steamed bun was delicious and since we would not eat again for a long time I am glad I got one.

We finally got settled on the train and departed.  The bullet train travels very fast and is a very smooth ride.  I spent some time dozing, listening to my iPod, or most often looking out the window watching the countryside speed by.  I quickly realized that this is the real China, not the polished tourist China that we have seen much of up to this point.  We passed through the countryside and small villages and larger cities.  The countryside is full of very poor people in small villages.  Their houses are in disrepair and trash is scattered everywhere.  The tops of most of the houses in the villages were covered in ears of corn to dry for the winter.  Sometimes the corn was laid out in the road for miles at a stretch while farmers shifted it around to make sure it would all get dried from the sun.  Corn is not native to China but grows very well and cures well for winter and as such is a very popular crop in the villages.  All of the people in the villages looked very weary and worn but still worked hard every day.  Sometimes you would see one or two people in a large field still working the field with small hand tools to till and row.  All of the cities we passed through looked very dirty and dingy.  Trash was everywhere here too and in greater quantity.  Even so there was a lot of growth evident in these areas as we passed through.  Many tall high-rise apartment buildings were under construction with towering cranes nearby.  You could never guess the things you might see while looking out the window.  A village would pass by and then quickly a city, you might see a cemetery or a grand temple pop into view, a dilapidated temple with very old architecture might not be far from a four way stop with dirt roads that met at a large metal neoclassical sculpture.

They did end up feeding us while we were on the train but the food was horrible, most of us could not finish it.  They offered either noodles or a boxed lunch.  I decided to try the boxed lunch since I can get noodles any time when I’m at home.  That was a dreadful mistake.  I was very hungry by this time so I did eat most of it but it was hard to do.  We had some sort of chicken like dish with peanuts in it, corn, rice, and some other thing I left alone since I could not identify it.  The chicken was somewhat spicy which help covered up the the taste some after a while.  The peanuts had a very odd texture not quite hard not quite soft, not quite like a peanut.  It was sealed in plastic and looked like perhaps a horrible version of a horrible T.V. dinner.  No one else that tried the box lunch could finish it either.

We traveled for about 6 hours by bullet train.  I was very thankful when we got off the train at the station in Zhengzhou.  Immediately you could tell that this city was very different.  The courtyard of the train station was littered with people waiting in groups around piles of luggage outside in the late afternoon.  The traffic was thicker and the city much less clean.  It did not have the same polished look that Beijing had.  At this point I really needed to use the restroom and I knew we still had a while to travel by bus so I decided I better find the restroom.  Karen informed us that there were only pay toilets nearby.  I decided it was bad enough that I would pay to go since it probably wasn’t a lot of money anyway and Norman and George decided they needed to go as well.  It cost about 50 Kuai for the three of us and the smell from outside the place was nauseating.  We went in to the ‘mens’ room pulling back a hanging sheet to gain entry.  The room was tiled and I immediately saw a man squatting in one of the open faced stalls. Mainly the bathroom consists of a trough that runs around two edges of the room.  Water flows in to the trough from one side and the floor is slightly sloped towards the other end.  You stand up on the ledge of the trough or straddle and squat over it between to waist high divider walls.  I was very thankful that I did not have to squat to take care of my business and held my breath until I was out of the room.  I don’t think they clean the facilities ever, and I am sure that the attendant at the door collecting money has no sense of smell left at all.

We got on to our bus and began to make our way towards Dengfeng.  We traveled along the highways and eventually noticed our ascent up into the mountains.  As we got closer and closer to the mountains and their famous temple we could see statues and frescoes of stylized Shaolin Monks in various fighting poses.  We made our way up and through the mountains and passed by Dengfeng which is approximately seven miles from the Shaolin Temple.  I began to get more and more excited the closer I knew we were getting to the temple.  We went farther up and finally arrived at Tagou Academy which is perhaps a little over a mile from the Shaolin Temple.

The Tagou Academy is a very prestigious martial arts school and the only one of the former schools that is not run by the temple itself that has been allowed to stay in proximity to the temple.  The school is home to 28,000 students ranging in age from about 5 to 18.  These students live in very poor condition that border on third world.  They live 6 to 8 to a room with perhaps two bunk beds.  There is no heat or air conditioning and in most cases only a sheet covers the door.  The children was themselves out of a basin that they fill with water.  This same basin helps them wash the single uniform they have.  The buildings are dilapidated and the courtyards pitted and uneven.  Though these conditions seem horrible to us, the children are very happy and the opportunity that this school affords them in their life is often much better than the alternatives.  Many students are brought here by their families who have sold everything just to make enough to afford the tuition.  The families move to nearby DengFeng looking for work so that the child can continue his training.  The hope is that he will make a name for himself for his skill and be picked up by a performing troupe, or that he will go on to do ring fighting and make money for a while from that and can make a good life for himself and help out his family.

