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Special Feature:   Among the Shaolin

Welcome to my China Diary. Before launching into anecdotes born of many visits to the Land of the Dragon, here’s a quick heads-up on a very special research mission I had the privilege of undertaking in late 2012…. spending time staying on the grounds of the Shaolin Temple, Henan Province, in the SongXian Mountains. A lifelong goal fulfilled!



Shaolin is one of the two main birthplaces of kung fu (the other is Wudan) and home to warrior monks who follow a tradition over a thousand years old. Their day begins with a pre-dawn run three kilometres to the west of the monastery and a group charge up a thousand stone steps to a mountain shrine. Then it’s back down on their hands and feet, all part of the incredible body conditioning the monks undertake. I just had to try it for myself…well, just a little of it! 🙂



Dedicated martial artists from all over the world arrive to train at the Shaolin temple. It’s a bit like walking onto the set of the classic Bruce Lee movie Enter the Dragon, only everybody is for real. I had the thrill of interviewing young warrior monks and seeing them perform many of their most dramatic traditional skills in a public show. I even took part in that performance, accepting a challenge (kind of ‘Shaolin Idol’) where one has to try and keep up with a set of increasingly fast, difficult, unfamiliar moves made by a warrior monk. I was paired with a young master of, among other forms, the ‘snake’ style of Shaolin kung fu.


When I left I was humming with insights into the culture of Shaolin and clutching a swag of engrossing research material. Story elements and plot lines just suggested themselves!

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Welcome to Beijing, China’s vastest city. I visited the capital to see both modern and ancient wonders. The modern stuff includes the innovative architecture and LongMa, (Dragon Horse), China’s answer to Godzilla, in his public battle against an evil giant spider at the Beijing Olympic Stadium known as the Bird’s Nest.

Beijing 2 Beijing 2a

So here are the opponents, both giant robots designed by French engineers. LongMa can actually breath fire and smoke and the spider shoots a trail of vapour that looks like webbing.

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When the giants began to chase each other around and fight, some of the children shouted ‘Fight him, LongMa!’ But when the dragon breathed fire and reared up, some of them grew scared and cried. In the end, LongMa was victorious. It was like being in a Godzilla movie!

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Among the ancient wonders, the Forbidden City rates highly. Once, only the nobility could enter it, hence the name.

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Once the old imperial city has whetted your appetite for scale and genius that stands the test of time, heading out of town to the Great Wall is the logical next step. Climbing to its highest points is also a great workout.

Beijing 8 Beijing 9

China is fascinating, amazing, at times overwhelming – I love it. The Middle Kingdom, as it was once known, is also arguably the cradle of ancient civilization, producing so many remarkable innovations and inventions. I’ve had a long term fascination with both the people and their history. This amazing culture was the cradle of Asian martial arts, and in ancient times developed accurate astronomy, deep-core drilling and even exquisitely crafted earthquake detectors.

I took the above photograph on a trip to China in 2011, and it shows part of the very traditional ‘Old Town Proper’ in the centre of Shanghai, the city once called ‘The Paris of the East’. As this and the below snaps together reflect, it’s a place with both ancient and modern faces. The crowded skyline and sweeping neon nightlights make one think of Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner. And Shanghai is just as interesting. The curved building to the right in the shot below is promoted as the tallest building on earth, designed by a brilliant Japanese engineer.

Shanghai is home to over 23 million and moving through its CBD can make you feel a little like an ant trying to cross a chessboard…so many angular and adorned skyscrapers!

So here’s the world’s tallest skyscraper again, this time as seen at night, with a laser driven light display emitting from the top of the spiky-looking building near it. The lift to the top rises at 10 metres per second, but as the building (believe it or not) is fitted with massive ‘inertial dampners’  like the Enterprise in Star Trek, it’s claimed that as you rise in the lift you’ll feel NO movement, and can even stand a coin on its edge on the floor, which will neither wobble nor fall. Well, it was tried …and proved true!

View from part of the observatory, 100th floor, which is a suspended walkway with see-through tiles under your feet every few metres. Freaky! There were people who looked down then moved in slow motion to the nearest wall and hung on in terror! Others, like me, tried out the alleged indestructibility of the tiles by jumping up and down on them hard. No effect, and a very strange sensation, leaping up and down on a glass floor high above the roofs of lesser skyscrapers. Above you can see a view of that spiky skyscraper that’s usually reserved for passing helicopters. All it needs now is King Kong, perched on the top and swatting at passing biplanes.

Shanghai’s other, older face is far from lost; this lovingly preserved nobleman’s rock garden is part of the ‘Old Town Proper’ as it’s called, dating back to the Ming dynasty….and it’s right smack-bang in the middle of this megapolis.

