Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Kung Fu Hustle

This past weekend I went with my Gong Fu (how it's spelled and pronounced in Mandarin) Master to his alma mater: Shaolin. You may know it from several movies, specifically ones starring Jet Li. Shaolin is a monastary, but it's also the capital of all things Gong Fu. All of the monks are Gong Fu masters, and those who are training practice Gong Fu, religion, or Buddhist medicine from 5:30 in the morning to 8 at night. It's a pretty full day. To hear Xiao Xie (my Gung Fu master) tell it, it's all day long physical exhaustion after which you collapse into your bed and sleep like a rock. (All of this, by the way, is sustained on a vegetarian diet).

Because Xiao Xie is an alumni, we got to do all sorts of cool stuff at Shaolinsi. The first thing we did was watch a Gong Fu performance. They do some crazy crazy stuff. For example, they can do handstands on just two fingers (do the peace sign with both hands, now flip yourself upside down). One guy took two metal-tipped, pointy spears, and made a diagonal between the ground and the nape of his neck. The sharp pointy parts were in his neck. He then used his NECK to bend the METAL spears. Another guy broke steal bars on his head. Several people broke thick wooden sticks with various body parts. Their acrobatics could easily rival the best gymnasts, and make any break dancer drool. It was absolutely crazy.

After the performance, we toured the grounds for a bit. We checked out a tree that was filled with holes that any normal person would believe was made by a woodpecker. No. These holes were made by monks who, in order to strengthen their fingers so they could do those crazy finger-stands - poked the tree over and over again till there was actually a hole in it. The main temple floor, paved with stones, had dents in it from where the monks used to practice Gong Fu before they built practice space. Crazy.

During this walk around the grounds of the temple we learned why Shaolin monks wear robes that cover one arm and leave the other arm free. The very first monk there was visiting from India. On a very cold day a bunch of people waited outside his house on the pretense of wanting to become his desciple. It even snowed overnight and still they waited. Finally he came out, and one of the waiting people said "When will you teach us?" The monk replied: "When it snows red." (similar to "when pigs fly). So the man who asked the question, to prove his dedication and desire to learn the Buddhist way, grabbed his sword and cut off his arm, causing the snow to turn red as it fell around him. This man became the next (and second) Abbot of the monastary, and in his honor, all Shaolin monks wear robes that cover their left arms, and bow to each other holding only their right arm up in a half prayer position.

Next we went to the Pagoda Forest: Ta Lin. It was absolutely beautiful. After a monk dies, his ashes are placed under a pagoda. The more important or more deciples a monk has, the more awesome his pagoda is. Those monks who are just average have shared pagodas. I took a bajillion pictures, because it really was stunning. Also, interesting, I found one pagoda with Daoist markings on it, although Shaolinsi is a Buddhist temple. I'm still trying to figure out who would be the best authority to ask about it.

After Ta Lin Xiao Xie got some of his monk friends to work out with us. So we had some Gung Fu lessons with Shaolin monks. We learned some new moves, new combinations, and got to try and fight them (clearly, winning was not involved). It was pretty awesome. We also got to play around in the monk gym, which was like a playground filled with hard to work toys. One of the more exciting things was a bunch of posts, that stood about 6 feet off the ground. The point is to stand on them and fight with your fellow monks without falling off. Equally fun, a giant, supremely heavy marble that you have to push a long a track.

That night Xiao Xie took me and the other kids in our Gong Fu class weapons shopping. I learned that swords are pretty cool, and I taught Xiao Xie the word for vicious. He loves that word and now uses it to describe all of his Gung Fu moves. After shopping we got to meet Xiao Xie's Gong Fu master and his little brother who is currently enrolled in Shaolin (and who is sporting a broken hip, thanks to a crazy fighting class, but is still going to workouts, because Shaolin people are hardcore).

Saturday morning we woke up, worked out with monk, ate breakfast, said goodbye to Shaolin and headed for Kaifeng. Kaifeng is one of the ancient capital cities of China. Kaifeng is also known as the "city of snacks." Thank goodness, we all know just how I feel about my snacks. I even learned the chinese word for "snacking between meals" and "viscious cycle" this weekend. Anyways, they had these giant puffed rice balls that were the most amazing thing in the world - mosty because they tasted like cereal that i miss with all my being. Also amazing was this nut stuff. It's like a Chinese granola bar kinda, except there is no granola in it. What I mean is, it's almonds and peanuts and various dried fruits all held together with honey and it's like heaven in your mouth.

After binge eating for a while we went to this park called Qing Ming Shang He Yuan. It's like the epcot of China. Everyone is in traditional Qing dynasty garb and you can watch all these Qing dynasty events and fun things and buy Qing dynasty items. I now own a Qing dynasty purse. I watched water puppetry and stilt walking and women's polo. I skipped the cockfight - 'cause that's just sad. Also in the park were several olympic displays (because the countdown is on) so I did some vogueing with my favorite katong's - especially jing jing, he's the cutest. Kaifeng had just finished up with hosting the World Chrysanthemum festival, so the park was covered in beautiful flowers. A woman asked to take my picture in front of the Chrysanthemum Festival sign because "ni shi zhi shi bairen zai kaifeng!" - I am the only white person in Kaifeng.

Sunday we found ourselves in Luoyang, another ancient capital. After a nice early morning workout with Xiao Xie, we stuffed ourselves with breakfast and headed off to Long Men Shiku - Dragon Gate Grottos. They were absolutely awesome. Really. There were so so so many carvings. They ranged in size from multiple meters tall to one centimeter. (Clearly the big ones were donated by important people and the small ones made by civilians). It was really nice to wander the place because everything looked so awesome.

[[side note: right now there is a man outside my window singing opera at the top of his lungs...he's pretty good]]

After the grottos we went to a paper cutting factory for an educational experience in this traditional art, and also the chance to try it out for ourselves. I made a butterfly. It's beauty is pretty much indescribable.

Just after lunch we visited an underground household. Back in the day, people in the Luoyang area used to carve out their houses underground. The would dig a big square that would become the open-air courtyard, and then dig rooms off the sides. From the surface you wouldn't see anything, unless they had trees growing in the courtyard - then you could see some treetops. Even cooler than this, was that the woman who lived in the house we visited had just turned 100 years old, and had bound feet! She showed me some of the shoes that she made for herself, and maybe my thumb would have fit in them. Perhaps two thumbs actually. But they were about thumb length. Thats just crazy crazy stuff. Her two great great grandsons were there visiting and they kept calling the white folks aliens and chasing us around pretending to be dogs. They were pretty funny (if mildly abusive to aliens).

Finally we ended the day with some free time in downtown Luoyang. I opted to go to a museum built around an ancient tomb that they recently discovered on the site of a middle school while building a sewer pipe. It was kind of like the terra cotta warriors in content and setup, except everything was real - not terra cotta. There were a bunch of horse drawn chariots (wooden fossilized chariots now, pulled by horse skeletons) as well as a couple dog, chicken and human skeletons. You've got to be prepared for the afterlife. Unfortunately, they only excavated the area around the main part of the tomb where the body is, because the body is underneath a huge bank that noone wants to tear down. That's China.

So I think that's all for now. Next up - Shanghai! I leave tomorrow, right in the middle of my registration time. Ha. We'll just have to see how that plays out. And, there were no sleepers left - 12 hour soft seats, here I come. You had better be chabuduo yiyangde feiji like Candy says!

Miss you all and love hearing your updates!


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