The sleeper bus is not the best i've ever taken! The Argentinian and Mexican night buses are pure luxury compared to China. There is a TV which remains on full blast the whole way playing some weird cross between a Benny Hill esque comedy and a musical. (The Chinese really shouldn't sing.) There is a toilet on the bus but after about 5 hours its filled to the brim with an ominous brown swilling liquid. However the scenery is stunning. I am making my way down to the school in Fujian province which is by the coast – but the school is set in the mountains with the nearest little village about a 20 minute walk away from the grounds - Xin Qiao and the nearest town Taining about 30 mins away in a car.
As the bus leaves the city behind the countryside opens out into undulating paddy fields of lime green rice complete with farmers in traditional pointed bamboo hats - bent over double working the land. The sharp peaks and dips of the mountains are covered in bright grasshopper green feathery trees –gently swaying bamboo trees (what else?!) – with their long thick green stems bare and ringed with a flourish of soft leaves at the top – they look like giant feather dusters.
I'm met in Taining by a driver the school use and an american student with a pony tail – Chris. I'm shattered. We do the half hour drive back up the mountain to the school at breakneck speed. The school is set deep into the hillside. The short termers accommodation is at the very top of the school up 120 steep stone steps. My calf muscles start to burn after about step 10. I think – Shit - this is probably the least strenuous part of what I do here.....!
I'm sharing a room with Jasmine – a beautiful 23 year old fashion design student from Birmingham who has bright green eyes, the kind of wavy hair you've always wanted if you grew up with straight hair, thighs that could crack a man's pelvis - and she's deaf but can lip read.
I'm sharing a top bunk which has one small foothold about breast height with which I have to heave myself up on. The room has a layer of dry dust and scum floating around it and clothes strewn everywhere – i have a flash back to my university days. The view from the window to the back is nothing but bamboo trees. There is a long walk downhill again to the toilets – maye this will help train my walnut sized bladder ….
The day supposedly starts with a 5.30am morning circuit. I'm hoping it may be optional as i've failed dismally at doing any kind of training to get in shape before I arrive. However I soon realise the culture of the school is such that opting out is seriously NOT an option.
Alice and Audrey -two Belgian girls -confirm as much. Alice is curvaceous and incredibly sweet, with a big innocent smile and huge eyes, Audrey is an athletic blonde with incredible six pack and a smile that curls up contempuously at the corners.
"I waz frightened of her when I first met her" confides Alice...
"she was one of the mean girls."
Yeah you can see that - Audrey is rebelling by staying and not doing ANYTHING at the school – I like her style 😊 It really riles the rest of the students.
Alice likes the tai chi but but on my first morning they have tried to get out of the 5.30 am circuit but are hauled from their beds and told if they want to stay there then they have to do it!
“The early morning circuit is normally the toughest of the day “ says Chris laconically...
“sometimes we may run up the mountain and do sprint exercies, sometimes we may just hold plank position for the half an hour...”
“Half an hour???!!! I can't even hold the bloody plank position for 30 seconds...”
Shit. What have I let myself in for.
I do not have to attend the 5.30am morning circuit on the first day as I have just arrived (generous) I am allowed to join for breakfast at 7.30am (which still feels horrendously early – I like my sleep people!)
I have to make a decision on what to train in while I am here. They offer Shaolin Kung Fu – the most energetic, demanding and strenuos option, or two different types of Tai Chi.
All of the forms do a 800m run two to three times a day, with Shaolin there is also the possibility of running another 3- 8k a day as well – up mountains or to the nearest town. There are also further exercise and fitness work outs incorporated into the 6 hours of training a day....!
Shaolin is spoke of in hushed tones. Most people start and then drop out after a day or two because they can't hack it. Just before I arrive a group of 14 have taken it up and one by one given it up so there are only 7 left.
Patrice -a large, jovial guy with kind smileand dark skin - whose family hail from Afghanistan – so has the nickname Taliban (obviously) – says "maybe Tai Chi would be best for you..."
"Did you do any exercise before you joined?" I ask –
"No" he says.
I think to myself – if you can do it I can do it.
TD a long termer about to leave (you have the option of studying for 1,3,6 months or a full year) asks me why i've come.
"I'm here for discipline I say – I want to improve my mental focus and my self discpline."
"Then do Shaolin" she says.
"No one will resent you and you won't hold anyone back – but you can't be lazy you have to push yourself and do your best – if you do that the group will support and respect you whatever your level."
I have two voices in my head. One is saying – actually screaming really loudly
I dont want to get up at 530am in the morning I dont want to do hard core exercise with a bunch of 18 year olds it will hurt...it will hurt don't let me I DON'T WANNA!!!!!
The other is more like a kindly sergeant major. It says – you came here to improve your discipline – you need to do that to self motivate if you want to work for yourself. You could do tai chi and have a nice relaxing time – but that's not why you are here!!! you are here to challenge yourself, push yourself and do things you didn't think you were capable of. YOU came here to honour your values -discipline and vitality – AND make a commitment to your long term health and vitality by getting in shape.
So Shaolin kung fu it is – with half my mind and body still screaming NO – and the other kindly sergeant major saying very gently but firmly – yes – and you are NOT going to give up.