We caught a public bus from Xi'an to Dengfeng, a fairly remote city in the Songshan Mountains near to the ancient Shaolin Temple, which necessitated this rather awkward public transport solution (no trains!). By all accounts this journey wasn't as bad as we were expecting, with the 7 hour journey passing relatively quickly on the coach-style bus with only the minimum of olfactory discomfort. Being prepared that the bus would stop just one before we reached our destination, we were careful not to drink too much coffee before embarking...
When we arrived in Dengfeng we were met by our next guide, who was incredibly warm, friendly and knowledgeable about the area. We were driven to our hostel, which was actually a guesthouse in the middle of nowhere at which we were the only guests! The guesthouse was run by a kind Chinese gentleman referred to respectfully as 'Uncle', who made sure our rooms were comfortable and that we had everything we needed. We were treated to a bountiful and fresh late lunch cooked on-site (indeed when asked about the provenance of the chicken, the lady serving us simply pointed outside to the coop...!) and then we were off out for the afternoon- to visit the local Shaolin Kung Fu School. It turned out that our Shaolin guide was herself a student of this school, and knew all the staff and students by name, having trained with them for years.
The school was home to around thirty children aged between 10 and 18 (all boys, though our guide informed us that girls also can practice Kung Fu). They live with the Chifu (master) and his wife for 11 months of the year, and whilst they are trained by Chifu for around six hours a day, six days a week, it is Chifu's wife who cooks their meals, cleans their rooms and takes them to the doctor if they are ill. The place really had the atmosphere of a family home, and it was clear that Chifu and his wife take a great deal of pride in the boys and their acheivements, treating them with affection and kindness, almost like surrogate parents.
Our guide explained to us that the boys that come to the school are not from privileged backgrounds, but are sent to the school by their parents often after struggling with the academic component of their work at mainstream school. After training at the school until the age of 18, they are generally well-placed to pursue a career in the army or police force, with a 'lucky few' going on to become film stars à la Jackie Chan, or stuntmen for the film and TV industry.
First upon our arrival at the school was a performance by all the students, showing us the finer points and amazing feats of traditional Shaolin Kung Fu. This included acrobatic flips, postures, weaponry work with swords and dart ropes, and special feats of strength such as handstands on 'iron fingers', knocking the bottom out of a beer bottle just by striking the lip, and throwing needles through panes of glass. They were joined in this performance by Chifu himself, wielding 50-kg training swords and demonstrating an astounding level of strength and skill.
After the show, it was our turn! We were taken through the some of the more basic postures and sequences of Shaolin Kung Fu by Chifu, the students and other staff from the school. We struggled (to varying degrees) through the postures which the students had made look so easy mere moments before – it's harder than it looks! The students were all extremely patient and kind with us, moving a hand here, guiding a foot there – and only laughing when we looked really ridiculous...
Following the lesson we had some free time with the students of the school, who engaged us in a game of football, arm wrestles, and various freestyle skirmishes (they won, invariably). It was clear from this time, when they were no longer obligated to interact with us, how genuinely happy and relaxed the boys were in the school, and it was wonderful sight to watch Chifu looking at them playing like a proud father!
The next morning we travelled just a short distance to the Shaolin Temple, which was founded over 1,500 years ago and today remains the main temple of Shaolin Buddhism in the world. Before entering the temple itself, we walked through the grounds which act as the campus for the world's largest Kung Fu school – housing over 40,000 students! This school was much more military in style, and I found it a little unsettling how regimented the exercises seemed, even with the younger children.
Our extremely knowledgeable guide gave us more information about the history and beginnings of the Shaolin Temple, as well as the folklore surrounding the birth of Shaolin Kung Fu and its most notable founders.
After walking through the grounds, we embarked on a hike up to the Bodhidharma cave and commemorative statue in the hills surrounding the Temple. We were prepared for the 1,000-step climb to be strenuous, and had packed plenty of water as well as taking the ascent at a steady pace...well, one of the two of us did this, at least. In the picture below you might just be able to spot Dev alongside one of the Shaolin Kung Fu kids zipping up the trail at breakneck speed!
It was certainly a challenge in the building heat of the morning, but once again the panorama that greeted us at the top, as well as the imposing statue of Bodhidharma (Wikipedia him – there're some pretty gruesome and interesting stories about his life!) were certainly worth the effort.
Following the climb down, we went to visit the main Shaolin Temple itself. For me this was a part of the day which didn't quite live up to expectations; I had expected to feel like I was in a sacred place, with hushed tones and a spiritual feel, much like the atmosphere of a European cathedral. Instead, the Temple was infested with tourists (mostly Chinese), hardly any worshippers, it was noisy and quite without any atmosphere of reverence or respect (there was a stall selling baked potatoes...). I felt quite sad that there was clearly no possibility of peaceful contemplation or worship for the monks here any longer (except possibly at night when the temple is closed to visitors), and disappointed that there was no palpable sense of the sacred history of this place. We chose not to take any pictures whilst in the temple.
After leaving the main temple we watched a short Kung Fu show performed by the students of this school. It was certainly entertaining, and gave us added insight into more of the 'forms' utilised in Shaolin Kung Fu, but it lacked the personal feel of the show we'd seen the day before due to the predictably large size of the audience and performance space.
This concludes our time in Shaolin – next stop, the capital!