Surrounding the Old Town Proper’s ancient, dignified gardens and walkways, is the ever skyward-clawing modern Shanghai, at times typified by very scary-looking overhanging bamboo scaffolding like this. Amazingly, the strength and flexibility of bamboo enables them to withstand high winds.

Above: in sharp contrast to all that bustle outside is the stillness of this Ming dynasty period writer’s study. Like every other part of the nobleman’s garden and its buildings, the layout in here was dictated by Feng Shui principles, intended to create a harmonious and positive energy flow through the place.

Below: the Chinese have maintained their ancient passion for literacy, and they are, after all, the people who invented paper and the printing press, long before Guttenberg. Lovingly preserved inside a 1930s Shanghai merchant’s house in the French Cantonment is this writer’s study. China has a long, magnificent publishing (and poetic) heritage, and the successful trader who owned this desk used much of his spare time to write fiction, poetry and correspondence.

Its ‘organized clutter’ reminds me of my own study, though my laptop is of course a later model.  🙂

Are you a bored Shanghai schoolkid? Then why not buy a cricket, a mantis, or some large, very weird-looking insect only previously seen in Indiana Jones movies, and pit your creature against one owned by a friend. Selling ‘fighting insects’ is an ancient and still popular Chinese cottage industry. It’s easy to imagine a connection between these ‘matches’ and the development of Kung Fu.

Think you know frustration? Imagine being a cat who lives in a bird shop. This moggy’s home is among rows of birds who talk, mimic or sing. It is a very old Chinese custom to have breakfast with a chatty or musical bird. Some of the talking birds I heard spoke Mandarin, others repeated a few English words.

To the west of modern Shanghai is the ancient water town of Suzhou, sometimes called ‘The Venice of China’ due to its canals and waterways, which have been the backdrop for many movies about China like The White Countess and numerous martial arts flicks which include the above bridge. Its water ‘roads’ fed by a vast lake, the city is renowned for pagodas, intricate gardens, and old stone bridges like this one. Panmen Gate, a popular attraction, is part of the ancient city wall built in 514 BC. It protected the oldest part of Suzhou. Many well-preserved Ming and Qing Dynasty buildings are found within the city, 42% of which is covered by water. The waterways are dotted with traditional wooden boats ferrying goods and passengers around.

What, I asked, was this local delicacy on sale everywhere in Suzhou?  ‘Swine’s foot wrapped in bamboo leaf!’ was the proud answer, followed by, ‘You should try it.’ Well, I did, and it was absolutely delicious.

These glimpses of daily life in the water city instantly transported me back in time. So much has not changed, which is so charming.

In one district of Shanghai lies a cluster of celebrated ancient and medieval temples.

This the courtyard of the famous Jade Buddha Temple, a world heritage listed site, and there’s that contrast again: the new, westernized Shanghai clawing for the clouds around a fully functional ancient holy place, on the top floor of which resides an enormous, serene image of the Buddha (which means ‘The Awakened One’) carved from a single piece of flawless white jade. Photographing it is strictly forbidden, but believe me when I say it was both exquisite and, as promised, instantly soothing.

Of all the temples I’ve seen over the years in Japan, China, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Hong Kong etc, this one seemed to house the most ‘alive-looking’ representations of incarnations of the Buddha. Above, check out the eyes and subtle facial expressions. These guys seem to be sharing some secret (cosmic?) joke as they watch you from the walls. Despite all the gold decor, the atmosphere of earnest spirituality -generated by all the non tourist visitors – was tangible and moving.

The diversity of images represents the many faces of Buddha; some of the above Buddhas are teachers of contemplation and stillness, others are warriors, armed and armoured, ready to fight the forces of evil head-on. In the shot below, you can see a lady photographing a reproduction of the famous ‘reclining Buddha’ (who I like to call ‘The Chilled Out One’). The real reclining icon, fashioned also from pure jade, is upstairs, and may be seen, but not photographed, as I mentioned earlier. Very thoughtful and strategic of the temple, to create a doppelganger for the benefit of the picture-taking public! Note the nearby monk, leaning and dreaming…but of what, I wondered? Probably not of his favourite reality TV show or the odds of his team winning the regional Fighting Insect Challenge.  🙂

Here’s part of the flight path my plane took on leaving Shanghai in 2011, on route to Paris via Helsinki. The scenery was amazing and unique, for I buzzed part of the old Silk Road that Marco Polo used to reach China, flying over the Gobi desert and remote stretches of Mongolia that are just endless, barren, sweeping steppelands. During one dazzling phase of the trip, as you see below, the plane made a close pass over an isolated glacier. Was Shangri-la down there somewhere, hidden away, immune to the world’s strife and madness?

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