My Memories of our Recent trip to China (2013)
– Chief Instructor Brett Wagland
Sitting at home in the morning, after returning from a month long tour and training in China, has me reminiscing about the exhilarating and mind blowing experience that China is. However as the great Taoist philosopher, Lao Tzu said, “The Tao that can be expressed isn’t the real Tao.” So knowing the limits of language as a tool to express the inexpressible, I will endeavour to do my best.
Ten of us recently toured China with a special interest. We focused on the traditional Chinese culture, which includes Tai Chi, Qigong, Taoist wisdom, architecture and of course, food. The food element was amazing. The restaurant planning of our guide and co tour organiser, Vincent Wu, surpassed previous tours. We were calling it the Tai Chi foodie’s tour. Every meal was seemingly better than the last. We kept saying we couldn’t eat another meal! However, as soon as the food arrived, we were once again enjoying something different. Soon the dishes had vanished remarkably; we did it again.
Vincent, who manages the tour company we use, has been accompanying us on all of our tours since 2003. He has always been extremely reliable and and his expertise has improved with each tour. Our tours are special in so many ways. Firstly, the group is made up of students and others who have an interest in different aspects of traditional Chinese culture. Unlike some tour groups who go for the basic experience of China in terms of food and sightseeing, we offer a deeper and richer experience. We provide opportunities to train with various masters and visit sacred mountains and places not on the usual tourist route. Of course this costs a little more. However, I`m sure that those who have been on our tours will tell you that they are getting value for money. The fact that some students have travelled with us on our tours several times speaks for itself.
On the first leg of this tour, we visited Wu Zhen, Su Zhou, Hang Zhou and the picturesque Yellow Mountain. Wu Zhen gave us a glimpse into the past when life was lived at a different pace. With canals, classical Chinese bridges, traditional Chinese homes and temples, the charming scene of this water town inspires peace and harmony.
Travelling on the coach to the Yellow Mountain town also revealed a beautiful landscape of farms, villages and mountains. The colours and richness of the land is truly something to behold. We spent the night in lovely accommodation at the town before making our journey up the mountain the next morning. Once we entered the mountain zone, the transport was gas fuelled buses which minimise traffic and pollution. This was followed by an exhilarating chairlift ride up to the higher peaks. Yellow Mountain is famous for its scenery and we were not disappointed. We were fortunate to have clear skies which allowed us to view the mountain in all its splendour. We stayed overnight at one of the mountain’s resort hotels, a place where you could have spent a week. We heard that the former president of China, Hu Jin Tao, was staying at the same resort, although he had the presidential suite of course. Mountains have a certain magic about them and the Yellow Mountain was up there with the best of them. One of the highlights for me was practising Tai Chi on the mountain outside our hotel, breathing in the fresh clean air and being surrounded by mysterious peaks bathed by the setting sun. This moment has imprinted a surreal and lasting memory for me of Yellow Mountain.
Hang Zhou is built around the beautiful West Lake which is its focal point. Many stunning parks, dotted with restaurants and tea houses make this city the perfect tourist destination. Hang Zhou is famous for its tea, especially Long Jing (Dragon Well) – one of China’s best. We visited a tea plantation and were treated to a few cups of this liquid gold. Tea in China is an art and most provinces have a particular type of tea. Tea utensils are as important as the tea itself. The famous purple clay is often used to make teapots and cups, sometimes costing hundreds of dollars. Teapots and cups also come in many interesting designs. It takes time and a good teacher to educate your palate and mind to the subtleties of Chinese tea drinking.
Su Zhou is another water town made famous by its charming classical gardens and languid lifestyle, a place of the once rich and famous. Now it is surrounded by an impregnable wall of modern high-rise that goes on and on. However, in the middle of these mountainous structures rests the charming jewel of a time gone by. We were all taken in by its beauty and could only imagine what an amazing history had once unfolded in the canals and cobbled alleys of this enchanting town.
Taoist philosophy is at the heart of Chinese culture. Its 5,000 years of history make it a unique and influential force on everything that is classical China. Its architecture, art, medicine, food, warfare, meditation, martial arts and divination methods all have their roots in Taoist wisdom. Taoists have always had an affinity with nature and mountains in particular. Mountains are quiet and majestic places, allowing the Taoists solitude and inspiration on their quest for immortality or finding the true indestructible inner spirit. One of the bastions of Taoism is a mountain called Wudang. It is the birthplace of Tai Chi Chuan (Grand Ultimate Boxing). Legend says that Taoist immortal Chang San Feng witnessed a battle between a crane and a snake. He was inspired by this encounter and the Taoist philosophy of yin yang, wu xing (5 elements) and ba gua (8 trigrams) which eventually led to the creation of Tai Chi. The art of Tai Chi represents the pinnacle of harmony between the opposing and interconnected forces of yin and yang. In traditional Chinese medicine, balance is seen as an indicator of health. When the yin yang balance is disrupted, so is the body’s ability to heal itself.
