The Quest Goes South, and Other Tales from the Middle Kingdom

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June 24th 2010
Published: June 25th 2010
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The Quest Goes South, and Other Tales from the Middle Kingdom

The festival of DuanWuJie is a time for racing dragon boats and eating zongzi - nuggets of rice wrapped in bamboo leaves. Alas I didn’t achieve the first, but I did achieve the second on my trip to Zhengzhou.

I took the trip 700km south of Beijing to Henan province to visit a friend, and to see the sights the province (which has a larger population than Germany) has to show.

After I had arrived by overnight train to the bustling station at Zhengzhou we took a morning bus for a day trip to Kaifeng. Kaifeng is an old capital of China - centre of the Northern Song (Bei Song) dynasty a thousand years ago. Though it was built 25km south of the yellow river, this proved insufficient and regular floods mean that the old city is now firmly under silt. In fact between 1194 and 1938 the city flooded 368times.

Nowadays it has had much of its history diligently recontrived. But the series parks and characterful buildings, despite being modern reconstructions, lead to a city that is green, pleasant, open and generally an ideal place for a stroll. Especially to build up an appetite for the well known local dumplings.

Walking through one park we stumbled across an acrobatics demonstration - a girl lying on her back juggling and spinning various items of furniture with her feet. Chairs, chests, tables, barrels with audience members in... What I want to know is how do you discover you have a knack for it.

The Quest of Shaolin
The following day we took a trip to the famous Shaolin temple - home to Kungfu, and the monks who developed the discipline.

To enter the temple is a rather pricey sum of 100yuan. However locals get cheaper tickets, and one enterprising village has turned this into a prime business opportunity. The Chinese are complete naturals at collective entrepreneurial exploits that employ oodles more labour than is actually required, and this was the finest example I’ve yet come across.

At the entrance of the temple our group was approached by the head of advertising for the aforementioned business. 60yuan, to get you in as a local was his tag line. Sounded promising. Some discussion. My friend threw into the melting point the slight issue that there was a member of the group who aesthetically was not really of the Han persuasion (being a 6-footer and blond...) and thus may struggle to pass as a local. 没问题. Not a problem was the reply.

The seven of us pile in his minivan, and he heads down the adjacent road. A kilometre later the diver suddenly realises that he has made a careless mistake, it is actually 75yuan, not 60. The car stops amid heated discussion. The driver wins and we continue.

At the village we are met by a pair of women who take our money in exchange for some tattered and folded entrance tickets. They warn us, in a manner that would be befitting of Dumbledore, that the trek will be difficult. We will struggle but we will meet comrades along the way who we direct us, but nevertheless some of us may not make it. In particular my friend with impractical shoes. A village elder then steps in to sell her a pair of something a little more practical, for 25yuan (net saving of zero then...). Now equipped with suitable weaponry we are given a phone number by one of the women, and proceed along the path in small groups.

As the path heads into a small wood some figures loom disconcertingly towards us out of the shade; they turn out to be more villagers, this time selling prayer beads. They make a sale from two guys in the group and we continue with renewed pace.

Ten minutes later we reach the first checkpoint, and are confronted (by women in hammocks playing cards) with demands for us to justify our legitimacy. The secret phone number is handed over, and they usher us down a little path at the bottom of which we meet the next small cluster of villagers, who themselves give us a password for the next stage of the quest. They wish us well and we continue on our increasingly epic and bemusing journey.

A couple of fields later we approach a pig hut located a small distance from some crumbling houses. Leaning on the hut is an old and venerable figure. “Thou shalt not pass!” he roars with power and might and a stamp of his staff. But he softens when we give him the password and he directs us left along the edge of the field, and for the first time to a positive sighting of the Holy Grail that lies at the end of our journey: the mythical and infamous temple of Shaolin.

Before we know it the path abruptly emerges from behind a hedgerow and out onto the main tourist strip that leads to the temple. We were in.

We were counted in individually by a woman who frequently kept looking anxiously over her shoulder up and down the main drag. She whispers instructions to proceed and wait by the main gate of the temple. We hurry on, now as one with the mass of ordinary mortals who had paid the full fee.

