Highlights of the 2009 China Trip : Guilin, Xian, Hua Shan, Mount Wudang and Beijing
Glimpses of the Tour
Fourteen students toured China with me and we had a ball. China is a blend of the new and the old. The new is moving in quickly – architecture on a scale we could hardly imagine here in Australia – highways through mountain ranges circling their cities. The old is still visible in cities such as Xian and Beijing. In the mountainous regions of Wudang, birthplace of Tai Chi, the magic of ancient China still reigns supreme. We trained with the Wudang Taoists for a few mornings in the Purple Cloud Temple. A surreal experience – no one wanted to leave the enchanted Wudang Shan.
In Beijing, we trained with Grandmaster Feng Zhi Qiang, founder of the Hun Yuan system and his most accomplished disciple, Chen Xiang. They embody the principles of relaxation and hidden strength, the hallmark of Tai Chi. Grandmaster Feng, in his eighties, is full of vigour. He had us all laughing and dancing.
We had a fantastic time travelling up the river Li from Guilin to Yang Shuo. We saw beautiful mountains and caves. Banquets, full of fascinating dishes, awaited us everywhere. We enjoyed incredible shows – Tang Dynasty dancing and singing in Xian, and a thrilling kung fu spectacular in the legend of Chun Yi in Beijing. In Yang Shuo, we watched in awe as around 600 performers re-enacted the stories of local culture on the river, under a most amazing light show.
The group energy was positive and fun. Many say that they can’t wait for the next trip. As our trusted Chinese tour guide, Vincent, would say in his own way, “LES GO!”
Tao, the Big Picture
The more you study Tai Chi or internal martial arts, the more you discover the rich history and philosophy behind these arts. While we were in China, we had the opportunity to train with the current Head Coach, Master Guan and his assistant, Miss Pan of the Wudang Taoist Maritial Arts Institute at the Purple Cloud Palace on Wudang Shan. Not only did they teach us Qigong and Tai Chi, they also gave us an appreciation of the ancient wisdom of the Tao (the Way).
Photo taken with Master Guan & Instructor Pan,
Wudang Taoist Kung Fu Academy, Purple Cloud Palace
Taoists believe in following what is natural and value living in harmony with oneself, others and nature. They begin this process by learning to quiet the mind and heart. This stage is often described as fasting the heart and mind. For a truly dedicated Taoist, this means leaving the mundane world of material things and choosing a natural life, unfettered by fame and fortune. Wudang Shan is a place perfect for this kind of lifestyle.
Learning to make peace with oneself begins by training the mind, body and spirit to harmonise and unite. Disciplines, such as Tai Chi, Xing Yi, Ba Gua and other forms of cultivation, are used to transform our habitual tendencies into a more refined awareness. An unruly mind and heart can never be at peace. Master Guan talked about being able to see beyond what most people see. Many of us perceive only the surface, not the depth. He said that once he had been meditating in the forest behind the temple. When he opened his eyes and looked at the tree, he felt he was the tree. The ego was dissolved. He was energised and could feel power moving through his body. This is known as harmonising with nature. Most of us only experience the world out there as a concept. The Taoists feel the world as themselves.
Incense Burners at Nan Yan Palace,
Master Guan and Instructor Pan talked about the importance of purifying and strengthening the internal organs during the initial stages of training. According to traditional Chinese medicine, the organs influence our emotions as well as performing their regular functions. With liver problems, we become short tempered, kidney problems lead to fear and lung problems bring sadness. Feelings of fear or anger will also weaken the function of these organs – a vicious cycle.
The 8 Section Brocade and the 5 Animal Forms are specific Qigong practices for rebalancing and strengthening the organs. The Taoists have a healthy respect towards the body and understand that the state of our physical body greatly influences our mental, emotional and spiritual well being. Taoist philosophy speaks of a state called wu wei (not doing). The sage does nothing and yet everything is done. On one level, this means that as we grow, we become more skilful and we accomplish things with less effort. The knowing of wu wei comes from deep meditative experience. It is difficult for our normal state of mind to comprehend such effortlessness. Our everyday mind is full of contradictions, easily distracted and addictive. It is always chasing for pleasure or satisfaction. It is not at peace and it has problems going deep. People who have gone beyond the everyday mind experience the world and themselves as one. The separation between the outer and inner, subject and object, are dissolved.