On this trip, we spent four days on Mount Wudang which is truly a magical place. As soon as we arrived, we could feel the mountain’s embrace. It feels like being held by a loving mother. No wonder the Taoists chose this place for self cultivation. The system of gong fu (kung fu) taught in the mountains is called Nei Jia Chuan (Inner Family Boxing). It is said that many of the early Wudang Taoists had trained in many of the external martial systems of the day including the famous Shaolin style. After being exposed to Taoist philosophy and various meditative practices, they realised that in order to reach the pinnacle of their gong fu training, they needed to employ the Taoist inner work (nei gong) practices. This involved using meditation techniques in their training, making their movements slow and deliberate instead of just fast and powerful. By employing relaxed, coordinated training, they could connect with the internal experience of their bodies. This includes awareness of the organs, internal energy (qi) and the mind in terms of concentration and feeling.
Wudang Mountain is must for any Tai Chi or Chinese cultural enthusiast. Most people travel up by public buses. However, we were driven up in the hotel manager’s bus and treated like old friends by the manager. This was due to the fact that we have been coming to this area since 2003 and Vincent has become a close friend of the manager. The hotel is nestled on the side of the mountain, giving you the feeling of being gently held in its embrace. Wudang with its magnificent mountain views, the wild life, the phenomenal ancient buildings and the Taoist culture, is a magical place that everyone should experience.
Every morning, Master Jiang from the Wudang Taoist Kung Fu Academy came to our hotel and trained us on the landing, overlooking the misty valley with views of the famous three peaks close by. These were magical exchanges. Everyone was in awe of Master Jiang`s movements and gentle demeanour. We were learning the 5 Animal Set which is based on the principles of the 5 elements (wood, fire, earth, metal and water). Each relates to an internal organ; wood to the liver, fire to the heart, earth to the spleen-stomach, metal to the lungs and water to the kidneys. This Qigong set helps to balance each organ using a particular animal movement to stimulate the organ’s function. We all enjoyed the learning and the Wudang experience. Everyone lamented that we were not able to stay longer in this special place. (By the way, we are planning an extensive stay on Mount Wudang next year. Stay tuned for details.)
Our next stop was Xian, the ancient capital and the beginning of the Silk Route. We drove from Wudang to Xian and were treated to an amazing view of the many villages, farms, mountains, rivers and even old cave dwellings along the way. The scenery contained much history which gave us an awareness of the immensity and richness of China. This drive alone was worth the trip. In Xian, we visited the breathtaking entombed warriors and sampled the delicious dumplings while enjoying the Tang Dynasty Spectacular (a performance of song and dance of ancient times).
Beijing was the last stop and is always a favourite. Its imperial splendour is still evident in the old city. The Forbidden City, the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven are all reminders of a powerful and cultured past. A large part of our tour is not only seeing the great monuments but also meeting the people and experiencing the traditional culture. As well as visiting tourist China, we take you to the heart and soul of China, allowing you to experience its essence. Tai Chi is a portal into this world. We had a lovely 3 days’ training with Master Feng Xiu Qian, the daughter of Grandmaster Feng Zhi Qiang (founder of our Hun Yuan Tai Chi system). In our training sessions, Master Feng emphasized the importance of practising gong, the internal aspect of Tai Chi.
The Hun Yuan system is different from other systems in that the emphasis is placed on training the internal practices such as deep relaxation, qigong and chan si gong (silk reeling). These practices enable students to go deeper, allowing them to feel the internal activity which gradually drives the external movements. Grandmaster Feng was trained under both Hu Yao Zhen (an expert in qigong, Xin Yi and a famous Chinese medical practitioner) and the great Chen Fa Ke, (9th generation leader of the Chen family Tai Chi). Being privy to these unique training models influenced his later understanding of Tai Chi and the eventual development of the Hun Yuan system which has included an array of internal practices.
Some students described the tour as the best travel experience ever. With the combination of these factors (a group with a shared interest, the excellent translation and shepherd-like guidance of our national tour guide Vincent and the great organizational skills of Fontane), I can certainly echo these sentiments. I am looking forward to our next tour. Hope you can join us!