Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Tim Studies Tai Chi

Back in December, after researching some martial arts schools, I decided I would like to come back to China ‘someday’ to study the ancient Chinese art of Tai Ji Quan. Most commonly known to westerners as Tai Chi, this is a soft, or internal, martial art as opposed to hard, or external, martial arts like Karate, Kung Fu, or Tae Kwan Do. Movements are very relaxed, balanced, and usually slow, with mental focus on controlling internal energy in the body. You may have seen videos of older Chinese people doing this slow graceful exercise together in the park.

Yarrow and I discussed it and she encouraged me to stay in China another 2 months to improve my Chinese and study Tai Chi. Rather than hope that someday I’ll have time to come back, I should take the opportunity now, when I don’t have other commitments. I was hesitant to stay here as we would be apart for more than 2 months, and I would not get a chance to see any of Southeast Asia or Yarrow’s family in New Zealand. I very much appreciated her support and willingness to give me more time in China, so I decided to stay.

In China there are two things that are hard to live without – a bicycle or motorbike and a mobile phone. My friend Anthony was leaving for Thailand and gave me his nice mountain bike to use. Without a bike, walking to town takes about 30 minutes. Everyone seems to have a mobile phone, which use GSM SIM cards that you load with money to make calls. If I didn’t have a phone, it would be difficult to have friends or plan anything. A mobile phone almost seems more of a necessity here than it did in the US. In many developing countries, getting a land line phone is difficult and expensive and mobile phones are used by most people. Even in backwards Uzbekistan, everyone seemed to have one.

I'm staying at Long Tou Shan Martial Arts School (http://www.longtoutaichi.com) in Shi Ban Qiao, a small village north of Yangshuo town in southern China’s Guanxi Zhuang province. The school's master is teaching overseas now, so all the instructors come from Master Fu's (http://www.masterfu.net) school close by. Master Fu Neng Bin in is one of the top students of Chen Zhenglei, himself one of the top Chen style Tai Chi masters and an 11th generation direct inheritor of the Chen family Tai Chi tradition. The instructors here were trained by Master Fu and have excellent tai chi fundamentals and teaching ability. Chen is the oldest style of Tai Chi, which also incorporates some fast movements into its forms.

Sunset over the roof of the school.

Instructor Lao Li with Scott, another American Student. Master Fu's school is in the background.

We train two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, six days a week. Meals at the school are mostly vegetarian and very healthy. Usually it even tastes good! The village is fairly quiet with beautiful scenery. From the rooftop training area you can see over two dozen karst limestone mountains. The beautiful view and peaceful surroundings were the main reason I chose this school over the others in the area. I met a Chinese guy, Cai Lei, who is living in the village and studying English. Before he went home for Chinese New Year, we were spending an hour or two every day reading to each other in English and Chinese. Those sessions really improved my Chinese pronunciation and Cai Lei got to learn the meaning of Americanisms like ‘slacking off’ and ‘getting the ax’. I can now converse in Chinese at a pretty basic level, but I still know very little and don’t understand a lot of what people say.

Training on a beautiful day as Andy takes in some sun.

In eight weeks of intensive training I’ve learned what would have taken a year or more studying back in the states. I first learned a short Chen 18 form and I just finished the 74 movement Chen Lao Jia Yi Lu form. It takes almost 15 minutes to do that form from beginning to end and requires a lot of concentration to stay relaxed and to remember which move comes next. I have also been working on a Yang style Tai Chi traditional 32 step form with a private teacher about five hours a week. Learning the forms is just the first level of Tai Chi skill. It takes years of practice to be able to do the forms while moving the energy correctly inside the body. There’s also the more advanced exercise of Push Hands where you hone your Tai Chi skills with a partner, trying to push each other off balance. I’ve studied several other martial arts in the past and Tai Chi seems to demand more precise movements and is very challenging to perform correctly.

Instructor Jason (left) and Eyal practicing Push Hands.

Lao Li working with me on the Lao Jia Yi Lu form.

One thing that made the Tai Chi practice more difficult is that I chose to stay here at the same time as China was being devastated by the worst winter in the past 50 years. Three weeks of snowfall killed at least 60 people and cost the country approximately $7.5 billion. More than half a million homes were damaged or destroyed. On an icy stretch of highway in China’s Hunan province, more than 10,000 vehicles were backed up in a traffic jam that reached back nearly 50 miles. Many provinces faced power outages and shortages and trains, buses, planes, were all grounded. This all happened during the Chinese New Year, when 175 million people attempt to travel at the same time and 10’s of millions were stranded in bus and train stations and airports! While we are too far south to get snow, there was ice, steady rain, freezing rain and record low temperatures. There were frequent power outages sometimes lasting all day.