I visited the Bee Taoist who lives with thousands of bees in a cave on Wudang Shan. He looks happy and content. He states that as soon as we discriminate, we divide everything and become confused. This is big, this is small, this is good, this is bad ……… In wu wei, we leave things as they are. Too much interference and controlling causes all sorts of problems. When someone insults you, there is nothing that you need to do. Don’t retaliate. Accept it as a gift if you wish. His anger and pain can strengthen your virtue.
Taoism is a rich culture, encompassing everything from art to philosophy. It teaches us to respect ourselves, others and nature. By following the Tao, we will experience happiness and harmony in life.
– Chief Instructor Brett Wagland
One of many highlights was spectacular Hua Shan in Shaanxi province, one of Taoism’s five sacred mountains in China. It literally blew me away. After a lengthy bus trip from Xian, an exhilarating cable-car ride from the terminus at the eastern base of the mountain swept up through a narrow, steep and rugged valley to the mountain’s North Peak. From here we joined for a few hours a host of other enthusiastic climbers in a strenuous and exciting exploration of part of this amazing mountain. It is not for the faint-hearted with narrow steps carved out of the granite mountain, near-vertical stairways with steep drops and only large chain links to provide support. And I did not attempt the truly difficult climbs. Coupled with the stunning views, the energy of this place was palpable.
The four full days spent at Wudang Shan in northwest Hubei province provided time to become immersed just a little in this ancient spiritual and cultural place. Green-cloaked and often misty, Wudang Shan is very beautiful and studded with magnificent palaces and temples dating from the Tang Dynasty through to the Qing Dynasty. We explored several of these sites with serious camera intent, coming away laden with gigabits of data and awed by the magnificent buildings and pervasive sacred aura. Just five minutes walk from our hotel was the splendid Purple Cloud Palace and it was here each morning that Master Guan from the Wudang Taoist Kung Fu Academy guided us through our training sessions. For me these sessions were the highlight of the trip. What could be better than training with a master practitioner in such surroundings? Students come from around the world to train at this Academy and it was fascinating to watch people of all ages work through their training regimes.
Tai Chi training in Beijing with Grandmaster Feng and his senior disciple Master Chen was inspiring and instructional. There was a sense of touching base, being at the source of our Huan Yuan practice. During sessions with Master Chen in the extensive grounds of the Temple of Heaven Park, he spoke in great detail about qi and guided us through a range of movements to emphasis what he was explaining. We met with Grandmaster Feng at the Temple of Earth Park and it was enriching and entertaining to benefit from his warmth and deep knowledge and to be guided a bit further along the path.
Of the several entertainment events that we attended, the night of the fabulous dumpling dinner and song and dance show in Xian was tourism at its elaborate best. We were seated at tables at the front of the ornate Shaanxi Grand Opera House. The banquet consisted of an amazing array of 18 different types of dumplings. The show was spectacular with elaborate costumes, music and dance routines from the Tang Dynasty era.
Climbing Up Hua Shan
I was again amazed at the diversity and complexity of this ancient nation and the dynamism of change it was undergoing. It was a kaleidoscope of old and new and in the process of rapid change. We navigated through huge airports only recently enlarged and upgraded and wandered through centuries old pagodas and temples. We drove and walked through old densely populated city areas and city-block upon city-block of high-rise apartments and spectacular shopping centres. Our journey took us along narrow country roads through intensively farmed fertile valleys and upland pockets of subsistence agriculture and had us hurtling along new expressways that made no concession to topography or land-use: spearing through hills and mountains, soaring over bridged valleys and rivers, absorbing farmland and moving farms and villages aside.
I found it interesting that the sense of “a place removed” was much the same in the temples and palaces of Wudang Shan as in those in Beijing, except perhaps for the differences that the greater number of people made. The over-riding impressions that I brought away from China were of the size of this country, the sheer number and diversity of its people and some awareness of the immense task required to keep a nation of this size and complexity functioning and growing at such a dynamic rate.
We met our guide, Vincent Wu, at Guangzhou airport, followed by a domestic flight to Guilin. This gave us our first introduction to the security screening in China and was followed by repeated further screening during our stay to get into parks and other attractions in various areas. Our arrival at our hotel in Guilin was very late in the day. The next day we started our travels, and for those who were not on the trip, you missed quite a trip! The rate of progress in China was astounding – new buildings and roads everywhere (and not just two lanes per carriageway – there were three or four). Work seemed to proceed through much of the night by floodlight. In the cities, bicycles seem to be fast disappearing, replaced by electric motor scooters or cars.
