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.

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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Journey to Moon Hill

On the road to Moon Hill

I tackled two items today: biked to Moon Hill and then explored the town a little bit. Because it’s Sunday, we didn’t have class, and I was able to set out early on my ride.

Moon Hill, as one source indicated, is about 9 kilometers from the town of Yangshuo. The ride was pleasant and mostly flat, so peddling was easy and enjoyable. I am still not used to the traffic on the roads here. Bikes, scooters, buses and cars all share the same space. It was not unusual for my little bike to ride next to a tour bus and motorcycle at the same time, although generally, the cyclists stay on the shoulder of the road. Oddly enough, I saw one teenager texting while cycling; I don’t know how that is even possible on these streets.

The ride to the odd-shaped karst wound through the countryside, and I passed huge fields of flowers where other cyclists were taking pictures. Once I got to the main road and crossed the Gongnong Bridge, I was on a straight path to the rock. From that point on, the road was lined with food and produce stands and plenty of hawkers luring me to a variety of other sites. I weaved in and out of traffic for a few miles until I reached my destination. It was easy to miss, as most of the signs were in Chinese and the entrance itself was rather unassuming.

Immediately, an “unofficial” vendor attempted to offer me a better price for admission, if I went with her. She also offered Coca Cola, beer, and water. I brought my own supplies, so I bought my ticket and locked up my bike for the trek up hill.

The sign said that it was only 800 steps to the top; only 800. The path was pretty straightforward, although I did veer onto a looping trail that cost me about 10 minutes and 300 extra steps. The views were worth it.

Along the way, I was able to snap some good shots of the rock, since this is not possible when you are actually there. The scenery from the peak was, yet again, astonishing. I was surprised to see a group of rock climbers traversing the back face of the rock. To get there, you pass a sign that said in English and Chinese, “No passengers allowed past this point,” or something to that effect. It was oddly phrased, but to some, it was an invitation to go “past this point.” The rock climbers did and seemed to be having a great time.

I took my share of pictures and then headed back down the steep climb. Unfortunately, I forgot to charge my new camera battery, so I was only able to take pictures on the way up. Still got some good shots, though.

I left Moon Hill and began a long ride back through the winding roads and into Yangshuo proper. I reached the famous West Street, where most of the tourists go and where you can find relatively cheap souvenirs. I bought the equivalent of what would be a banana smoothie back in the States, and headed home after a couple of hours of walking.

At this point in my trip, I might be overdoing things a little. I’ve had a cold of some sort for the last two days, and I must have cycled close to 15 miles today in addition to walking. I’m tired, achy and just getting over a wicked fever. Also, there seems to be little fires everywhere you go. People are burning wood and trash in almost every location: in the streets, the yards, and the fields. Still, I’m only here for a week; going to make the most of the time. Maybe it’s time to buy a mask.

Moon Hill

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First day of class

Brian with rooster

Today is the first day of Tai Chi classes. I managed to get back to sleep after the rooster welcomed me to the new day, and now I am rested and looking forward to practicing the form.

One thing that made this program so inviting when I saw it online was that in addition to the hotel and classes, all meals were provided. I don’t think, however, that I was prepared for the nature of meal services here. Breakfast was available starting about 8 a.m., but the meal wasn’t at the hotel. One of my instructors, Da Zhu, told me to walk over to a little brick and tin building across the street, let them know that I was a student at the school, and they would take care of me.

My bike and breakfast place

When I reached the building, I greeted the small lady who was watching a Chinese drama on a little television. She knew why I was there, and she began to prepare the meal. I tried to introduce myself with my broken Mandarin, but we both ended up playing a bad game of charades as we gestured and pointed to each other and ourselves; so I just pointed at my meal and rubbed my stomach to let her know that I was enjoying the food.

Breakfast consisted of a large bowl of noodles with my choice of toppings. Not knowing what any of the ingredients were, I sampled each one, throwing a little from each bowl onto my noodles; that was my first mistake. When I started sweating, I realized that one of the bowls was a collection of finely chopped peppers. They looked so inviting before I had eaten them, but I struggled to finish what was in my bowl. The small slices of pork made the meal a little easier to consume.

I slurped the last noodle down and got up from a wooden table that was obviously made for children. The stool that I sat on was no taller than 12 inches. My one companion for breakfast was a little kid who was about 5 years old. His dad had dropped him off for the morning as he went to run errands. The little breakfast place was also a kind of day care center, as I then noticed the walls decorated with colorful signs and cartoon pictures of children playing. The little boy slurped his noodles and drank from a juice box with Chinese characters all over it.

