Brian in China

Brian Fennig, a senior lecturer in the Wellness Department of the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development, is traveling to Yangshuo, China, for spring break 2013. While his ultimate destination is a Tai Chi school in Yangshuo, his trip will take him through Hong Kong and Guilin as well.

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Leaving behind life in Yangshuo

Yangshuo Park

It’s Friday morning, and I am beginning this final entry as I sit comfortably in bed. Despite the rooster’s best effort, I slept until just about 5 o’clock this morning. As I suspected, I’ve almost adapted to my new sleep schedule, and to this town as well, but it’s time to leave. In a few hours I’ll head back to the Guilin Airport and then to Hong Kong, San Francisco, and finally Dallas on Saturday morning. I’ll gain back 13 hours with my flight home.

The last few days have been packed with more Tai Chi and plenty of cycling again. By Thursday morning, our little group of students (we added one person from Germany) had made it halfway through the short form. I must admit that when I arrived, I assumed that getting through the 24 movements of the Yang Style Short Form would be easily accomplished, but it wasn’t. It’s clear why they call this, or any art form, a practice, because it takes plenty of it. We spent five hours a day on both the form and Qigong, which involves, simply put, additional components of meditation, movement, and breathing. I’m halfway through the form but not even halfway to mastering it or showing proficiency. The real discipline revealed in any practitioner manifests in the day-to-day repetition. That test will come when I settle back into my routine in Dallas.

In the midst of practicing here, I also hit the road on the bike as often as possible. In most hotels and in town, a visitor can rent a bicycle for only a few Yuan a day; my hosts graciously let me borrow theirs. I must admit, the one that I rode could use some maintenance, but it got me all over town and back without any problems; that’s the best you can ask for.

Jianshan Temple

I visited the Jianshan Buddhist Temple in the middle of this week, even though the few reviews on TripAdvisor recommended NOT going. I wanted to see a local temple and compare it to what I had seen in Hong Kong, although it’s hard to compare any future Buddhas to the mammoth one that I saw on the island.

True to the reviewers’ comments, I found the temple to be a disappointment. The monastery was rather small and had an overtly tourist feel to it. While this ambiance may be a natural part of the entire town, the spiritual side of the facility seemed to be lacking. A visitor could pay to place incense at one of the altars, or have a private consultation with a monk… for a fee. Perhaps if I had given up desire, as is the practice in Buddhism, I wouldn’t have been disappointed. I did, however, enjoy the ride there and managed to buy a nice hat on the highway from an old vendor who was happy to haggle with me. Donning the hat, I took a quick selfie and included her in it as well, to her smiling resistance.

Riding in traffic

The ride to and from the monastery will remain, among the other rides as well, an extraordinary part of this past week, as being on a bike on all major roads is something everyone does here. This mode of transportation allowed me to glide in and out of traffic, hanging with some big rigs and tour buses as well as with other cyclists. It’s an odd thing, but as frightening as it may look and feel, there seems to be a really smooth “flow” to it all. People on bikes and in cars manage to zig and zag around each other, as car/bike horns are for alerting surrounding riders, rather than releasing road rage. Don’t get me wrong, there are still some angry drivers out there and plenty who are not paying attention while they bike and drive, but with the population as high and dense as it is in this area, this necessary “flow” is an incredible site to witness and be a part of. Dallas cyclists would be in heaven.

Bicycle vendor

A second benefit of traveling by bike is that I was able to take in the surrounding life and landscape, and see things that I might miss while driving. The roads within the city and among the surrounding villages are lined with mechanical shops, goods for sale, services, and plenty of places to eat. Even the smallest patch of dirt might host a wood fire, cook pot, and an old man willing to sell you some noodles. The streets within the city certainly offered a great selection of fast food, but at almost every intersection, I saw three-wheeled bikes supporting large straw cylinders of steamed buns or freshly grilled tofu. People stopped and bought their breakfast as school children made their way to class and trucks and buses of all size passed closely by. It seems that every city has its rhythm.

I mentioned in an earlier blog, that the school provided three meals a day for its students. On most days, I took advantage of the nutritious offerings of noodles, rice, veggies, tofu, and pork. For my last night in Yangshuo, however, I wanted to have a splurge of sorts. I found a lovely little Indian restaurant just on the fringe of the famous West Street and ordered what I had been craving for a week: Chicken Tikka Masala. It was worth the wait and I spent the remaining time at dinner filling out the small number of post cards that I purchased earlier.

After dinner, I sauntered through the densely packed alley of shops and music for which downtown Yanshuo is famous. I passed too many shops to count and the hawkers and hagglers were among the most persistent that I have ever experienced. I showed interest at a few tables, and if I didn’t like the price of an object and attempted to leave, some merchants would literally grab my arm and pull me back toward their table. I must admit that this was usually a fun experience with harmless banter. Many times, to my surprise, the price of an item would drop 80-90%, and I purchased quickly at that point. The dinning and walking complete, I had one last stop to make before I peddled home in the dark.

I took some of my last pictures of the trip while walking through Yangshuo City Park. The trees and lampposts were adorned with a multitude of lights, many were LEDs, and music seemed to be blaring from everywhere. Wandering deeper into the park, I noticed an expansive area that was open to the night sky, where at least a hundred people were dancing a traditional folk dance to music that was blasted over loudspeakers. I had seen this same dance in Washington Square in San Francisco over a year ago, and it was just as beautiful this time.

Steps of the bus station

At the close of that evening, I ended up on the very steps of the bus station where I sat only a week earlier during my first moments in Yangshuo. My knowledge of the town is only slightly better now than a week ago, but a few days on a bike in this town would give anyone confidence to explore.

In Tai Chi as meditative movement, you don’t try to accomplish something through your form; you just move. The same is true in Taoism, as existing isn’t a contest, and like the “uncarved” block of wood described in the Tao Te Ching, the way of nature is to simply be. Usually, when I return home from a trip like this one, I attempt to count the lessons, pull in the valuable experiences, draw some conclusions, and pan for wisdom. I did the same as I left Cape Town South Africa in 2010, and, in fact, like I did then, I’m finishing this final entry from an airport. The day is turning and my flight to Hong Kong leaves in less than an hour.

Unlike my trip in 2010, part of me now doesn’t want to make any big conclusions about my experience. I long ago gave up the idea that I can “know” a place just because I spent a few weeks there; I was only in Yangshuo for seven days. One conclusion, however, I can never escape. Every time that I leave a travel destination, I realize that life there will go on without me. I’ll return home, find my routine, and even let the inspiration of the recent journey push me toward other adventures; but life still goes on in those places that I left behind.

In the streets of Yangshuo, there will still be cyclists and buses, churning side by side. In the villages on the outskirts of town, vendors and cooks will still peddle their wares to the passers-by. The enumerable small fires will still burn in the endless expanse of fields throughout the countryside. At the Tai Chi school off the Chao Long Road, on the plaza of the Shan Shui Ju Hotel, the masters and the students will still be moving and breathing; they will simply be.

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