Qigong and Tai Chi practice for two hours each morning was followed by tours. It is almost impossible to pick any particular highlight in the trip – each had its own character that made our trip a very diverse and rewarding experience under the able guidance of Vincent and, on occasion, his delegates. The outstanding Reed Flute Cave at Guilin (one of the finest caves we’ve seen anywhere in the world so far); the impressive old-fashioned-beehive shaped limestone mountains that we saw on the river trip from Guilin to Yang Shuo; the terracotta warriors assembled in battle formations; Mt Hua Shan and the incredibly steep-sided mountains that the early dynasties had scaled, created steps to the top, and assembled large buildings on the top (yes, we climbed to the top – and what views!); Wudang and the beautiful scenery and ancient temples – and the opportunity to practise Tai Chi with a master in the delightful setting of the Purple Cloud Palace. Our trip to the Golden Hall at the Summit was noteworthy for the cable car ascent – one of the longest and steepest we have encountered in our travels. From the top, part of the group elected to walk down the other side of the mountain to reach the bus from the Nan Yan Palace to our hotel. Two hours later we reached the bus terminus 5 minutes before the last bus left! John’s pedometre recorded in the region of 9000 steps and that was mainly down (but a few up especially on the final stretch to the bus!) – real steps, not paces.
Marble Boat (36 metres long), Summer Palace, Beijing
Finally, it was on to Beijing, complete with infamous smog for the first two days, including on our late afternoon trip to the Great Wall. The guard towers only 400 metres away were very misty images. October 1st was the 60th anniversary of the communists coming to power, so it was a public holiday and the day dawned fine, clear and sunny. We could see right across the city and out to the mountains from our hotel window, instead of seeing faint images a little more than one block away. The days provided a good balance of morning practice with one of two Tai Chi masters, one a sprightly 82 years old, followed by tours of the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Ming tombs and other locations. The visits to the markets were quite an experience, with aggressive sellers and ridiculously high asking prices, but one soon became adept at bargaining prices to saner levels and some good buys could be made, although one had to watch out for the quality of some goods.
You can understand we find it impossible to try and pick out any one point as the highlight. Everyone’s digital camera seemed to be working overtime throughout the trip. We were fortunate too to have a group that interacted well together. Thanks to Vincent Wu, Fontane and Brett for organizing a thoroughly enjoyable trip.
This year’s trip to China started with some minor problems at Canberra Airport with the e-tickets, which were given to everyone. The China Southern Air printout was almost unintelligible to the Qantas counter staff because of its format, however the separate itinerary sufficed to sort out the problems. Most people had their bags checked through to Guangzhou, but some to Guilin. The entry port for immigration and customs was Guangzhou, so luggage would have to be collected there whatever the luggage tags indicated. At Guangzhou, we went through immigration very quickly and met Brett and Vincent Wu our guide. As usual, Vincent took control of the group and organised boarding passes for our domestic flight to Guilin. The flight to Guilin took just over one hour and we arrived at 10.pm local time (midnight Canberra time). It was another two hours before we were all settled into our hotel rooms, making a very long day after a 5.30am start.
Grottos from The Thousand Buddha Cave
at the foot of Fu Bo Hill (Wave Subduing Hill)
From the main entrance of our hotel, the Hotel Universal Guilin, you could see the Li River and one of its bridges. Early in the morning, several groups of people could be seen practising various forms of Tai Chi along the river promenade. Other groups were ballroom dancing to music, which seemed somewhat incongruous with the gentle dreamy music used by the Tai Chi groups. After a longish breakfast, with some trepidation we crossed the four-lane road between the hotel and the river promenade and found a relatively quiet spot next to the river to practise Tai Chi.
Only 800 metres from our hotel, there is a limestone pillar, Fu Bo Hill, which has caves through it with Buddhist grottos inside them. The climb to the top of the hill in the hot humid conditions was well worth the effort. Views of the surreal landscape of this heavily weathered karst region encompassed many magic limestone hills surrounding Guilin. These hills have been the subject of many Chinese artists for thousands of years.
This region abounds in caves and after lunch we visited another cave, the Reed Flute Cave, which was very different to the small grottos of Fu Bo. The main entrance chamber was 30 to 40 metres high and most of the walls and ceiling were extensively decorated with secondary limestone deposits such as stalagmites, stalactites, shawls and flowstone. There was an underground stream, which had many rim stone pools. The various decorations were illuminated with coloured lights and during our trip through the cave, we were treated to a sound and light show in a chamber, which had a large shallow pool in it.