In southern China there is usually no heating inside buildings as it is rarely needed. Our school is no exception and temperatures were at or below freezing every day for 3 weeks. My room was rarely above 40 degrees Fahrenheit and sometimes colder. After a week I asked for an electric blanket and I finally broke down and bought an electric hot water bag. My hands developed a strange reaction to the cold humid weather and were often swollen and it was painful to make a fist. I even had a small area where the skin on my knuckle froze stiff! If you’re wondering how I’ll be able to live in Alaska, it won't be a problem because there we can go inside to get warm. This is definitely the coldest I've been for the longest period of time. It builds character but I’m so glad this week is warmer and we finally have some sun. I almost forgot was sunny weather was like. The upside was that there were never more than 3 students here at a time. Usually there was just one other student, so I got a lot of individual attention from the instructors.

Me, Lao Li and Scott on one of the few nice days this month.

Having practiced Tai Chi almost two months now, I notice improved posture, stronger legs, better flexibility, more relaxation, and people think I look years younger than I am. It must have something to do with the low stress lifestyle, exercise and healthy food. I plan to continue practicing on my own when I leave and hope to be able to come back here again someday. I’ve met a lot of neat people here and want to thank Andy and Gal for taking some photos for me to post on this blog. Living here has been an enjoyable experience that is coming too quickly to an end but I’m really looking forward to seeing Yarrow again and traveling South America with her.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Danger; Foreigner on Road!!

I flew from Bangkok to the North Island of New Zealand where someone was stupid enough to hand me the keys to a car! In a country where the roads are narrow, curving, and everyone drives on the wrong (left) side of the road! It's a good thing my grandfather is here to sit in the passenger seat and tell me...
"Yarrow, you're too far over. You are going to go in the ditch."
"Yarrow, you almost hit that car"
"Yarrow, you are on the WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD!"
Or is that the right side of the road?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Laid back Laos


After five days of exploring the ruins of Angkor Wat I decided to head back into the south of Laos. The route out of Cambodia was punctuated by billboards showing several sets of skinny, veined arms passing pistols, automatic rifles, and hand grenades over to a set of smooth, plump arms. After paying an unofficial 1$ 'fee' for immigration to stamp my passport, I was back in gentle, honest Laos.

I immediately went to Don Det Island, where I spent 5 days viewing the inside of a hammock outside of my private bungalow. Hammock swinging is something of a ritual on Don Det island. When the falang (foreigners) do manage to peal themselves from their hammocks it is to ride around the island on gearless, brakeless bikes singing out "sabadee" (hello) to each other. Alternatively you can jump into the Mekong for a refreshing swim. After getting out of the river one day, I saw a water snake gliding along in the water!

After this I went to Tat Lo village, stopping at several minority villages on the way. The people of these villages worship the spirits of their dead ancestors, and the rules regarding the proper way to behave so as not to offend the spirits are interesting. Women are not supposed to sit or sleep with their feet pointing at any man. Clapping hands is forbidden, as this could disturb the spirits. If these or other rules are violated, even by a tourist, an atonement sacrifice must be made to appease the spirits. The type of animal sacrificed depends on the gravity of the offense, and could be as large and expensive of an animal as a buffalo. You have to be carefull visiting these villages! At Tat Lo, I stayed in a bungalow right next to a large waterfall and went for another elephant ride. After this, sadly, my time in Laos was up, and I headed back to Bangkok for my flight to New Zealand.

In Laos, big, communal meals are an important part of the culture, and I was invited to eat at several of these while I was there. Often, the table is first spread with banana leaves. Food is then set in the center of the table in dishes or piled directly on the leaves and everyone digs in with their fingers, setting aside the bones and any other discarded pieces. By the end of the meal the table looks as if a hand grenade went off in the middle of it. No problem! The leaves are cleared away into the jungle for the animals to pick clean.

Lao people also love to dance and listen to loud music. Lao dancing is very clean, with the men and women dancing next to each other but not touching as they sashay around in a large circle and make graceful, twirling hand motions. Overall, the Lao culture is very laid back, soft spoken, and having fun is extremely important. It's about as far as you can get from our hurried American pace!

A Cambodian market

Arachnophobia, anyone?

People from the villages I visited:

Everyone in this village, young, old, women, and men, smokes tobacco in these long pipes.

Grinding grains

After grandmother checks to see that the coffee beans are dry, a boy gathers the sundried beans into a basket.

An American souvenir. The villagers make good use of the bombs we inundated Laos with during the Vietnam war, using them as planters and containers of various types. We dropped two million dollars worth of bombs per day-about 1300 lbs per person, destroying many villages and fields and terrorizing the people here who depend on the land to survive. Some of these bombs did not explode on impact and still kill and maim today.

Most of Laos is hilly, with thick green vegetation

These trucks are the most common form of transport in Laos. They have benches down the sides, but not everyone gets a seat. They often don't leave until they are so full that not another person could possibly hang off the back or fit inside.

After casting the net, he will jump into the river to bring out any fish caught

These wooden boats are quite common along the Mekong river

Working in the garden on Don Det

My bungalow on Don Det Island

Here I am on another elephant ride. I crossed a large river, went through the jungle, and into an off-road village on this elephant ride.