China

Shangri La - Shangri L'aint.

The next morning I am enjoying breakfast and online when Jane (or her replacement) asks if i'm going to Shangri La – beause they are organising a mini bus – swweeeett. 

So with minimal effort on my part I hurriedly shut down the computer and get on board. It takes around another 2 hours to get to Shangri la – formerly Zhongdian district on the border of Yunnan province and Tibet. You can only get into Tibet as part of a tour group as a Westerner – but my tour into Tibet was cancelled by the Chinese authorities – official reason – change in requirements means they need 5 of each nationality in a tour group for it to be viable. Unofficial reason – I suspect - is because of the recent immolations (setting fire to oneself) from Tibetan monks in protest at the Chinese handling of Tibet and fear of the Western media. 



Although the bus is one of the better i've been on in China the journey up North is truly terrifying – as we ascend the mountains on a perilously windy mountain path – the hill side becomes shrouded in mist. On my right there is a sharp drop with only an occasional calf height barrier that breaks away every now and again -the driver can't see two foot in front of him and in the other lane is oncoming traffic. If I was a Christian I would start crossing myself about now – I can't bear to look so I keep my eyes tight shut and just hope its over soon. Gradually we start to descend a lttle bit towards town and the mists begin to clear. 



Shangri La was renamed in a marketing ploy to attract more tourists to the area and references the James Hilton book -The Lost paradise which is where the name first appeared. Shangri la – a fictional place, a paradise. You can see the landscape alter as we move towards Tibet – the dark wooded mountains of the gorge rise and fall and rise again into the vast snowy peaks heralding Tibet. 

The bright lime green of the paddy fields blur into into the dark green cabbagy patches of leaf vegetables and fields starbursted with bright scarlet shrubs. The The locals are all tanned a deep nut brown because of the intense mountain heat and have bright pink candy apple cheeks. Their clothes are brightly multi coloured woolen scarves wrapped around heads and little fat cheeked babies papoosed to their back. 



The bus deposits us somewhere and I get an ungracious female cab driver to drop me near the old town. Zhondian or Shangri La is huge – I was expecting a couple of windy roads, the odd hairy yak wandering down the street, bright glistening mountains against a china blue sky and yocals laughingly welcoming me into their home. No not quite – its pouring with rain, the new town is large and neon and the first thing I see is a Nike. I get deposited outside the old town which is a few criss crossing streets of tourist tat- and think Shangril La? - Shangril'aint'. 

N' kitchen is the hostel i've booked. I go in and am ignored for a good 10 minutes. I finally make my way to a crammed dormitory with a cleaner singing tunelessley. I put my back pack down and start to take my shoes off, when I pick it up again its covered in a white powder. I don't know why -but I know STRAIGHT away what it  is. I look at the wall where it was lying and I can't see anything. I cover my hand with my jumper and wipe it off. I look again more closely – there are holes in the wall with little innocent white crystals poking out. Its asbestos. I know this because I was FORCED to attend a presentation on the subject at work. Out of the entire 30,000 strong company I was one of the last to go. Although i've worked in the property industry for years I really didn't see the relevance for a marketer. To give credit where its due – the man who insisted on making the presentation mandatory for all employees had lost his father to asbestos poisoning and gave as passioned and interesting a presentation as could be given on the subject .It was also terrifying – how evil, corrosive and noxious the substance is – and how you just shouldn't ever EVER come into contact with it. Unfortunatley since then – and maybe because of that presentation and my penchant for travelling in third world countries where asbestos regulataions don't apply i seem to have done nothing but come into contact with it. In

 

South America two years ago I went down a silver mine in Bolivia where the guide cheefully told us we were leaning on raw asbestos and now this. 

Bet you are glad you are reading my blog now aren't you?? – sod Fifty Shades of Grey i'm referencing the Asbestos Regulations of the 1970s. Rock and Roll people. 

I wipe the stuff off as best I can, put my jumper in the wash (which in hindsight probably just dispersed it amongst the rest of my clothes) and tell them i'm leaving again. 

