China · China travel · Travel

The Shaolin Temple

The Shaolin Temple is China’s most famous Buddhist monastery with over 1,500 years of history. Of course, the main reason is its famous fighting monks, which most of us have seen in Chinese martial arts movies, and that was the main reason I was going there. Located in Henan province, a few hours from both Luoyang and Zhengzhou, it’s tucked away in a mountain range where multitudes of monks still practice their kungfu. The Shaolin Temple has fully embraced its martial heritage, opening its gates to visitors, putting on kungfu shows, and going on tours. It sounds very commercial and indeed it is. I was torn between avoiding it because it didn’t seem very genuine and visiting it out of curiosity and taking advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit the cradle of Chinese kungfu. I finally gave in and decided to go. It turned out to be a lot of trouble but it was worth it.

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The morning of that day, I set out to the bus stop across from my hostel. The nearest traffic light was about 10 minutes down the road so I just did what a bunch of other people did and ran across the avenue. I sprinted across one half of the massive avenue, waited until traffic was stopped at the red light down the road, then ran across to the other side to wait. I had to take a minibus to Dengfeng, the small town that was the gateway to the Shaolin Temple. After a false start, when I hailed a bus that I thought was going to Dengfeng, jumped on and asked the driver, and instead of getting an answer, got a scowl and had to jump off in time before the bus drove off (it sounds very rude, but amazingly I had an even worse experience once in Taipei). The buses had no numbers, but the destination written in Chinese on the front. Eventually I hopped onto one which I believed was going to Dengfeng. I asked the conductor, who said yes, paid the fare, then sat back for the two hour-long trip to Dengfeng. The bus continued down Longmen Avenue, past giant hotels, apartments, and car dealerships, and then turned into a series of side roads that led to more rural surroundings. I had no idea where I was and just sat back. After about an hour, the bus drove into a small, shoddy village and entered a parking lot. I thought this was Dengfeng so I asked the conductor how to get to the Shaolin Temple. She led me to another bus, told me it would take me to the Shaolin Temple, and then handed that bus’s conductor some money (small alarm starting to form in my head) and the second bus’ conductor gave me a slip. The second bus’ conductor said we aren’t going to the Shaolin Temple to the first conductor, but they had a conversation, then she seemngly said ok. This is the point where I was very aware of both my Mandarin limitations and my inability to understand the somewhat rustic Henanese dialect that was being spoken by these people.
The second bus got underway soon and I thought, cool, I’ll be in the Shaolin Temple in a short time. We passed through several small towns where a main road ran through the middle. There were street markets being held, and farmers herding goats along the side of the road. It was amazing to be in the middle of nowhere in rural Henan, I thought. After about half an hour, I asked the conductor how much longer until the Temple. About an hour more, she said, and we aren’t going to the Temple. What?! I replied, more stunned than angry. She repeated her answer, some of which I couldn’t understand. I understood enough to realize she was going to another place, from which I could then take a bus to the Temple. I was now a little worried so I called my hostel receptionist and asked her to talk to the conductor. The conductor basically told me to calm down and that I would just have to follow the conductor’s advice. I was a little angry, since I thought this bus was going to the Shaolin Temple. Instead it was going to another place, and I’d have to take a THIRD bus. I was worried, but not about my safety, but about whether I could find my way back to Luoyang if I got off the bus.
This bus soon went onto a highway, with a lot of dry land all around and a large mosque at the side. A city came into view and I asked the conductor again where she was going. Dengfeng, she said. I then realized that this second bus was indeed going the right way. However it was the first bus that had taken me to the wrong place. And the first conductor was the one who had tricked me, not this conductor. When I had hailed that bus in Luoyang, its sign had said Luoyang-Dengfeng, plus the conductor had said it was going to Dengfeng. I asked this conductor why that first conductor had said she was going to Dengfeng when she didn’t, and the current conductor said the first conductor probably tricked me. During this whole journey on the second bus, I didn’t pay anything, probably because the first bus’ conductor had paid the second bus’ conductor. So basically, I was tricked, not out of money, but for my business and time.
At Dengfeng, the bus pulled into the West station and I got out, relieved to be finally about to go to the Temple. Another shock happened when I asked the staff and she said the bus to Shaolin Temple was at another station, the North station. She told me to take the bus, and by this point, I was confused and exasperated. I was in a strange town and didn’t know my way around, but I was expected to go and take the bus. I was seriously tempted to give up and go back to Luoyang. I called my hostel again and the receptionist told me to take a taxi (good advice which I should have thought of). The North station wasn’t that far away so the taxi ride wasn’t expensive at all. As soon as I got out of the taxi, I saw a bus that looked like it was going to the Shaolin Temple. It was, so I got on, and in about 20 minutes, I arrived at the Shaolin Temple. After three hours on 3 buses and a taxi, I was finally there!

