Experience in Brief
After only one week I was standing outside of the school’s locked iron gates, shivering in the winter air as I watched 20 young Chinese monks working with their staffs inside the courtyard. I waited silently at the gate until I was noticed. Then to the intimidating coach who approached me I recited in Chinese, “I have come from America to meet Shi Yan Lu,” “Why?” “I want to study kung fu…” I didn’t know how to interpret the small smile that formed on his lips, but I was let in and led past the other students, being met with blank, exhausted, unfriendly eyes. He escorted me into one of the school’s inner rooms where I was told to wait. Thirty minutes later a man came for me, saying, "We want to see your kung fu."
Upon the demonstration’s conclusion my testers gave me a standing applause, “Very good! We will take you to Shi Yan Lu.” 30-minutes later we rounded a corner, finding nestled in the valley before us the Shaolin Temple. I followed closely on the coach’s heals as we brushed past the tourists milling around and snaked our way through the temple’s off limits corridors, through a small bamboo forest, and finally into a small room with an altar to Buddha where I was again told to wait while the man went to inform the master that I had arrived. A half hour had passed before the coach returned. With him was the powerful Shi Yan Lu, who wouldn’t even acknowledge my presence as he stood feet in front of me, speaking with the coach who had watched my demonstration. He next addressed the old man and his teenage disciple who had waited in the altar with me, further testing my skills during the wait. All three seemed to give an excited report of me. Afterwards Shi Yan Lu turned to me and said, “You have come very far. You are alone?” “Yes, sir.” “Good,” he said with a smile. “How long will you be here?” “1 year.” “Very good…”
Despite being thrilled at having made the journey, actually having found the school and been granted acceptance to train, I was surprised and a little disappointed to learn that the traditional, combat oriented kung fu was no longer being taught. Rather, the fierce and breathtaking Shaolin wushu had been reduced to being taught only as a show art. Being unsettled by this, I expressed my gratitude for them welcoming me but went on to explain that before beginning training I wanted to go visit Mt. Wudang, another martial mountain. They wished me safe journey and said they would wait for my return.
The next day I set off to Mt. Wudang to behold the mythic, fog covered peaks and the Taoist temples that dotted them. In these mountains I spent two weeks searching the hidden temples for the existence of the qigong master who I felt in my spirit was waiting for me. It was after these 2 weeks of searching that I discovered the 78-year old hermit caretaker of a 1500-year old temple. He agreed to teach me the mystic art of Taoist deep meditation if I would agree to live as an ascetic and reside in the temple with him away from the distractions of the world. The next day training commenced and he began to lead me down the path to finding inner silence, where I developed a knowledge of the presence of energy, was taught to harness this spiritual energy, and then work with this energy. One month of this training sent me to the intensive care unit of a technologically substandard hospital where I remained for the next 2 weeks recovering, refusing the doctors urgent recommendation to return to America for treatment. Rather I underwent 30 hours of acupuncture treatment.
After 2 weeks I was capable of making short walks once again, so I relocated from the high mountain temple to the small dirty town at the base of the mountain, where I spent the next month and half further recovering my strength while studying the basics of Wudang Pai Taijiquan and Bagua Zhong in a small martial arts’ school. Having nearly died, and being frustrated at my inability to train as intensively as my heart desired because of my slow recovery, I decided to get the travel bug out of my system and set out to explore the Middle Kingdom until my health was back to normal.
I spent one month trekking by foot and on horseback into the heights of the Himalayas, searching for pandas at the lower elevations and Tibetan prayer flags and temple ruins up higher. From there I rode the snow melt from the peaks of Mount Everest and surrounding mountains at the rooftop of the world down the third longest river in the world, the Yangtse, back towards Mt. Wudang. With the hiking and elevations I had experienced over that month I took this as a good sign that my body was ready to train again. However, on my return I stopped at Chengdu in south central China, capital of Sichuan province—famous for it's spicy food—which had several large universities. With the discovery of these universities I decided that it was time to give my speaking proficiency a boost and enroll in a one-month intensive Chinese course.
In Chengdu I met travelers from all around the world, including a fellow kinsman who had come from Australia to further his martial arts studies. He told me about a paramilitary, martial art training camp south of Chengdu where he had been studying Nan Quan. It sounded like the strenuous, sometimes frightening, training that I dreamed about finding in the Shaolin Temple--except this was real traditional martial arts. He assured me I couldn’t merely show up at the training camp alone, but that I would need an introduction from a man named Li Quan, a Nan Quan master who had spent a decade training under the grandmaster who ran the school. When I met Li Quan the two of us spoke at great length about why I wanted to train with him, and all that I had experienced in China thus far in my search to find a good teacher. When we finished he said, "My heart is moved by your passion for kung fu, and I am very happy to train you." After a few training sessions he invited me to move in with him so that we would have the opportunity to train much more often, saying that his biggest regret was that he would only have me for a short time and that he wanted to give me as much knowledge as he could.
At this point my finances were beginning to run low, so I was faced with the challenge of balancing my training time while teaching at an English training center. Here I taught everything from courses in Business English to Chinese professionals all the way down to foundational English basics to 16-month year olds who could barely speak Chinese.
This trip has been the most trying and richest growing experience of my life. I have never known such prejudice, been so jerked around, or had so many people try to rip me off. The stress from it all is doubtless going to take years off my life. I can’t wait to go back.