I find a hostel down the road and move in there. There is no restaurant or cafe attached and the beds are all lind up in two vertical rows so that people sleep head to toe - but the walls and floor are wood lined so I take it. I go out in the pouring rain and am already out of sorts – I think "I shouldn't need good weather to like a place and have a good time..." but...ohhhhh i kind of do!!! 



The next morning a gentle Japanese student - 19 year old Dai – asks if I want to go for a walk. So we head out and have a little wander round. It is absolutely freezing. I suppose I should have known this – we are near the mountains – the little streets are lined with over priced mountain gear, woollen scarves and pashminas. Dai ends up buying a beautiful dark blue and violet scarf that he lends me in the dorm room. He then heads off to the monastery -which is the main – no only sight to do here... and I have a walk around town. At 115 Y to get in – i'm going to give it a miss – its only around twelve pounds but is also under rennovation at the moment and has apparently become very touristy with the monks trying to flog you their home made medicine. 




The sun comes out and when it does its very very strong and of course everything looks a little better. I have a little look around the back strets – the street food are pickled eggs, fried baba (the Tibetan unleavened bread) which Dai buys for breakfast and Bao dzur – steamed buns filled with meat. I buy some bracelets of silver shapes on red string and a turquoise pendant. The main square – has a free museum with propaganda written by the Chinese Government in worship of the Red Army. They have locals in traditional dress you can have your photo with and a man with a huge hairy tibetan dog in a scarf – that I reluctantly part with a quid to get snapped with. I do like big hairy dogs quite a lot though.

 



There is also a temple in the main square and the walk up has me wheezing and the lactic acid beginning to burn in my calves. At 3200m high Shangri La is one of the highest cities in the world (sometimes called The rooftop paradise) I'm lucky I don't get altitude sickness (some people vomit or feel nauseous from it) but I do feel a little lightheaded and the beer at lunch probably didn't help! The Traditional Tibetan temple is decorated with streams and streams of pastel coloured flags and at the top there is a huge bright gold Dharma wheel with ropes attached that you can grab hold off and help keep turning. At one point it stops and everyone makes a pitying whine - until some more people grab hold and join in. I make my way back to the hostel and en route find myself standing outside a cafe with the bloody Arsenal Crest on the front. Typical! i think. You come all the way to the border of Tibet up 3500 metres surrounded by nothing but mountains and toothless locals and yaks and what do you see - Bloody Arsenal...well they have just renamed it Shangri La! 



Our dorm is joined by a few more people – a bubbly little chap from Hong Kong called Marco, Mark – a short Southhamptonite with a strangely bristolian accent and Georgia - a Bristol university student with baby face who manages to last about 12 hours before deciding that Shangri la isn't her cup of Yak milk butter tea. 

Mark and I decide not to do the monastery but instead visit the Temple of 100 chickens. After what seems like a lifetime's walk we get to the top of a hill and am greeted with the brightly coloured bunting that is traditional here. Two monks in dark red robes greet us as we pay our respects inside and walk around the perimeter, a chicken obligingly stands in the doorway for a photo opportunity. The sun has come out again and on the way up the hill locals are sitting and chatting. You get a beautiful view over the whole of Shangri La from here with the mountains in the distant- and for free. Well worth a visit. 


That evening we are all planning on shipping out as soon as possible- its cold and there is really nothing to do. Marcus and Dai have been to the Napa national park which costs around 30 quid and worth it if you ca afford it. I would come back only with more money and time and a companion who could either drive a bike or a car into the surruonding countryside. Mark and I have had a yak cheeseburger for lunch – juicy and salty! 


At around 4pm I say..."right lets get pissed then shall we?" ... 

"It doesn't matter how old you are... (what's he trying to say) 

 



or where you are from in the UK" says Mark...."If you end up in a town with nothing to do for the day and the weather is crap there is only ever one solution - getting pissed." Its true! I'm more British than i thought... 

And decide to spend the money we've saved not going to the monstary on sharing a yak hot pot for dinner. It comes in a huge black earthen ware carved pot that has glowing embers at the bottom to keep the stew hot. The meat is on the bone and surrounded by root vegetbles and glass noodles in a soupy broth that gets topped up by a waitress from a tea pot. We order some barley bread to go with it and a long awaited beer and tuck in. It tastes great. time. 