On our second day in China we had an early morning wake up call (6.15). We had to clear the luggage from our room and pack a small amount of gear for an over night stay in Yang Shuo. We took a bus to Zhujiang Wharf and boarded a boat for a cruise down the river Li to the tourist town of Yang Shuo. The cruise included lunch and space in the cabin was very restricted, there certainly wasn’t room for our travelling bags.
The river wound its way though a maze of limestone pinnacles of all shapes and sizes. The light rain and mist at the start of the trip did not detract from the magic of the area and made it all the more mysterious. We passed several small villages and saw many caves during the trip. River hawkers on very slight bamboo rafts, which consisted of four long bamboo poles lashed together, managed to catch up with our boat and tie up alongside. With one hand hanging on to the rail of the boat they would offer various pieces of merchandise to the passengers. After just over two hours, we arrived at Yang Shuo and walked from the ferry terminal into town to our hotel. This area is very touristy and numerous street hawkers eagerly followed our group hoping to sell their wares.
From our seventh floor room in the hotel, we could look across to a limestone pinnacle in the middle of town, which had a small temple on its summit. Quite amazing. During the afternoon, we took an electric car for a trip through the countryside where we visited an old farmhouse and then to Moon Hill, a natural arch shaped like a half moon on a limestone ridge. We passed fields of rice and several water buffalo during the trip.
Sanjie Liu Show on the River, Yang Shou
In the evening, the group went to the sound and light spectacular Sanjie Liu show without knowing what to expect. The show was indeed spectacular, set in amongst limestone pinnacles with a cast of hundreds of Zhuang people whose folk music, customs and singing were featured in the show.
After breakfast the following morning, we walked to a shady park in the center of town adjacent to the limestone pinnacle, which we had seen from our hotel room, to practise Tai Chi. A bus took us back to Guilin where we collected our luggage for the next leg of our trip, a flight to Xian. The few days we had spent in this region of China was well worth the effort, as I had never seen anything quite so spectacular in all of my trips to China.
I really enjoyed this year’s trip to China. The initial heat and humidity in Guilin was a shock to the system, but the great scenery and good company made up for the weather. Guilin was an interesting place, caught between the old and the new. Fu Bo Hill provided a great panoramic view of the city.
The Reed Flute Cave was spectacular. The massive, water-eroded cave structure seemed to go on forever. Cleverly positioned internal lighting really showed the depth of the various stalactites, stone pillars and rock formations created by carbonate deposition. It was also a welcome relief from the heat.
Reed Flute Cave, Guilin
The Li River cruise provided us with breathtaking scenery, and a glimpse into the peasant life on the river. Fishermen with cormorants, water buffalo grazing, flocks of ducks, caves, small villages and river-side stalls provided many photo opportunities. The boat, more of a ferry, was really comfortable with multiple levels for taking photos or video, or just taking it all in.
We didn’t spend much time in Yang Shuo, but it seemed like a very modern city built for tourism. We tried some beer battered carp for dinner there, some wished we hadn’t.
Xian was awesome. The Terracotta Warriors and the dig site itself were a sight to behold. The sheer scale of the dig site and the restoration effort need to be seen to be believed. Hua Shan was breathtaking. The cable car ride up saved us over 8 hours walking and really highlighted the sheer cliffs and rock faces that surround the peaks. We also visited the Banpo Museum to see one of the world’s oldest neolithic villages.
The trip highlight for me was the time spent at Mount Wudang. The weather and food were both a challenge, but the morning spent training with the Taoist master and instructor was more than worth it. We learnt a Crane Qigong and a good portion of their Wudang Tai Chi 28 form, as well as many warm-up and stretching exercises. Training in the actual Purple Cloud Temple courtyard was a privilege.
Chun Yang Palace, Mount Wudang
We also visited the Golden Hall on the top of the Tian Zhu Peak. We had another adventurous cable car ride up, followed by some steps which were not designed for human legs.
The training in Beijing was excellent. We had multiple training sessions with Grandmaster Feng Zhi Qiang and his senior disciple, Chen Xiang. The knowledge and experience gained was priceless.
Having been on a number of China trips with the Academy, I found that this one was by far the most enjoyable. We battled some tough weather conditions, lengthy travel delays and long bus trips, but it was all worth it!
One could probably be forgiven for thinking that we had stepped out of our hotel and into a hot bath on our first morning in Guilin. With a temperature of 36 degrees, and humidity in the high 90’s, Canberra’s cool weather seemed inviting. The exertion of early morning Tai Chi under trees by the River Li, necessitated drinking copious amounts of water, and a change of clothes back at our hotel, before continuing with our sightseeing.
