By Monday night, my time at the Wugulun Kung Fu school had come to an end. Two months there had flown by. I can’t emphasise enough how much of a good experience it was. What I learned about myself, understanding the benefits of the repetitive traditional kung fu training, discovering the fundamentals of mastering any martial art and meeting such an open and loving bunch of guys. Before I left, I bought some gifts to give out to the students – sweets for everyone and for the students in my group – a badminton set for the young ones and some bracelets for the senior ones. When it was announced at the dinner line-up that I’d be leaving the following morning, 30 sad-looking faces turned to face me followed by questions like “tomorrow?” and “you come back?”. It didn’t last too long (realising there were sweets up for grabs) and I had a precession follow me back to my room after to find the sweets. The most senior student had them all line up outside and each one stepped forward to take the sweets, thank me with a hug and fall back into line.
It was a far cry from the initial culture shock I felt when I landed at the school. It’s amazing how things change. How much will I miss it? I’m not sure – but time will tell.
After a two hour cab ride to Zhengzhou airport, I caught my flight to Beijing. Even at airport, I began to feel the changes moving from a small town like Dengfeng to a big city.
A small meal at the airport cost 8 TIMES as much as the local place I religiously got my “egg & tomato noodles” from in Dengfeng. It’s not that I couldn’t afford it, but I couldn’t help but think of the two families who slaved all day every day to earn an eighth of that and vehemently refuse any tip. I could feel the attitude of the people in the airport – you could sense the abruptness in their body language. Suddenly, social hierarchy was back in the picture – economy/business/first class tickets and pushing for queue positions (it’s not a problem when you’re anonymous and will never see the people you’re pushing in front of ever again). In the school, most people hadn’t even seen an iPhone before. Sitting at the departure gate I noticed that almost everyone SPECIFICALLY had iPhones AND laptops. An iMac shot by me on the conveyor belt at the baggage collection – just enough time to get a blurred shot. I didn’t think the difference between a small town and a big city would be that obvious, but it was.
Getting from Beijing Airport to the 365 Inn Hostel was very simple. Although their very helpful instructions did help, and the fact that purposely missed the Beijing rush hour on the subway, the big difference I noticed was EVERYONE I interacted with spoke Mandarin with an accent I could understand and they all knew enough English when I didn’t. As I walked down the street from Tiananmen Square to the hostel, I noticed for the first time in two months, people didn’t stare at me. Seeing a Westerner wasn’t a big deal to them like it was to everyone in Dengfeng.
Although there was little difference in sharing personal space (I got lucky landing a dorm room with no one else in it), the luxuries of the room were immediately obvious. I was the happy owner of a mattress (instead of a light blanket on top of wooden slats), an en-suite shower room (instead of sharing two with thirty others) with a western toilet (instead of a drop toilet) complete with loo roll holder (instead of needing to perfect the art of balancing it in one hand) and working electricity. Sadly in the last couple of weeks leading up to leaving the kung fu school, the regular strong winds kept causing the numerous badly taped “fixes” to the electric wire that ran across the trees in the fields to break. Whilst losing electricity isn’t a big deal in itself, the school relied on it to get access to water through a pump. So no electricity, no water (hot or cold), no shower, no toilet (pits outside the school were even a push on the ones I experienced at Glastonbury Festival). A side from the shelter, it felt a little like camping. Packing my bag on the last night in the dark was a challenge. I was in a hostel dorm room, but it felt like a Hilton Hotel presidential suite.
I spent that evening, exploring some of Beijing. I had St Joseph’s Church earmarked for an evening visit. The church on their main shopping street was being used by numerous couples for pre/post wedding pictures.
As the sun set, the church was beautifully illuminated and the wedding photography session continued.
To get to the church, I meandered through numerous Hutongs (Beijing’s traditional alleyways) and stumbled upon a very busy food market where you could just about anything that grew on a tree or moved in its past life fried in oil and presented on a stick.
Starfish and snakes were the most surprising.
The following day, still used to my early morning kung fu wake up schedule, I got up and out of the hostel at 6am to see the raising of the flag in Tiananmen Square. I heard the square was big, but gees – I hadn’t estimated a 10 minute jog across it to make it in time, a security bag scanning station on entry or a couple of thousand people would be up at the same time to see itâ€¦ all Chinese tourists from what I saw, complete with their tour guide colour-coded hats to keep them herded together.
I got as close to the front of the crowd as I could just before it started, underneath one of the badly disguised security stations that played tweeting bird music as you waited.
As the music played I focused on the set of soldiers that I heard would march to the flag. Only when the flag had fully raised and the crowd started dispersing, did I realise I had been watching the wrong guards and not the ones I had expected to see march perfectly in time as everyone was there to see. Damn it.
Right guardsâ€¦ (on the right)
Now I had a two hour wait until the Forbidden Palace opened. Sunrise kite watching, a loaf of Strawberry flavoured bread and watching all the guards march into their resting place in the Palace kept me occupied.
Like Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden Palace is MASSIVE. This is a view from above from the park opposite.
There’s numerous temples, each ranked using the number of dragons in the corners of the roof. This one being the highest ranking building.
The sight has been burned and plundered plenty of times in the past. These gold-plated vats in the grounds even had their layer scraped off.
Lots of the palace is being renovated by a small army of workmen. It’s so big, they work 24×7 to keep up with it.
The palace has various parks inside it, with beautifully shaped rocks and foliage.
Leaving from the north gate after 2 hours of roaming around, I walked through two parks – Beihai and Jingshan. Both were beautiful, with plenty of quiet spots to relax.
I found the urge to practice my kung fu there among other tai chi lovers and elderly dancers. A group were kicking what looked like a gigantic shuttlecock between each other keeping it in the air with various kicks. Even an old woman was part of the group, doing tricks you would normally expect from Brazilian professional footballers.
One park, even had cabbages growing in it like flowers.
Walking through the Hutongs north of Qianhai Lake, I followed a Lonely Planet recommendation to a quiet, cute restaurant called Hutong Pizza.
Whilst some travellers say you should ignore the guide books, I’ve always found Lonely Planet to have real finds and this was certainly one of them. Amongst the homes in the Hutongs and underneath a cloth front door was a restaurant where you could eat with the sound and view of koi carp underneath you. It felt like you were a guest in someone’s garden. If I’m being honest, I’d have hesitated to go in if it wasn’t recommended. As I walked out, I urged on two timid passers-by who spotted the signs to take a look.
Walking through the famous Nanluogu Xiang and the Hutongs that branched off it, I made my way to the famous Tibetan-themed Lama Temple.
Like the Forbidden Palace, there’s numerous buildings containing shrines, each prayed to with incense by kneeling visitors.
Close by to the Lama Temple, passing a domesticated street pig is Imperial College street and the Confucian Temple.
Luckily, because it was close to closing time by then, I could enjoy the Confucian Temple with minimal tourists.
Among the usual rooms associated with a temple, it’s home to some stunning trees and various confucian-themed statues.
My tour had taken 11 hours and I had covered it all on foot so I was shattered by the end. I trudged back to the hostel for some rest.
Another 6am start tomorrow, with a bus booked to the Jinshanling part of the Great Wall. Thankfully though, that’s a 4 hour ride away, so I can catch up on sleep on the way.