The next day I say goodbyes to the boys who are heading back to Lijian and head back to Dali –one of my favourite places so far - where i'm hoping its warmer...

The Tiger Leaps! - Tiger Leaping Gorge - China

Its the morning of my Tiger Leaping Gorge Trek. 

I wake up and have my (now routine) banana and chocolate pancake and coffee pre- trek breakfast and say goodbye to the Poles. I'm worried about getting lost as i'm doing it by myself. 

"That's impossible" say the Poles – Pah they have no idea! 

After only two wrong turns, an aborted detour around a pumpkin patch and a farmer with a scythe actually shouting NO!!! at me and pointing in the opposite direction – I settle on the correct path for the trek. 

The beginning of the trek is the most strenuous as its about 2 hours of uphill climbing with something called the 28 bends that looks like a wriggling snake on the map and I anticipate will make the calve muscles burn like Hades.

 



I get going only pausing long enough to purchase my other trek essential – a snickers bar – half way up and although its tiring I soon make the uphill bit and the 28 bends in good time. Its only after when I' speaking to others that have done it and complained about how tiring it is that I realise I must be in pretty good shape after Nazi Ninja bootcamp. I guess training with 18 -21 year olds I was always going to be the slowest and the weakest but hey it turns out i'm pretty fit comparatively...hooray! 



And the scenery is beautiful – heart stoppingly so sometimes. I have no idea what the Poles are on about. The path is a little bit daunting – sometimes its only just bigger than hip width – and winds around the outside of the mountain at about 2000m high with a sheer drop on one side and no safety barriers - we are in China! The hills are flanked with swaying pines and the soft fronds of baby bamboos – ahead the looming peaks of the mountain overlap – sharp granite and snowy white at the descending into the dark green, scalloped edges of the paddy fields that flow down in undulating waves. At the bottom where the feet of the mountain meet flows the coffee coloured river lit up in the early morning sunshine. The fields are dotted with baby pink harebells, marigolds and occasionally a bright scarlet crysanthemum. I am the ony one on the path and the only sound is the soft rush from the water below, the gentle clanging of cowbells in the distance. Its absolutely gorgeous and i have no idea what the Poles have been on about. Honestly...boys...thank goodness i didn't take their advice and "save myself the trouble and get a cab!!!!" 

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"Yep that would be another terrible view!" I say as I curl around another corner of the mountainside and watch it fall away into the ravine - in homage to the Poles. 

Tiger Leaping Gorge is so called after a tiger that supposedly made a leap to a stone in the middle of the gorge to avoid a hunter. After my initial confusion the route is fairly easy to find as all of the guest houses along the way have painted different coloured arrows and their names to promote themselves. 

It takes around 8 hours to get to Tina's Guest House – which is where most people stop, and then another 2 to 3 hours to trek down into the gorge itself to see the stone. Its possibe to get to Tina's in a day (hell the Pole's did it in 5 hours) but I am not a boy !! - this isn't about how quickly I can do it – it's about enjoying the experience. So I stop after 2 hours for a green tea to take in the view at Tea Horse Guest House – then I stop again after another 2 hours and take an hour for lunch. I'm not going in peak season so there are not that many locals on the path, but I stop for a very sweet and toothless old crone that offers me some prickly cucumber for 1 yuan and then peels me some fresh walnuts with blackened hands. 



I stop again and pay a whopping 50p for a large chinese pear -but the woman peels it for me and then takes some photos of me on a rather dicey precipice. 

As nerve wracking as the narrow mountain path is – (there doesn't seem to be any such thing as health and safety in China therefore no barriers to stop one from stumbling and plummeting to a sticky end) it gets even more spine tingling when it momentarily crumbles away in a couple of places – leaving you to clamber over some broken rocks. I decide to crouch anduse my hand as well (although stupidly I still hold a water bottle with my other hand...) and think “hmmm not a big fan of this bit.” 