Breakfast in the history books, now it was time for class. One last item: there is no coffee (or tea, for that matter) in my hotel or in the local store down the road. So to get my daily fix, I made a special trip to town to buy the instant version; best four bucks I’ve spent so far.

My instructor

Classes were held in two sessions. The morning session went from 9:30 to 12, followed by lunch and then concluded from 3 to 5:30. We began with some odd calisthenics, which included pounding on our own muscles, swinging our arms and lots of stretching. I must admit that I stretched in ways that I hadn’t in a long time, and it felt good.

Two of my teachers are masters in their art, and their knowledge of the form was evident in the way they moved and guided us. There are only two students here, including me, so the attention was great. Master Zhou Da Zhu was instructing a student from England in the Chen style, while Master Tang En Xi and instructor Li Xiao Ya helped me with the Yang style. When I first took classes in Dallas, I saw a variety of forms and styles: Wu, Chen, Yang. The graceful and meditative quality of the Yang style is what drew me to its form.

So far, the class has been everything that I was hoping for. The instructors are well experienced and friendly, and the atmosphere here makes you feel like part of the family. We practiced both inside the lobby and outside on the rock plaza in front of the hotel. During the class, children ran and played in the yard by the building and a number of chickens seemed to watch us from the bushes on the perimeter. I got my first glimpse of the rooster who so rudely interrupted my sleep this morning. He didn’t seem to be as bothered by my presence as I was by his.

Dinner with instructors

Lunch and dinner were served family style, as we all consumed tofu, veggies and lots of rice. Everyone scooped toppings into their bowl from a collection of containers just like breakfast; no peppers this time, so I enjoyed my meal. Between lunch and dinner I rode the bike into town and picked up some vital supplies; the instant coffee was one of them. I’m still waking up around 3 a.m., and it’s nice to have something familiar to sip on as the day starts. So, the first day of class is over, and I would give it two thumbs up.

Tomorrow, I’ll hit the road early. First stop is Moon Hill, a mountainous, semicircular karst that makes an already stunning landscape even more amazing. Then I’ll ride to town and explore the shops and happenings of West Street, the main tourist drag. Can’t wait to go.

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3:30 a.m. in Yangshuo

It’s 3:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, March 9, and I’m wide awake in my hotel room in Yangshuo. It is somewhat of a miracle that I actually made it here, as my earlier jaunt from the Guilin Airport had me wandering lost and pulling my large suitcase around the city streets for some time.

I’m sure that my early stirring has much to do with my body still being set to a Dallas clock and, like many travel situations dictate, I anticipate adapting just in time for my departure back to the States. I’m convinced, however, that the rooster, which crowed outside my window about 3:28 this morning, might have contributed to my being awake. I might not have expected to hear this bird calling in the middle of the night, but after the last 48 hours of travel, I can only imagine what might be coming.

I left Dallas on Wednesday evening at approximately 7 p.m. and landed at the Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) on Friday at 5:30 a.m. local time. The flight was uneventful, and I felt ready to hit the ground running, which I did (the rooster just let me know that it’s 3:39 a.m.).

I had about a 10-hour layover, so I planned a full day that included courageously leaving the airport for a whirlwind tour of two specific destinations: the gigantic Buddha at the Po Lin Monastery and the bustling city of Hong Kong itself. The day did not disappoint me.

Traveling always includes some unexpected kinks in your plans, and attempting to leave the airport provided plenty of them for me. My few, poorly constructed Mandarin phrases did not help me much, but four frustrating and humbling information booths later, I made it out of Terminal 1 and onto a local bus bound for the monastery. Many of my well-traveled friends have counseled me about asking for help when lost in a foreign country, and I heeded their advice for the rest of the day. Kindness, generosity, and compassion are universal, and they have their own rewards beyond my simple travel destination.

A cup of Starbucks coffee at HKG airport will cost you $25 HKD, approximately $3.25 in USD. A city bus ride to a hub with connecting routes is about .60 cents USD; go figure. I enjoyed both the ride and the coffee as my bus driver casually sped upward on winding, mountainous roads toward my first stop. I had seen only pictures of the mammoth statue, and from a distance, the first sight was very impressive.

The large metallic structure sits alone at the top of a peak that provided a great view of the ocean and the city of Hong Kong, minus the incredibly thick layer of smog that so many had warned me about. The pollution didn’t taint the first excursion at all. Most of the visitors simply walked up the expanse of steps for a closer look. A few individuals would stop every few strides and bow or prostrate themselves on the ground. The sight was moving and the Buddha was beautiful.

(Taking a break in writing here as my computer is dying; NONE of my travel adapters fits the outlets in this hotel room. Not my first surprise of the arrival. The rooster just told me that it’s 4:24 a.m. I can tell you what I want for my first dinner in this city … chicken…more specifically, rooster.)

