From shambles to Shaolin

After seeing the best that Luoyang had to offer we had a plan (… Scary I know!).

We were going to venture into the hills to a infamous (in China) stone hamlet, where legions of Chinese artists venture with their sketch pads. We would spend a couple of nights before heading back to Luoyang to catch our night train to Pingyao. The plan was flawless.

We knew the connections we had to get. Our guidebook and locals had told us how long things would take. We should end up having a day-and-a-half in the mountains, with perhaps 8 hours travel each side.

We set off.

A bus ride to the train station. No problem.

Train tickets bought. No problem. But the train was later leaving then expected.

Then. The train was delayed. Should we get it? We pondered as we waited…

Yes. God loves a trier! đŸ˜‰

So – late – we boarded the train.

No seats. Here is how we spent the next 2.5 hours! 2.5 hours was also a lot longer than the 1-1.5 hours the locals had told us the train would take.
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The plan was unravelling before our eyes.

We arrived in the town were we would get a bus… To another town… To get another bus… And then a taxi.

It was already late in the day, and with the fraught journey we were worried about getting back to Luoyang, in a few days time, to catch the train we had already booked to Pingyao.

But we WILL push on. We decided to book our train ticket back to Luoyang, a few days hence, as holiday season was approaching.

And this clinched it. Ultimately, there wasn’t an appropriately timed train back to Luoyang.

So we pulled the plug.

We instead booked tickets to get back to Luoyang that very day. But before boarding the train… We had afternoon tea – well, beans from a can and water – on a step, outside a deep fried chicken joint, in a ‘nothing’ city!
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Not our finest moment.

And yet, we feel it was a mature decision. We pushed for as long, as far, as we could. Sometimes you have to know when to let things go.

So, a 12-hour round trip later, we were back in Luoyang, at the same hostel, and the very place we started.

Being back in Luoyang (again) was not part of the plan and we were stumped on how we would spend the next two days in a town where we had already done, well, everything.

So, early in the morning. Tired. And still smarting from our abandoned trip, we were on public transport once more. This time to Shaolin temple…

The temple complex itself is huge. The grounds in which it sits are vast, surrounded as it is by martial arts training schools and practice fields.

As soon as you step through the gates the synchronised stamping of feet. The collective grunts and screams. The en masse movement of many bodies as one.
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It is mesmerising. It is chilling. It is a perfect visualisation of discipline.

A discipline (and dedication) that continues to echo through the hallowed halls as you see teenagers break metal bars on their heads, pierce glass with a needle and bend spears with their necks…
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The school is packed and popular. Unfortunately, the temple is a victim of its own success. Once marauded by armies of soldiers. Now marauded by armies of tourists. All the while, rigid ranks of red warriors march the paths around you.
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As wars have previously destroyed many of the temples, they are not very old. Some are as recently rebuilt as 2004 which somewhat dispels the magic. Yet, there are a few places which still capture the imagination.

A hall – Pilu Pavilion – at the rear of the temple itself still has depressions across the entire floor, which are supposedly the result of generations of monks practicing their stance work. Unlikely to be true, but a nice story.

The 500-Buddhas hall contains, that’s right, 500 golden statues of disciples of Buddha. Each supposedly has a mystical power or ability. One smells nice. Another can make the stupid clever and, well, think of a power and one of the Buddhas has probably got it!
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Drifting beyond the temple there stands one of the most spectacular sites. The Pagoda forest. A cemetery of 246 pagodas.
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These stone spires, scattered amongst straw grass and the shadowy boughs of the native trees makes for a captivating walk. The midday sun: hot and blinding. Yet these crumbling monoliths continue to stand erect. A memory of devoted monks who no longer walk this earth.
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But the tourists still teem.

An escape is required. Uphill. That’s were the many, with their fingers endlessly clicking their shutters on nothingness, will not go. So we will.

A short undulating climb surely clears us from the crowds, emerging into a deathly silent courtyard, bar a single chanting monk, lit inside a decrepit temple by just a few candles. Devoted, she doesn’t even know we are there. We wander and rest and let the chants carry over us.
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And then we turn our heads skyward and for countless steps we hike towards the peak and Dharma cave.
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It is said, within this cave, Damo meditated for 9 whole years, and upon emerging brought back down to the temple, Zen Buddhism. I feel that this is apocryphal, as I believe the temple already existed, and therefore some form of Buddhism must have existed within the walls. But if not, this cave is, the Birthplace of Zen Buddhism. I am glad we made the hike.
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Shaolin temple. Tick.

Luoyang. Definitely TICK.

Now we leave. And we don’t come back. Too much of China still to see…

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