As I round the bend I see a Chinese girl in her early twenties and a Chinese man in full trekking gear and bright red walking stick in his forties. They wave and say hello – I think our paths have crossed earlier but I overtook them. 

“Aren't you frightened!!” says the Chinese girl Jean – gasping. The man - whom I only ever know as Mr Yang – laughs patiently. 

“Oh not really!" 
“Aiiieee this road is so terrible aren't you scared???" 

"I am just a poor girl - so very frightened." she says dramatically. I laugh. 

" I 'm glad you find pleasure with me" she whimpers..." You - you are a warrior!" 

We continue walking for a bit – there are a couple of waterfalls we have to cross. Again there are no barriers and a sheer drop the other side of the slippery stepping stones. Its a little daunting but not too terrible. Jean clings to my hand for dear life. 
 


"I feel better now I have you both with me" she announces. 

"Yes I say -we are like auntie and uncle." 



Mr Yang is the happiest Chinese man i've ever met – in fairness they are all fairly happy and easy going. He doesn't smile or speak any English but points and grins enthusiastically at things. We get towards the halfway point – at Halfway house and go up to the balcony (named Inspiraton point) to take photos against the amazing mountainous backdrop. Then head on again – through the little village – past locals with babies papoosed to their backs, smoking old men and rabid dogs. I've read about a guesthouse called Five Fingers- which is up a mountain slope – and is apparenty much nicer than Tina's which has become touristy and expensive. I say my goodbyes to Jean and Mr Yang and make my way towrards it – they want to continue their trek and get to Tinas before sun down. I could trek for another 2 hours – or I could sit and enjoy the view with a beer. Not suprisingly the latter is my preferred option. 

The gueshouse is run by a Tibetan husband and wife. They have beautiful views of the countryside, a courtyard lined with bright red gladioli, and two donkeys tethered in the middle of it. The room is small and basic but they are obviously going all out with the bathroom. There is a squatter toilet yes – but a great big shower that pumps out hot water. I take a much longed for properly hot shower and change and come downstairs – when who should I find but Jean and Mr Yang. Their friends are behind them and they want to wait for them and complete it tomorrow. I'm pleased I have company all alone in the mountain tops and Mr Yang seems delighted i'm ready to drink beer. We sit outside with a couple of bottles of Tsing Tao and enjoy some Tibetan home cooking – Kung Pao chicken with peanuts and red chilli, fried eggs and tomatoes, green beans grown in their backgarden and beef and potatoes. At some point I am pitied by Mr Yang and brought a spoon to eat with! My chopstick skills never really seem to improve! 



"You are both so lucky' - sighs Jean – who has a peculiarly old fashioned turn of phrase like she learned English at finishing school in the fifties... 

"Take this illustrious gentleman here ..."– she says indicating Mr Yang – 

"He is in his forties, unmarried and just travels." 

Well similar to me! 



I never want to get married she says – and then goes on to explain about Chinese culture – how once you marry you marry not just your fiance but his family as well and from that point on you are never alone. We take our individualism for granted in the West. You can see the benefits of the Chinese culture - the sociability, the support that families get that the elderly get -but I would also miss my freedom a great deal. She talks about the Chinese flowers and about the Tang Dynasty –it was one of her favourite periods in Chiense history – famous for having a woman ruler – Wu Xehitan – who had a successful career – and even invented words and letters to be named after her although like many a matriarchal leader she was terrifyingly ruthless in order to secure her position. 


"Do you learn any Chinese historyin school?" 

She asks... 

"Oh no I say..." – thinking we barely learn the basics of our own Britihs history – there seems to be a huge gap in my knowledge between Elizabeth and James 1 and the start of the first world war- only a small yet crucial 300 years involving the building of governement and civil war! 

“Why not ?!" She exclaims "...we learn about Charlie!" 

In the morning Mr Yang and I eat fried baba (traditional Tibetan unleavened bread) pasted with honey and crumbled walnuts. Yum. Jean has eggs, tomatoes, noodles and ginger – and we are off. Today its no longer sunny – a misty rain has set in and Jean is whingeing –" This was a mistake we should have carried on yesterday. Why did you want to stay in the mountains?" 