I left the Buddha around noon and headed back to the airport with my second quest of the layover: take the train to Hong Kong City. Thankfully again, an airport official guided me to the right place and I was quickly headed for the land of skyscrapers. My excursion had an additional purpose that I had not planned. Before leaving the D/FW airport, I pulled out my camera to snap a quick pic of the airplane. No response or flash gave me the sinking reminder that I had left my camera battery in its charger in my kitchen; the camera was useless.

Thus, my first job upon arrival in the city was to find an electronics store, which seemed like a simple quest in China. My Canon camera, after all, was made here. Leaving the train station was easy enough, but negotiating the masses of people and dense traffic became a challenge. Two hours later, I was walking out of a camera store and furiously heading back to the train station, which I did not find so quickly. The maze of city streets and endless side alleys with goods for sale confused me.

Arriving back at the train station, I ended up on the wrong level, trying to enter gates for which my ticket did not provide access. Looking lost and hopeless has its advantages as the sympathetic gate attendant gave me special admittance and I raced for my train.

I experienced a strange déjà vu while I was traversing the city streets. Before leaving Dallas, I had “Googled” some ATM and money exchange locations to make the unknown a little more “knowable.” At one particular set of crossroads in Hong Kong, I looked up and saw the same large blue LED screen mounted to the huge building that I saw online; déjà vu in a city that I’ve never visited.

I made it back to the Hong Kong Airport in time to get lost, yet again, as I searched for the terminal where I had stored my luggage. The airport looked very different at 3:30 p.m. than it did at 5:30 this morning; the building was bustling with travelers now.
I made it on the plane in time to begin the next leg of the journey, and my flight took off for Guilin (KWL). I’d argue that I walked about eight miles in that 10-hour period, not to mention that I had been traveling since Wednesday evening. My bobbing head proved it.

I’ll abbreviate this last segment and repeat that getting to my hotel from the Guilin Airport was nothing short of a miracle. As humble as I attempted to be in asking, finding the right bus and direction was not always easy. A finger point in a general direction answered most of the requests that I made. Again, I ended up wandering down some city streets looking for a bus station that I had apparently missed a half mile earlier.

I rolled my suitcase into a hotel and asked for help yet again. The desk clerk actually pointed to a recognizable object this time. I looked in the direction that she indicated and saw a bus attendant, who was closing the luggage compartment on a large blue city bus. I rushed outside and yelled “Yangshuo”, and she waited for me.

An hour and a half later, with what seemed like 25 stops in between, I sat on some steps in the middle of downtown Yangshuo. More déjà vu, as the pictures that I had seen online were very real now. I used a phone in a local shop to call my hotel, and eventually one of my Tai Chi instructors arrived by taxi. Oh yeah, I came here to practice Tai Chi. After such an epic day, I realized that my trip was just beginning.

I remember what I had romantically written a few days ago before leaving; that “…the point of the journey, is not to arrive. Anything can happen.” The “anything” did happen, and it is what makes exploring an unknown world worth it. Coincidentally, right now it’s 3:32 a.m. on Sunday morning, and I just heard the rooster call again. I’m wide awake, and I have an entire Saturday under my belt now. More on my first day of Tai Chi in the next segment.

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“The point of ignition”

“Something mysteriously formed,
Born before heaven and earth.
In the silence and the void,
Standing alone and unchanging,
Ever present and in motion.
Perhaps it is the mother of ten thousand things.
I do not know its name.
Call it Tao.
For lack of a better word, I call it great.”

Lao Tsu / Tao Te Ching

From the pictures that I have seen of Yangshuo, the massive limestone karsts, the Li River, the caves and the expansive landscape, it is clear that this small city is a place of “ten thousand things.” My intention in traveling, however, is to focus on one thing: Tai Chi. I first studied this graceful martial art over two years go and have since become enamored with its fluid movements and meditative qualities.

My last adventure practicing Tai Chi involved traveling to San Francisco, where I spent valuable time in the city park, Washington Square, watching and joining in with experienced practitioners. Still, it has been a longtime aspiration to make it to the mainland and practice the art from a native master.

A couple of months ago, I picked a city, researched a school, sent some emails, and booked my flight. The hardest part of this travel already is the unknown: the language, the school, transportation modes and schedules in a small, foreign town, etc. All great journeys, however, offer their rewards from the mysterious and unfamiliar. In this pensive moment before departing, I recall some lyrics from Rush’s “Prime Mover (Hold Your Fire).”

“From the point of ignition
To the final drive
The point of the journey
Is not to arrive
Anything can happen.”

My fear of the unknown hasn’t gone away, but my courage is mounting.
Next stop, Hong Kong.

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