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The entrance to the Shaolin Temple resembled that of a theme park or major tourist attraction (which it was). After passing through a massive stone paifang (Chinese arched gate), I entered a large open area with neatly arranged trees and shrubs, stores and the ticket booth at the side. After I bought a ticket, I was approached by a freelance guide, one of several who were standing together. They seemed official but I wasn’t in the mood to hire one. I can come guide you and we’ll discuss the price at the end, she extorted me. I declined and walked away while she insisted that I wouldn’t be able to understand and appreciate the sights by myself inside.
Inside, a main walkway runs through the complex, with temples, quarters, performance halls, training fields, and other sacred sites located on either side. The Shaolin Temple had been established in 495 AD, and since then had housed monks who developed their famous martial arts and actually fought for the emperor at times. The temple has a complex history though; movies I saw often had them fighting imperial forces.
The place was actually pleasant, being nestled within a mountain range with the historic Mt. Song on one side, and forest on the other. I saw a field where several young monks were training with weapons, in blue training robes and yellow sashes. Walking closer, I saw even younger monks, no older than 10, doing running back flips over and over. They were bareback and boasted muscular chests and stomachs.
I passed the Wushu Training Center, a large training complex, where martial art shows were held regularly, but decided to continue since I didn’t want to waste time waiting for the next show. As I’d wasted over 3 hours getting here, it was already past 2 when I had arrived. I walked along a tree-lined part of the path until I reached the actual Shaolin Temple. There was a small entrance pavilion, which led to a courtyard with giant stone steles inscribed with messages and history. One stele had a poem written by Emperor Qianlong which he wrote when he stayed at the temple in 1750. A temple was in the center surrounded by pavilions at the side. Behind this temple was another one and then another one. I’d seen this pattern at other temples such as at Putuoshan in Zhoushan. This temple was a reconstruction from the early 20th century, due to a warlord having destroyed the previous temple. There were a lot of tourists and monks served as ticket collectors, souvenir sellers, and restaurant staff. This was a clear demonstration of the temple’s commercialism and it was a little sad to think the temple’s main goal was to service tourists. I’d also read that after being sacked by rebel forces near the end of the Ming Dynasty, the temple’s monks were effectively shattered as a fighting force. No longer would they go and fight battles anymore.

I continued to walk on and soon reached the Stone Forest. Over 200 giant stone monuments lay within an area at the foot of a hill, fenced off so you couldn’t walk amongst them. Each stone tower commemorates a Shanghai monk. These stone monuments are in the shape of pagodas topped by several layers, which represent the achievements of prominent Shaolin monks they were built for.
Walking further along, I saw paths leading to sites like the Dharma Cave where a monk was said to have meditated for 9 years and attained the ultimate spirit stage. In the distance on the left, Mt Song loomed ahead, itself a holy place with several significant religious sites. It even had a cable car, which many attractions in China including Huashan and even Putuoshan have. Mt. Song was also one of China’s Five Great Mountains, making it a counterpart of Huashan and Taishan. Unfortunately I was pressed for time and had no time to go on it. I didn’t even have time to visit the Dharma Cave since I went on the path, and after about 15 minutes, asked people coming back how much longer, was told “just one hour!” I had no choice but to walk back, since it was past four and I had no desire to be wandering about in Dengfeng in the evening trying to make my way back to Luoyang.