We visited Fu Bo Shan (Wave Subduing Hill) and explored the caves beneath, which contain many rock carvings and Buddha statues dating from the Song and Tan dynasties. Outside, the climb of 300 odd steps to the peak was testing in the heat, but the views from the top were worth the effort.
The city of Guilin on the River Li which was laid out before us was built around fantastically shaped karst mountains which dot the landscape. Many looked to have been dropped randomly amongst the city buildings.
Following a delicious lunch, we boarded the bus again to see Reed Flute Cave. The underground passages here seemed to go on forever, past amazing stalactite and stalagmite formations and rock pools, all illuminated with multicoloured lights. We reached the central cave, an enormous grotto (named the “Crystal Palace of the Dragon King”), capable of holding 1000 people, in time for a sound and light show like no other. It was complete with bubble blowing machines and rows of lights in the paved floor pulsating to the music, all complimented by the coloured lighting around the walls and ceiling of this huge space. You HAD to be there!
After negotiating the damp and sometimes slippery passages and steps to the exit, we were off to Elephant Trunk Hill. This, as its name suggests, resembles an elephant dipping its trunk into the water. However, with the river level low at the time, the full effect was somewhat lost.
The next morning, we awoke to heavy rain and practised Tai Chi in the hotel lobby, grateful for the cooler weather. Having packed for an overnight stay, we boarded a ferry at Zhu Jiang Dock for our cruise south to Yang Shao. In misty rain, we passed mile upon mile of karst mountains, rising on both sides of the river, above swathes of phoenix tail bamboo growing along the banks. When the rain finally abated, we spent time on the decks photographing stunning scenery, occasional villages, local vendors on bamboo rafts and other ferries in our fleet of about eight. Lunch was served on board in rather cramped conditions, but as we spent most of the time on the decks, this mattered little.
We reached Yang Shao at about 2pm and walked through streets lined with market stalls, restaurants and hotels, absolutely packed with tourists, to our own hotel. An electric car ride around the local countryside was a pleasant escape from the crowds and we were taken to a nearby village, a riverside restaurant with water wheel and Moon Hill.
I am always amazed at the variety of shows the Chinese people produce for entertainment. With a huge population and the rich culture of over 50 minority groups to draw from, the shows are many and diverse. This trip was no exception. In Yang Shao, on a lake in the Li River, we were treated to “Impression Sanjie Liu”, a spectacular musical show directed by movie maker Zhang Yimou of Beijing Olympics fame, with a cast of 600 (including local fishermen), mainly Miao and Dong groups. The various musical items occurred both on water (using moveable floating stages and watercraft), and on the banks of the river. Lighting was a feature of the show, from the lights on the performers’ costumes and the flaming torches they carried, to the illumination of the lake itself and the surrounding 12 karst mountains. Magic!
In the morning, after Tai Chi in the park near the hotel, we returned to Guilin by bus and, that evening, on to Xian where the temperature was a pleasant 19 degrees when the plane touched down. The hotel gardens offered a pretty spot for our morning Tai Chi, after which we left for a 2 hour drive to Hua Shan – the five peaks of which form one of China’s most sacred Taoist mountain areas.
On arrival, we were each issued with a pair of white cotton gloves to use when gripping the rusty chains along the steep climbing paths. The cable car ride up to North Peak took about 10 minutes and gave us breathtaking views of the granite mountains and steep gorges. A few of us climbed only to the top of North Peak – the more intrepid of our group climbed the South Peak as well, including some extremely steep sections which took longer to complete.
A 10 km bus trip the next morning took us to Banpo Neolithic Village. Discovered in 1953, it is believed to have been inhabited between 4500BC and 3750BC, and contains excavated residential, pottery making and cemetery areas, all now enclosed in a large hall. It was fascinating to read of the customs of such an ancient civilisation and to see how the village was structured.
Refuelled by lunch, we continued eastwards to the Terracotta Warriors. On the way, we visited a factory which makes replica warriors (and demonstrates how the originals were made) and produces beautiful polished lacquer-ware.
The complex built around the terracotta army covers a vast area, even though it includes only a part of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di’s grand 2,000 year old tomb. The soldiers are contained in 3 enormous pits (all now enclosed in huge modern buildings), the first and largest, discovered in 1974, holding 6000 figures. Excavation and reassembling work is ongoing and is expected to continue for decades as new discoveries continue to be made. The site museum displays many excavated figures and treasures including two sets of bronze half-scale chariots and horses.