These kids will train six days a week for 8 – 10 hours a day.  They do also attend classes for learning scholastic information, but this is limited and not the primary focus.  The kids are placed in groups of about 50 that train together every day.  They are up at 5:30am every day and begin their training with running and warm up exercises.

My Bed at Tagou Academy.When we arrived at Tagou we were already a novelty.  Foreigners are still not frequent enough that new people do not get noticed.  We stayed in the ‘Dharma Hall’ affectionately referred to as the ‘Foreigner’s Hotel’.  We got to our rooms on the third floor and put away our things.  The rooms are very sparse and more like a dormitory than a hotel.  There were two firm beds with a pillow and one blanket.  A T.V. that was not plugged in and a few tables and chairs.  The bathroom was small and had the thinnest most mismatched towels I could have every imagined but at least there was a Western style toilet.  Dinner was coming soon and most of us wanted to get our uniforms now before the shop closed.  We went in to the shop and began trying on various sizes of pants, shirts and jackets.  All of the items are from a fairly thick polyester that is durable and contains the schools name.  I spoke enough Chinese to start helping everyone communicate with the woman behind the counter.  The whole process was very chaotic.  I was not sure what size I was in Chinese sizes so I eventually stripped down and tried on the pants and shirt right there in the stop.  Students from the school kept peeking their heads in and looking to see all of the foreigners getting uniforms.  When I finally got to pay for my items the woman thanked me for speaking Chinese to her and apologized for the wait.  I told her it was no problem and thanked her for her help.

We went outside to a chaotic mass of students.  Most of them were very young.  They tried practicing their English with us which mostly consisted of “Hello! How are you!” and “Kung Fu Panda!”.  The sun had gone down into the mountains and the sky was rapidly getting dark.  We watched kids eat, give themselves horse baths in their basins and joke and play around with each other.  Sylvia took lots of pictures of the cute boys who would all cram together to get into the picture.  Then she would show them in the picture in her digital camera which amazed the boys.  We eventually tore ourselves away from them and headed to dinner back at the hotel.  The attached restaurant costs more than the cafeteria so usually we were the only ones there.  They made us lots of food and tea and the others discovered that they could serve coffee which is a rarity to find in China.  The food was excellent.

Arch near tourist area.After dinner we took a walk in the dark up to the tourist courtyard and gate near the school.  This area marks the entrance to the stretch of road that the temple is on and that runs past the Tagou Academy.  In the darkness with the moon behind the clouds it was an inspiring moment.  The air was cool and crisp and there was a slight breeze up in the mountains.  I wandered away for a few moments and looked around the courtyard lined on either side by tourist shops.  I eventually found a pathway behind them that looked off into the mountainside and spent a few minutes there by myself.  I walked back among the others and being inspired by the moment I practiced the Daoist 18 Tai Ji set that I know.  Even though it is a Daoist form and not Shaolin based, it somehow felt appropriate and flowed with the night air in the courtyard.  Afterwards we headed back to our rooms and I decided I should get to sleep.  I wanted to start my training with the morning run at 6am and knew that I needed to stretch first and so Norman and I were going to get up at 5am.  We kept our window open to let in the mountain night air and went to sleep.  I could not wait for tomorrow and the training to begin!

Comments  3 Comments »

  1. Karen - May 26, 2009 12:08 am

    You have very good memory!!! You wrote everything detailed. Your passages reminded me of the days with you last year…

    • Matt Talbert - May 26, 2009 1:36 am

      Da Shi Xiong Matt Talbert

      Thank you. I often remember the days traveling with you last year. I still think fondly of my trip and all the great people that I met. The memories are still vivid and I often wish I was traveling again. I am looking forward to going back to China this year, though it would be nice if you were going to be there with us.

  2. maya - September 5, 2009 6:46 pm

    Good afternoon!

    My name is Maya. I just found the website of your school and I thought my proposal can be interesting for you and your students. I have been studying kung-fu for almost 3 years in China with very experienced Chinese masters. So now I am thinking about helping other people to come to China and try training them with Chinese teachers. As for now I am studying in one of the best school in Shaolin Area. It is located in the Henan province, not far from Zhenzhou city. The name of this school is Tagou. All information – about studying, accommodation, visa’s questions can be found in Tagou’s website:

    I have been studying here for a year and I plan to study here for 2-3 more years. This place is just too nice to leave it.

    If you want to come to China to train I can help you. I can speak English, Russian and Chinese. For any question, please, write me back!

    Have a nice day!



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