We wait as instructed, initially with no sign of reason, before a woman suddenly, yet subtly, melts out from the midst of the crowds; she is the final villager in the operation, and the final part of the deal - our own local tour guide. Success was sweet to the taste, the quest was complete.

Incidentally for those of you who haven’t seen me for a few months and am wondering whether I have aesthetically, linguistically and culturally changed sufficiently to pass as a local Chinese person, then I’m afraid to disappoint you. I’m still a pale and scrawny English boy... The villagers were undiscriminating.

Shaolin Temple
The temple itself is another out-of-the-box restoration of a typical Chinese monastery. The only thing that really set it apart were the odd clues that these monks had a certain hidden ability. Dents in the temple floor, long sticks lying around, tablets carved by kings...

Nowadays Kungfu is no longer practised in the temple where it was developed. It happens half a kilometre down the road in a purpose made visitor’s auditorium. It also happens in the near by schools. The town where it’s located is filled with boarding schools where young hopefuls dreaming of being Kungfu stars spend hours doing drills in colourful tracksuits. The picture is one of a sea of kungfu ants. I know where I’ll be going if zombies attack.

But for now, it’s time to return to Zhengzhou.

Aesthetically Zhengzhou is utterly without charm, but what it lacks in beauty in makes up with in people. People are everywhere. I was glad to have a local guide, because it would’ve been a daunting place to navigate. After an energy-sapping day in mid to high 30s heat, everything felt oppressive: the lingering sticky temperature, the noise, the number of vehicles, scooters and pedestrians, the dust, the smell. Someone had turned the China knob up to 11.

We changed buses at one particularly busy junction. In the middle was a faux-traditional 10-storey building that is home to the Henan museum. My friend mentioned that when she was a child it was comfortably the tallest building in Zhengzhou. Now it looks puny, as it’s towered over in every direction by glass-fronted, neon-lighted monstrosities that lean over it like school bullies asking for dinner money. But this is no “oh things were different is my day” scenario - my friend is 22.

Zhengzhou is changing rapidly. 25% is a building site at any particular time. Buildings that aren’t that old but were built shoddily are being torn down to build taller similarly shoddily-built buildings. The city isn’t evolving naturally, it is being forced through the noodle machine. It is like the artist who can’t stop fiddling with his sketch, constantly correcting it and scribbling in extra lines until it’s a smudged, overworked mess. Zhengzhou’s dust, potholes and building sites are all the more depressing for being so self-inflicted. But that’s what the Chinese premier has emphasised - speed. Seemingly before thought.

But of course the truth of it is that European values of architectural restraint and consideration are not the main concern in Zhengzhou at the moment. Zhengzhou is booming. Economics are at play, its citizens are getting richer and healthier and of course this is the priority.

What Zhengzhou has, though, is the friendliest people I’ve met in China. A string of happy encounters with smiling people interested in having a chat (often through the translation skills of my friend) or teaching me the art of Jianzi (Chinese keep-me-up). Without fail they were relaxed, kind and had an engaging spark in their eyes. One tricycle-cab driver, when my friend jokingly asked if he did student discounts, threw a fit of honesty and refused to take our business, advising us that crossing the road and catching the number 32 bus would be cheaper.

Not quite eggy soldiers
One of the most famous foods to come out of Zhengzhou is Hulatang - a breakfast “delicacy”. It literally means “pepper spicy soup” and is exactly that. It is a thick gloopy substance, in which floats various congealed (but unidentified) items of protein. It was a struggle at eight in the morning. But my persistence made the locals giggle, so at least someone got some pleasure out of it.

Combine Harvester Migration
On the train home I’d reverted to my preferred default state - namely staring aimlessly out the window casually considering the world passing by, when I couldn’t help but notice a strange phenomenon. The Great Chinese Combine-harvester Migration. Hundreds of identical red and white combine-harvesters moving like bugs as they crawled, without exception, due north. For kilometre after kilometre they were never more than a couple of hundred meters apart. It all seemed like a strange, Orwellian sight. It could easily have been the opening scene of some post-apocalyptic thriller staring Denzel Washington. What did they know? Where were they going? Were they angry farmers about to lead a farm-machinery coup of Beijing? Was there a national corn convention in Inner Mongolia next week?

It wasn’t until about half way through the journey (i.e. 350km in) they eventually began to thin out. Curiouser and curiouser...


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