In Xian, we also visited Dan Yan Ta (the Great Wild Goose Pagoda). We explored the halls and gardens of the temple complex, which is now much smaller than the original 13 courtyards and 300 rooms. The pagoda itself is an impressive seven storey building which once housed the Buddhist scriptures brought to China from India by the monk Xuan Zang of “Journey to the West” fame.
Time then for the second fantastic show of the tour, at the Shaanxi Grand Opera House, where we enjoyed a Tang Dynasty dumpling dinner and show in the theatre restaurant. The talented musicians and dancers wore beautiful costumes and the dumplings were soooo delicious and very filling – intricately folded to represent the filling contained within (e.g. fish, ducks, walnuts etc). They were quite dainty but when you’re trying 15 different kinds in one sitting, they definitely don’t need to be larger. YUM!
Before returning to the hotel, we paid a brief visit to an area beside Xian’s still existing inner city wall, where the local people gather at night to have some fun with music and dancing. Red lights along the wall helped make a festive atmosphere and some of our group joined in, quickly picking up the dance steps to the amusement of the Chinese.
We were on the bus by 8.30 the next morning for a day long journey to Mount Wudang. Dinner at the hotel when we arrived at 6.00 pm was delicious – as were all the meals at Mount Wudang. It rained overnight and most of the next day, though not enough to curtail our activities. We were at the Wudang Taoist Kung Fu Academy early in the morning to meet Master Guan Yong Xing and Instructor Pan for some Tai Chi lessons. It was a privilege to watch these elegant and flexible instructors and to learn from them some stretching exercises, Qigong and part of the Wudang Tai Chi form.
On the walk to Nan Yan Palace in light rain, it was interesting to note the changes since I was last there. Crumbling pavilions have been restored and painted. At the top of the main courtyard in the palace, a whole new building has appeared where there was previously nothing but a small shrine. This rebuilt hall, I guess a copy of the original, looks as if it’s been there for many years.
Though visibility was a little limited because of the weather, the mountains looked fantastic with low misty clouds drifting around them. By that night, the rain had cleared, leaving a beautiful peaceful and still evening – just right for some after dinner Tai Chi in the hotel courtyard.
Master Guan and Instructor Pan joined us again in the morning for more instruction – this time at the Purple Cloud Palace, a few minutes walk from the hotel. This impressive temple was a great place to practise Tai Chi and the courtyard was also used by other martial arts enthusiasts receiving instruction from masters and assistants. The afternoon involved a ride, by bus and then by cable car, to the Golden Hall on Tian Zhu Peak, the highest point of Mount Wudang. The cable car ride rose hundreds of metres, almost vertically at times, and over very steep gorges in tiny cabins for two. A bit scary but great views and much quicker than climbing up.
We disembarked near Tai He Palace, walked up through the various halls and finally up the last steep steps to the top and the Golden Hall. This building, though not huge, is very significant to the Taoists. It was built in 1416AD of gilded bronze and contains a statue of Emperor Zhen Wu, who became a Taoist deity.
The views from the summit are huge. However, we didn’t have long for photographs as the journey down again was to take over 2 hours. Those of us who walked down almost had the mountain to ourselves. The path, mostly of steps, wound down through lush vegetation and was a peaceful and enjoyable way to spend the afternoon. When we had finished the descent, I was congratulating myself on having negotiated the 9000 steps (according to John’s pedometer) without too much stress on the knees, when I discovered a new form of torture. The final 200 steps were up again – NOT FUN!!! We stragglers at the back finally managed (with Vincent’s encouragement and more than a few stops) to make it to the car park and the last bus back to our hotel.
Our last full day on Mount Wudang began with Master Guan and Instructor Pan and more Tai Chi at the Purple Cloud Palace. This was followed by visits to the temples at Prince Slope and Needle Polishing Well after lunch. We were able to explore much more of the grounds of the Prince Slope than I had done previously, which was great as it’s such a photogenic spot. One of the halls now houses a traditional tea room and shop which doesn’t strictly belong – but we made good use of it nonetheless. Master Guan joined us briefly for some final instruction in the morning outside the Academy. We were reluctant to say goodbye to Mount Wudang and the people we’d met and wished we could’ve spent more time there. But, after last minute shopping and packing we were off down the mountain, with Beijing the next destination.