I can't help feel she is blaming me – even though I set off to the guesthouse by myself and didn't ask them to come back and join me! 

I feel very lucky i've had a beautiful day of sunshine and don't regret taking my time and spending the evening in the mountains – the trek down into the gorge is fairly steep and strenuous in the rain – and takes around 1 hour – but it is also beautiful to see another side of the mountains. Shady, cool, misty and hung with shimmering rain they are just as beautiful – but i'm glad i don't have to do the whole 23k in the drizzle. 



A couple of the village homes down the path to the gorge have decided to set up an extra toll to extract money from tourists as well as the park entrance fee – so we are husteld for another 1 y down, some money to go out onto the bridge and stand on the Tiger's stone in the midst of the angry rushing water and 15 y to go back up again. Its resented by everyone I speak to but if I lived there i'd try the same thing – I can't blame them for their entrepreneurism! And it is endorsed with official signs. The villagers for the route up have created a better path -cutting stone steps into the mountain side and attaching at thin wire to use as a rail. Again if you don't have a head for heights this is not advisable! 

The way down is arduous and I think will be bad to go up the same route (if you do you don't have to pay) the stone steps path is more direct and the middle part of it also contains something called a Sky Ladder which sounds even more direct. Jean tries to tell me that there are too many tourists and it will take too long, and then that its shut – i'm not sure if she is telling the truth – something makes me persist – and it is open and available as a route. The sky ladder turns out to be a rusty metal ladder precariously attached almost vertically to the cliff. There is no safety cable or harness available here – no net if you fall. I take a few steps up it and come down – if you don't feel up to it there is the “safe path” which are more steep stone steps carved into the hillside with a wire for a rail (only safe if you are careful!) 

“Did you give up?” asks Jean. 

“No” I say trying to style it out  "I just don't think I can do it by myself..." 

Some more people gather at the platform – ever the gentleman - Mr Yang asks if they will accompany Jean up the safe path so that he can accompany me up the sky ladder. Oh great. 



I set going again and a few steps up think – this would NOT be allowed anywhere else in the world without a safety harness and a safety net. A few more steps up and I think – if I can't do this mentally and my hands start shaking or my legs give way – then that's it – either Mr Yang has to come to my rescue and help me come down one step at a time – or more likely i'll just fall backwards off the cliff top and die. I'm climbing a vertical ladder against a cliff face 2000 m in the air – in the rain!!! I look up and look down and feel sick. I vow never to take a chance like this again. 
 



“Come on..." I say – "you are mentally strong you can do this (and er you have to do this...)” 

I look straight ahead and just concentrate on putting one hand above the other and then one foot a step at a time. In some parts the rungs are uneven – behind the rusty metal version is an even more dodgy wood and metal version. Half way up some joker has carved into it – Come on you can do it! 

How did they manage that! 

Luckily the thing is very short – it takes around 10 minutes to get to the top. At the top all there is is the top of the ladder and a thin and slippery wire to hold onto. I manage to haul myself to safety and sit at the top on a rock my legs and hands are shaking. Mr Yang joins me smiling -and I get him to go back to the top and take a photo of it! 

I normally say that I take calculated risks – but this was sheer stupidity – I don't recommend it to anyone!!! 

We get to the top – finally joined by Jean who drags behind - Jiao Jiao – (come on come on) Mr Yang and I shout - a phrase I learnt in Kung Fu. Then Jean decides to stay with her friends at Tina's for the night. She wants me to stay too so we an all head to Shangrila in the moring – but I don't like Tina's and do't have a change of clothes with me – and would rather head back to my stuff which has been eft at Jane's Guestouse. 