I wasn’t too pleased by the commercialism of the Shaolin Temple, which I’d read about before. Yet I have to say, the place is actually very pleasant. The entire site is quite large and green, and the sites are spread out. The stone forest was about 15 minutes from the temple, and the temple was about 20 minutes from the entrance. The fact that the Dharma Cave was ove an hour off the main pathway shows how big the place it. The entire Shaolin Temple lay in a valley next to some hills with Mt. Song on the other side. The Shaolin Temple was actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site, together with the temples, ancient academies, and an observatory on nearby Mt. Song. I’d read that together these Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian sites meant that many centuries ago, Dengfeng was one of the most important spiritual centers of China, being poetically known as the center of heaven and earth. Now, unfortunately, it was just a nondescript, out-of-the-way town whose glory days had long passed by.
I was keenly aware of how many tourists there were, with most of them in tour groups. I saw a few monks hanging around, but couldn’t find a valid reason to talk to them. When I passed by a barracks building, I saw some young monks training in the courtyard. They were mostly youngsters, possibly less than 8, all training hard doing running somersaults and flips. One small guy was bareback and he had stronger abs than me. As I’m writing this, I suddenly thought of the Jedi order in Star Wars, and the younglings, who were adopted by the order as kids and spent their whole lives training to become Jedi. It’s a little similar with the Shaolin monks, I thought. Of course, one big difference is that the Shaolin temple doesn’t go around recruiting kids, as usually, parents bring their children to the temple and let them grow up there to train to be kungfu experts.

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I then came upon an incredible sight. As I walked toward the direction of the entrance, I kept hearing what sounded like muffled fireworks in the distance. It wasn’t fireworks, but the sound of a multitude of fists and feet striking on pads. On a vast field, hundreds of teenage trainees were practicing. These teenagers covered the entire ground, practicing in groups of a few dozen each. I was transfixed as it was impressive. This was when I really felt like I was in China, looking at something that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else in the world.
In the group nearest me, I saw a guy get singled out repeatedly for not doing a kick properly before the trainer told everyone to stop, then walked up to him and demonstrated the right way. I walked around the edge of the field, across to the other side where one group was practicing with weapons and another was doing flying front kicks. There was even one group of little kids, who were even younger than the 8-year-olds I’d seen earlier. Some of these kids looked like they were five! DSC03693

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I watched these students for a while, before I encountered a couple from Zhejiang who I’d met while entering the Shaolin Temple. They were on their way out and I decided to follow, since it was almost five and time to leave. For some reason, I couldn’t quite get where they were heading to, as when I asked if they were going to Luoyang like me, they said something weird like sure they could go to Luoyang, but they weren’t staying there. They got onto a bus that was full so I got onto another one, and got back to Dengfeng with no problem. I bought a ticket for the bus to Luoyang that was leaving in half an hour, so I waited around in the bus depot. I thought about going outside to take a stroll, but the streets weren’t exactly appealing nor did I want to miss the bus. The bus actually came early by 10 minutes, vindicating my decision to stay inside. I got into the minibus, sat on a foldout aisle seat, and soon we were off for Luoyang.
I wish I could say that that was it for the day and there would be no more mishaps. Unfortunately when the bus reached Luoyang and drove up Longmen Avenue, I missed the hostel, and had to get off somewhere uptown. I had no idea where I was and couldn’t establish exactly in which direction Longmen Avenue was, but after some walking (there was a nice-looking park and fancy hotels but I was in no mood for sightseeing) and talking to a few helpful old folks, I got a taxi and reached my hostel. The hostel boss lady took pity on me as it was too late (by Luoyang standards) to get dinner outside, and she actually cooked me dinner – scrambled eggs, vegetables, and Henan-style congee (less flavorful than Cantonese congee) which I washed down with a bottle of Tsingtao (this I bought).
I still feel annoyed when I remember my transportation problems on that day, but I also regret not being able to see more of the Shaolin Temple, not to mention missing out on an actual performance. I would still like to go back, and I recommend the Shaolin Temple if you ever find yourself in Henan. The place has been really touched up for tourists and the original monasteric atmosphere has been long lost, but there is still a lot of historical and interesting sights. Just make sure about the transportation and everything should be alright.

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The last sight I saw leaving the Shaolin Temple.

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