For those of us who had seen the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City on previous visits to China, alternative sightseeing had been arranged whilst we were in Beijing. The first morning in the capital was hazy and very polluted, which worsened as the day progressed. Seven of us (including Vincent) set out in a minibus for the Fragrant Hills Park. Unlike the city and major tourist areas, inside the park was calm and quiet with relatively few people. We climbed the slopes to Azure Cloud Temple (Biyun Si), passing through many halls and arched gates on the way. The huge, old trees and surrounding gardens made the steep climb an enjoyable one, and near the top we reached Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall. Inside are displayed pictures, documents and other memorabilia from the republican leader’s life.
The final buildings behind this hall are the Diamond Throne Pagoda and the Hall of Arhats. Sun Yat Sen’s body was briefly stored in the former in 1925, before being taken to Nanjing. Although it was hazy, we had amazing views of the park and nearby mountains from the roof. The Hall of Arhats holds 500 statues of the Luohan (Buddha’s disciples who have realised the true nature of existence) lining both sides of the corridors inside – a rather intimidating sight. On our way out of the park, we passed gardens ablaze with flowers, mostly chrysanthemums – many as large as dinner plates – and some huge intricate living pant sculptures.
Walking in the streets outside the park, we came across an attractive little “Italian” restaurant named Oudici Bar, and decided to have lunch there. Minestrone soup (Chinese style) and pizza were a fun change and pronounced very good by all.
A couples of kilometres away, we entered the Botanical Gardens and were met with more beautiful garden beds consisting of ribbons of colour (Floriade style) by the paths and through the trees. There were more living plant sculptures, including a particularly striking dragon rising several metres in the air, and more large chrysanthemums. We strolled through the peaceful surroundings to Wofo Hall to see China’s largest reclining Buddha. Reclining is definitely the way to be if you’re 5.3 meters long and weigh 54 tons. We passed the huge modern conservatory, opposite which was a comprehensive display of many different kinds of bonsai trees.
Rain fell overnight and National Day dawned with cloudless blue skies – the bluest I’ve ever seen in Beijing!. The government had announced in China Daily that if adverse weather conditions threatened the 60th anniversary of the National Day of the People’s Republic parade, something would be done. Having “18 converted transport planes and 48 fog clearing vehicles with more than 260 soldiers to attend to weather control measures” on hand, they were definitely prepared. The planes were to “sprinkle environment-friendly catalysts to eliminate clouds” and whether this actually occurred or not, I have no idea. Certainly there was a vast improvement in the weather (which lasted for days) – visibility was good and breathing much easier.
Many of the minor roads had been closed in preparation for the anniversary parade and policemen, guards and barricades were evident everywhere. We walked to the Temple of Heaven Park where accompanied by cannon-fire from Tiananmen Square and the roar of planes overhead, we practised Tai Chi with Chen Xiang. He always gives us most insightful instruction and his Hun Yuan form is a pleasure to watch.
That night, in a private room on the 16th floor of our hotel, we enjoyed a wonderful four course buffet dinner, while watching (through windows) brilliant fireworks displays from Tiananmen Square and other points around Beijing. In between the fireworks, we watched the live entertainment from the Square on a large plasma screen in the room.
The third evening show of the tour was “The Legend of Kung Fu” performed at the Red Theatre. It told the story of Chun Yi from his initiation into the monastery as a boy, through all his training, suffering and achievements to finally attaining enlightenment and becoming the Abbot. The show encompassed martial arts, ballet, acrobatics and acts reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil.
During our stay in Beijing, Tai Chi with Chen Xiang in Sheng Long Park and with Grandmaster Feng Zhi Qiang in Ditan Park was, as usual, enjoyable and informative. Grandmaster Feng still retains his mischievous sense of humour. The Summer Palace, Lamasery and Hu Tong area were places I was pleased to revisit, despite the National Holiday crowds, and the Peking Duck and the Old Beijing Noodle House dinners are always tasty and fun.
Thanks to Brett, Fontane, Vincent our guide and all the group members for another wonderful experience.
This was my first trip to China and as I reflect on it more than a month down the track, I still find it impossible to narrow it down to one or two highlights.
The scenery, the food, the company of our group were all wonderful, but I am going to concentrate in my report on the cultural aspects of our trip. In planning the trip, Fontane and Brett made this a focus, and the theme, Journey to the Source, was appropriate.
We experienced culture in its broadest sense – the people and their customs, arts and craft, performances and the elaborately decorated temples and palaces – and of course the wonderful food.