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Mr Yang and I share the same bus back – he is heading on to Lijiang and I am getting out at Qiatou – the start of the trek. But the adventure isn't over yet. As the rainy season comes to an end many of the newly built roads around the gorge have been disrupted by landslides from the mountains. Now the huge boulders from one have blocked our path. All of the bus have to get out and then first climb over the rocks and then climb aruond a scarily narrow grey and gravelly slippery path cut into the hillside with another sheer drop on one side. I'm one of the first to go onto it but towrds the end my nerve begins to go. Luckly Mr Yang has got to the other side and offers out his red walking stick for me to hang on to and he helps me to safety. Thank goodness for Mr Yang – apparently I later discover that the landslide has been like that for 2 weeks. On the other side there are other buses ready to take us onwards and I arrive back at Jane's guesthose and have some beef noodles before its time for bed.

The Three Pagodas, Two Nuns and a chant - in Dali, China.

I decide to do my morning run to The Three Pagodas and Temple which is apparently about half and hours walk away. I take just enough money to go in incase I want to enter when I arrive. Its a hot and dusty day and after about 20 mins I get there and decide I may as well. The briliant Jade Roo and Jade Emu Hostel where I am staying (and cannot recommend enough) do excursions – and I discover are quite possibly the only hostel that don't try and rip off their guests by charging a premium for the privelege. When I get to The Three Pagodas I realise that a taxi and entrance fee would have been cheaper booked and done from the hostel than by running there and just entering myself. Extraordinary – but i'm here now so I go in. The three sand coloured pagodas are set against the hill side. There is a peaceful lake and paths leading up to them. I storm ahead of the tour groups and Chinese so that can get some photos without hundreds of people in. Luckily its still quite early and the Chinese don't seem to like being up at the crack of dawn – even the bakery was still making its cakes at about 9.30am in the morning!
 


Although its around 12 pounds to enter its worth it as I spend about 3 to 4 hours in the grounds. After the Pagodas which you can't enter – there are a series of Buddhist temples stacked all the way up the hillside. There are various incarnations of Buddha and the Bhodivistas along the way including a rather beautiful Buddha whose trim little waist i'm admiring when I realise this is named “The Yunnan Star” and is a hermaphrodite – half man and half woman – that explains it then. I'm again taken aback by all the gold and the menacing anger on the faces of some of the statues. One of the Buddhas stands towerng above me with one arm flung up in the air swirling a whip with the other pressing its palm down as if to smite the person below – his lips curled, his eyebrows locked and the whites of his eyes bright with menacing anger. He is a spiritual warrior but this intimidating and aggressive posture is not what I associate with Buddism at all. 

 



I get to almost the very top temple – called The Lake Viewing Temple - set far up into the mountain side . The Virgin Cedars that flank the hillside are thicker here and the hot morning sunshine has given way to fresh and misty mountain air. I think – can I be bothered to go to the top – then I think “its the last temple – and er.... what else are you doing with your life right now???” 

So I carry on up the steps and get to the top of the final temple and am rewarded with a view that looks down over all the other temples and to Er Hai (ear shaped) Lake itself. There are only a couple of Chinese men at this temple – and they start chatting to me straight away: 

“You are the only one whose made it up this far apart from us!” they say. 

Then gesture at the crowds below who turn back in their tour groups way before this temple.



Some Chinese Buddhist nuns in long grey robes and shaved heads are walking up through the trees to this temple wth a novice or visitor. There is a training academy here. One of them stops and greets me: 

“Ami tuo Fo” she says. 

I gesture that I don't understand but she keeps repeating it until I realise she is giving me a Buddhist chant – so I say it and as the others come to join her I say it again which they are delighted by. 

I look it up when I get back to the hostel. It's a Buddhist chant that Chinese buddhists also use to greet each other. 

Amituofo is the name of the Amitabha Buddha - Buddha of infinite light and infinite life. 

I make a mental note to try it the next time I meditate. Her little brown face was so happy and alive and warm. They lean over the balcony and take deep lungfuls of the clean mountain air and gasp appreciatively. I love nuns... 



