I wake at 5am for my first morning circuit. I am filled with dread at what the day might hold. I get dressed quickly and descend the steep and stony steps in semi darkness. The sky is misty mauve and bats are still flitting overhead. Clouds hang dark over the wooded mountain tops.
It is the easiest of the morning circuits – it is abs. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief.
It starts with 300 stomach crunches...
I've always enjoyed ab exercises in a perverse kind of way so this isn't too bad. Then we have to sit in a sparring ring with our bums hanging over the edge with our partner sitting on our legs whilst we lower ourselves out horizontally and up again. I can't do it at all. It's like I have no stomach muscles whatsoever and every cell in my body is screaming – no its not natural you will DIE!
"Dominique - lie down flat!" shouts Alison - a wiry Canadian with closely cropped hair.
"I can't" i gasp....she is terrifying... i think.
Immediately after the morning circuit the Shaolin students do Qi Gong for fifteen minutes. We stand in the basketball looking out to the rise of the morning sun – then shut our eyes and meditatively summon our Qi - holding our arms as if we were hugging an imaginary basket ball.
I'm not sure I ever do it correctly but i'm used to meditating so I use it as an opportunity to do that. Some of the boys say they can feel energy tingling down their shoulders.
Afterwards at around 6.30 our Shaolin Teacher Wong joins us for our first lesson before breakfast.
I introduce myself to him - the only goodlooking Chinese man i've ever seen. He is 21 years old, lithe and skinny with a six pack men can only dream of. He has trained in Shaolin Kung Fu at special school since he was six. He is not quite a master yet as he is too young. He has a huge broad smile that always connects with his eyes and friendly affable manner. Later I hear stories about his training with the Shaolin monks. How he would be hit by the masters with sticks every time he loosened a pose or didn't get a form correct – how he would be punished by being put into solitary confinement with scraps and a slop bucket in the dark for a week. Its extraordinary but he is one of the gentlest (considering he could probably kill you with two fingers) and most cheerful people i've ever met.
The performance like forms of Shaolin Kung Fu are acrobatic and demanding and a lot of emphasis is put on fitness to get students in shape – hence all the exercise and running that is incorporated into the daily regime...
“Too many fat...” he says ominously and signals to the mountain. We walk to the mountain and then up it to a steep slope and start what is then essentially another morning circuit. Sprints up a hill, followed by frog leaps, bunny hops, hopping and then wheel barrows. All these things we used to do in the playground for fun as kids that are like some kind of medieval torture now - I discover – when you are trying to support 55 kilos of your own body weight!
Its 7.30 am and i've already done an hour and a half of exercise.
There is a huge gong that is struck for mealtimes. It reverberates up the hill and I go down for breakfast. A dour Scottish chef with a cold grey unsmiling eye and scrappy goatee slops porridge into an enormous bowl. Its porridge made with water. Everyday. There is no fruit, and I see most of the students have brought their own honey and bananas to add to the mix. I can see why.
There can be only 30 – 40 students in total who all eat together every mealtime. It really is like school. That and they all seem to be in their late teens to early twenties – mostly English speaking – from the UK, Australia, USA and Germany.
Everyone is incredibly friendly ( I later learn how rumours of new arrivals circulate the school – maybe my arrival is anticipated...)
Again Shaolin is spoken of in hushed terms. I say politely – Ah well I'm going to give it a go.
I meet Ferdiand – an 18 year old red headed German also doing Shaolin – who although he had done a year of martial arts training came to the school oerweight and has already lost about 13 kilos in 3 weeks and Felix and Camille – 21 year old French brother and sister. Felix has spent around 7 years studying Kung Fu in France. He is short but ripped beyond belief with dirty blonde shaggy hair, goatee and an incredibly sweet and genuine smile. Camille is his brunette sister – and is effortlessly sexy and naturally beautiful in a way that seems to come so easily to the French. She has an incredible body – defined abs, toned upper arms and forearms but still has feminine curves. However like 90 % of women she is unhappy and wants to loose weight.
"It eez awful" she confides- "since I been here my muscles get beeger and my boobs 'ave disappeared!!!"
She tried Shaolin for the first two days and quickly reverted to Tai Chi.
We start the 9am morning session with a run to the bridge and back. I am already nervous - i've never run before and am worried I will drag everyone back.
Plus its already roasting – how typical of me to choose to study in the very hottest months -when August sees temperatures of between 30 and 40 degrees everyday. Luckily the run is only 800m so I survive and I spend the rest of the lesson learning high kicks and stretches from one of the more advanced students Sergei.
At 11 the class closes and I go to lie down and sleep until the gong is struck for 12.
'You won't do much the first week - except sleep between class" I'm advised by my new friends....they are right...
"and the pain normally gets better after week 2...."
The boys all wander around with their tops off – the majority of them are ripped with washboard stomachs. I've never seen so many six packs in my life. I'm beginning to realise I may just be a teensy bit out of my depth...
That evening Chef decides to serve vegetable curry. Its 40 degrees outside. He has some sense of humour...i'll give him that.