Tang Dynasty Show, Xian
Every day was special and different, and our itinerary gave us an excellent mix of exercise (so many steps!), visiting the pick of the attractions in each place, shopping and time to sleep, write, shop or reflect. There were some culture shocks – the first was finding out the temperature was 36 degrees Celsius when we landed in Guangzhou on the first day. Fortunately it cooled down the next day and we were very lucky to have mild weather almost every day.
We saw some wonderful performances. The first was in Yang Shuo where more than 600 performers wowed us with a spectacular show on the water that was produced by famous Chinese director Zhang Yimou (he was responsible for the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympic Games). The open air theatre is surrounded by the distinctive hills that the region is famous for, and at one dramatic point the limestone mountains all around us were lit up in resplendent colour – it was an unforgettable experience.
We saw the Tang Dynasty show in Xian, featuring many traditional musical instruments. I was in awe at the music they could make – and the beautiful girls in their stunning costumes provided an insight into the richness of China’s cultural history. The third performance was the Kung Fu spectacular in Beijing and there was plenty to admire in the skills of the performers. All three performances were excellent and each provided different insights into this vast and incredibly diverse country.
Kung Fu spectacular in the legend of Chun Yi, Beijing
My other overwhelming impression was of the rich cultural and political history – it is on display everywhere, but particularly in the many temples and pagodas. And of course the scenery was a highlight – our long bus ride from Xian to Mount Wudang was an opportunity to see a bit of the countryside, and observe how technology is changing the traditional rural practices. There was so much construction everywhere we went – new buildings, new roads, tunnels through mountains – and so much traffic, especially huge trucks. There are tollways on many of the roads and and there were often delays at the toll gates. However, I was surprised by how clean and well-maintained everything is: there were gangs of workers on the roads (mostly women) and painting the guard rails seems to a never ending activity.
And then there was Mount Wudang – what a beautiful spiritual place, and the Terracotta Warriors near Xian, and the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City, the national day celebrations including amazing fireworks, the shopping and the beer!! I loved all of it, and I will definitely be signing up for another trip to revisit some favourite places and discover some more.
Thanks, Fontane and Brett for organising the trip of a lifetime.
Trying to define highlights of the recent China trip is surprisingly hard, because there were so many.
The visit to Wudang Shan was certainly a high point. Spectacular mountain scenery, palaces, temples, shops, Qigong and Tai Chi training each day with two of the Taoists. Awesome. I was so envious of the Aussie guy we met who had just arrived for a 12 month stay. A full year must be hard, but a shorter visit, say 6-8 weeks. Yes, please!!! Something to aim for in the future.
Grandmaster Feng Zhi Qiang (1928- ),
founder of Hun Yuan Tai Chi
Meeting and training with Grandmaster Feng and Chen Xiang in Beijing was equally fascinating. Watching them move through the form is a real eye opener and really challenges me to learn and develop further.
For pure scenery, the cruise along the Li river was hard to match, although many of the other locations were very beautiful too.
Crowds in Beijing around the national day were mind boggling. A reported 3 million people visited Tiananmen Square in one day, and I think most of them were there when our bus drove past in the morning. We Aussies really don’t know what a crowd is.
The entertainment – kung fu show, Tang dynasty show, water show, even a local performance in the park we were lucky enough to see one day.
Shopping in the Pearl Market and Silk Market was an experience, although the Silk Market sellers are way too aggressive for it to be pleasant. Having people trying to physically drag you into their stalls to sell you stuff isn’t the way I like to shop. The Pearl Market was much more pleasant.
Some of the unplanned experiences are also worth mentioning. Stephen being hassled to buy a flower from a young child one night (they really do start trying to extract money from rich Westerners at a young age), an electric car ride around Yang Shuo, nighttime entertainment in Xian (including some of the group dancing with the locals, then teaching them the Macarena), the buffet dinner at the hotel on the National Day (with fireworks in the distance), and too many other memories to recount.
When do we go again?
I have great difficulty choosing highlights as I thought the whole trip was a huge highlight. If I had to choose, I’d have to say the walk/climb up the fabulous sacred granite mountain ridges and peaks of Hua Shan was truly magical, and of course Wudang and particularly the Purple Cloud Palace. Being at the actual site of the Banpo Neolithic Village was amazing and fascinating and I could have spent more time there. The depth of human history and culture in China and the vigour and vitality of the country now as it is racing into an enormous industrialisation phase were hugely stimulating. I learned heaps from this trip. Thanks to everyone involved.