I feel bad when I return because i've missed saying goodbye to Nick and Hannah. I walk into town and visit a little restaurant called Mama's Place where i've seen someone I presume to be Papa making Jiao – Dzur – fresh dumplings in the window. I could live off dumplinsgs. I order pork and leek dumplings and a chinese beer – Tsing Tao (pronounced Ching Dao) for a couple of pounds. Tsing Tao is at 4% probably the best of a bad bunch. It seems to be all or nothing with the Chinese and alochol– either fortified plum or pine nut or rice wine liquor for a terrifying 45 – 50% proof or pisswater beer like the local attempt – Dali beer at 3.3%!

Kung Fu Fighting - Rising Dragon School Part 3

I soon realise that the culture of the school –( with the majority of students being between 18 -23) is based around peer pressure and tall tales. There's a strong pack mentality here and a range of stories whispered over breakfast and retold in between class have begun to take on a kind of mythological and legendary status. Stories about the pain and terror of the Shaolin kung fu classes; the school's owner Scott; and about the infamous drinking sessions with Chinese locals – all designed to strike fear into the hearts of the “newbies.” 

There are three tales of the Shaolin training that are spoken about by students in hushed tones of fear and dread: 

The Stairs

Shaolin Stretching

and the Taining Run. 



In encounter the first of these on my first full day of training. Never- I repeat NEVER will I look at an innocent stone staircase in the same way ever again


“We are getting a 10 minute break – that means Stairs...afterwards” whispers Ferdinand with a mixture of abject terror and a small amount of perverse glee in his voice. 

Sixteen stairs. The drill is we must bunny hop up them and bear crawl down them. Boys have to do a press up on every step on the way down. Because I am a girl I am allowed to do a press up on every other stair on the way down. ... 

I laugh and shrug to myself. I am so out of my depth in every single area it doesn't really matter what they come up with I just have to give it a go. 

I manage the bunny hop up. I try to come down. I realise that I cannot support any of my body weight – I simply don't have the upper body strength. I start by doing a press up - I manage the first four steps. Then my legs fall into the concrete. 

“stick your bum in the air” shouts one of them. 

“no then she won't be able to do the press up” says another. They are optimistic – i'll give them that! 

By the time I am halfway dwon all of the boys are grouped at the bottom cheering me on. 

“Come on Dominique you can do it” 

“i can't” I gasp - “i really can't” I am pulling myself down on my hands head first with my legs scraping the entire length of the lip of each stone staircase from thigh to ankle. 

“we couldn't do it either when we started!” they shout. 



“ Don't give up.” 

James steps forward and puts his hands on the step infront of me

“COME ON DOMINIQUE - Put your hands where mine are – One" 

I move my hand infront of his... 

"TWO" I place my right hand in front of his. 

Three and finally four i'm at the bottom. Bruised and scraped with grazes all up my legs. 

“Well done Dominique” they say. 

I hobble over to Wang - our Kung Fu instructor– I have hauled myself down three times (im supposed to do four) 

“Too much practise” he says sadly - gently pointing at the various shades of rose and violet bumps my legs have become. 

You can say that again mate. 

He disappears into the kitchen and comes back with a little bottle of red oil. I think it has cardomom and cinnamon essence in it. 

“You put on legs – it very hot.” 

Oh good a different kind of pain to add to the dull aching throbbing kind. I can't wait. 

 



I climb the 120 stairs to my room in a wobbly state. Patrice comes in for a coffee with Jasmin. All of the students have certain things – honey and bananas for breakfast, instant nescafe, Pot noodles, and a selection of tropicana fruit drinks. After a few days of Chef's cooking I can see why. 

“no man don't give up” he says with a dimply grin. “I can see it in your eyes! You're thinking – no way...I was the same in my first few days – but it gets better honestly. The first two weeks are the worst – btut it gets easier... Look at me i've lost 20 kilos already – when I started I couldn't do the stairs – now I just did six sets." 

I haul my bruised and aching body onto my bed. I don't I know I say – i'll see how it goes. 

When i wake in the night its my body feels like a dead weight.. I'm exhuasted to the bone and every single muscle and tendon aches. When i try and roll over in the bed it feels like i'm lifting up lead. My poor body doesn't know whats happened to it...its about to get a rude awakening!

Kung Fu Fighting - Rising Dragon School Part 2

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...." 

Great. 

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.

Everybody is Kung Fu Fighting - Rising Dragon School - Part 1

 

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.

The Great Wall of China and a birthday surprise.

Finally on Friday, Michaela and I  get to do a trek of the 2000 year old Great Wall of China, and its her 34th birthday! hooray! 

The sun is shining, the sky is a clear blue without a cloud in it – and because its the peak of summer that also means it must be about 40 degrees. As the bus nears the entrance - our tour guide starts to speak: 

“ We are almost arrived – when you get to the base you will need to walk up a hill to get to the first tower. This hill is very steep.” 

When you get to the first tower you will walk the first 9 towers which have been restored. These towers are even steeper than the hill..." 

“Then you will climb towers 9 to 15... these towers are even steeper.” 

If you are having difficulty you can get down here from tower 15 because after that you will have to walk the final 7 towers from 15 to and these are the STEEPEST part of the wall.” 
 


Everyone laughs nervously. I'm beginning to worry that I may not be up to it – but Micahela chivvies me along. 

We arrive and start the climb up to the first tower  which is fine and then bump into Sally and a couple of other girls from the hostel at the top. We burst into an impromptu version of Happy Birthday for Michaela which makes everyone stare:

“take your time -take photos - the guide on the walk will follow the last person...” 



We take her advice. Once up at the top the heat is extreme and difficult but the views are stunning. The wall stretches out in front of us and there isn't a soul on it except for our group, we can see for miles around us, the rolling hills and the wall interspersed with its watchtowers curls out endlessly infront of us. 

I didn't know what to expect but its suprisingly peaceful and awe inspiring up here. So this is what all the fuss is about....it is and it isn't "just a wall." 

After the first 15 towers I begin to get a little complacent. We stop and take loads of photos to the point where the tour guide who is rounding us up actually points at his watch and hurries us along – guess we can't take as long as we want then! 



We have made lunch in the hostel to take with us as there are no burger vans up here – although there is the odd farmer selling t shirts, water and coke. We catch up with the rest of the group and eat our peanut butter sandwiches (which never tasted so good) then get going again. And then I see why its called one of the most strenuous treks on the wall. 

The wall from Tower 9 is all unrestored - so crumbling away at the sides and there are sheer drops of around 500 metres. It's so hilly that it undulates up and down to each watchtower at about an angle of 70 degrees which means we have to climb up and down on all fours to be safe. 
 


'In every life there are ups and there are downs...” notes a German drily. 

The final few towers to Tower 22 really are the steepest and get the heart rate pumping. 

“Come on Dominique – get those legs going!” shouts Michaela

“WORK THAT BUTT WORK IT!!” I shout back to help with the motivation. 

The rest of the group stare at us slightly bemused. But we make it! And the fact its been tiring and difficult at times has made it so much more worthwhile. And hey ….the photos really are great. 

That evening we go out for a meal for Michaela's birthday and get back late - around 11 o clock. 



I'm about to go to bed, but one of the girls who runs the hostel whispers to me to stay up. There are four of them and they have been waiting for us to get back because they have bought Michaela a tiramisu cake as a suprise with candles and everything. 

“we were so worried that you were't coming back!” they say... 

“ some of us finished our shift a long time ago but wanted to stay for this! ” 



We are all so thrilled; for Michaela  -   who is touched and close to tears; and lets face it,  at the thought of eating proper cake.  But also because it's so lovely to see how excited the girls from the hostel are that their  suprise has worked. They jump up and down with glee and clasp their hands. It's a sweet way (in every way)  to end to a very a special day. 

The next day i've made a decision to go and do martial arts at a school in Fujian province for a month. I am going via Shanghai to break up the journey a bit. 

One of the girls in the hostel helps me with my backpack. Her name in Chinese means “sea” but she didn't like it so she decided to choose an English name that meant the same - and fell in love with the word “Marine” so that is what we call her. 

“Oh Dominique...” she says, helping lug The Bastard onto my back.. 

“You are soo strong!...so strong and so beautiful....” 

Aw. Its only taken about 37 years but I think I'm fnally beginning to agree.