Mr Liu is a very funny man, or at least I think he’s funny as I don’t understand a word he’s saying to me, he laughs a lot though. He started punching me on the leg repeatedly, I think to make the point that the tiny brush in his hand was used to antagonise crickets. Why would you want to antagonise a cricket I hear you ask... well, to make them fight of course.
Cricket fighting is big business in China. The fights are perfectly legal, the gambling is not. It’s the gambling that proves so popular though. A good cricket can make millions for its owner and they’ve been known to change hands for up to $10,000. A significant amount for something that only lives 100 days. I was lucky enough to be invited to Mr Liu’s house when I was on a free walking tour in Beijing and it proved to be a highlight for me. Turtles in buckets, birds in cages, lizards in glass tanks, dogs, grasshoppers and of course… crickets. Mr Liu even has coffins for his crickets, tiny ornate wooden coffins — the better the cricket does for him, the nicer the coffin naturally. The fondness he has for his animals is clear and I'd not be surprised if he prefers them to humans.
My first week in Beijing was not what I was expecting from one of the busiest cities on earth, I was collected from the airport and whisked away through leafy open roads to the suburbs. The main purpose for my visit to China was to study at a zen kung fu retreat. It was an intensive week studying breathing, kung fu, calligraphy, philosophy and meditation. And I was to live as a vegetarian… not something I was particularly looking forward to. Much to my surprise I wasn’t hungry, didn’t feel I was missing out on anything and was no more tired than to be expected with such long, physical days.
I learnt the most from the philosophy. The teacher was a professor of classical Chinese philosophy and in particular the works of Confucius and Laozi. Having always struggled with finding meaning in life, philosophy was not new to me but I’d never seen it from a classical Chinese perspective. Ironically the classical approach made more sense to me than the modern Western equivalents. Nothing felt new but it was presented with such simplicity and no desire to make it sound any easier than it is. The Western approach seems to suggest there is an art or a skillset that can be taught — the Chinese way is to just do. There was a particular example given by the teacher where an old master was giving advice, he was asked how he could forgive. His response, “Just forgive”. How he could forget something, “Just forget”. This told me all I needed to know, and something that all the books I’ve read have failed to explain to me. That is the simplicity of the action, but also the challenge you face. Simplicity is not easy, in fact it often requires the most work. And it’s exactly that that I realised, changing how you think about anything is very simple but very hard.
I learnt that too much is as bad as too little. My own misery comes from too much I believe. It’s a self manufactured problem but one that only exists when I’m in an environment that offers me choice — or rather too much choice. There's an ideal balance of having enough to provide food, shelter and security but too much can bring complications that we’re not equipped to handle. I don’t think this is necessarily an issue for everyone but it is very much for me and I’m sure I’m not alone.
I learnt to just sit. Learning to sit whilst eating, sit whilst working, sit whilst fighting, sit whilst walking. And of course to sit while sitting. If you can learn to sit then it benefits everything you do.
Most of all I learnt to take the middle path. Or rather I learnt I should take the middle path. I forget to — a lot. Not to chase pleasure nor wallow in pain. Not to dwell in the past nor hope for the future.
I found the simplicity of the classical Chinese approach to philosophy refreshing. Perhaps it was just where I was in my life at that time or perhaps we have a habit of overly complicating things in the West but concepts which I'd struggled to understand were presented to me in a way that I understood. It was an amazing feeling. It was also hard to believe they could be so simple. Although I guess the flip side is once you understand the simplicity of the concept then the implementation becomes harder. Or easier perhaps. It’s a grey area for me. The example I remember as being most profound for me was of an old master having achieved enlightenment, whose followers came to him with difficult situations where they would ask questions such as how do I forgive someone who has done me great wrong? His reply would simply be “Just forgive”. For me this made so much sense, it’s both incredibly simple yet infinitely complex, but the main points are that there are no complex techniques required, that you have complete control, you have to really want to.
I shared my room with a Mexican vegan who was living in China studying traditional medicine. He gave me a respect for life that I hadn’t previously had. I no longer murder innocent insects for the simple crime of annoying me or causing mild discomfort. I may change my mind in a malaria zone though and I do still consume my own bodyweight in meat every day so it's a small change.
One of the students achieved enlightenment several times on the course. I think this was more a lack of understanding of enlightenment mixed with a sense of enthusiasm beyond my own.
I enjoyed my time at the retreat, I really felt like part of the family there. It is a special place. They even took me to a training camp for martial arts movies where dozens of children where learning to fight for the camera. I got to test out some of my moves whilst 8 people hoisted me through the air on a series of pulleys. It was a lot of fun if somewhat uncomfortable on my gentleman parts.
Leaving the sanctity of the suburbs for the centre of Beijing was quite a shock to the system and with hindsight, perhaps the wrong way round to do things. There may be 9 billion bicycles in Beijing but most of them are rusting on the side of the road. Everyone now has a car and a desire to run me over it would seem. I stayed a few days in Wangfujing which was too commercial and soulless, with the exception of the touristy food street and its variety of unusual insects on sticks it was just a display of China’s new money and not for me. So I moved to a more vibrant area in the Nanluogu Xiang hutong. I was confused at first as it's clearly very touristy but nothing was in English… it was for Chinese tourists. I loved it there, perhaps it was the salty yoghurt drink, the sweet cheesy toast or the cat cafes but I was happy to just walk up and down the main street there for hours. I was less happy with my accommodation though…
Arriving at my Airbnb apartment in the hutong I looked around downstairs for the toilet, realising it must be up on the mezzanine sleeping area I walked up the stairs. There was a Christmas tree waiting for me there (in September) but no toilet so I went back downstairs, checking the kitchen I found a shower tucked behind the fridge… it was then I realised my mistake. I had managed to book an apartment with no toilet. There’s a good chance you’re thinking that this can’t happen as surely no such place would exist. Well, they do in the hutongs, in fact all the houses and apartments are like this. The realisation truly dawned as I walked across the street, following the distinctive aroma that only a public toilet can provide. To be fair the public toilets are kept very clean and it’s no real hardship once you get accustomised. It is however a bit of a shock when you’re not expecting it.
Fortunately I was fully prepared for the cultural differences of China but even with a laid back attitude there were challenges to deal with, however if you embrace the differences rather than fight them then they can be surprisingly enjoyable. Highlights include:
- Discovering I had no toilet in my apartment.
- Having my dirty washing emptied all over a hotel reception to be counted. Five pairs of dirty pants, four pairs of dirty socks and 2 t-shirts to be precise.
- Pushing in. Everyone loves to push in when queuing for anything. This is particularly frustrating for the British as we like to preserve the sanctity of the queuing system. It is there to be respected.
- Spitting. Everywhere. There’s nothing more pleasant than someone hocking up a nice big ball of phlegm and spitting at your feet. Charming.
- Being the only foreigner. This was a big surprise for me as I assumed the world was full of Western tourists, not China. It’s full of Chinese tourists. It made all the tourist areas much more exciting though as everything was native. It did also mean I was constantly stared at by everyone and treated like a celebrity (or oddity).
- Meeting a parrot that could speak better Chinese than me. I like to make an effort with the local language so being outwitted by a bird was pretty demoralising. I ended up meeting two more birds later with similar linguistic skills.
- Discovering that the Chinese don’t smell. I found this out the hard way as I was in need of some deodorant. For some strange reason it didn’t seem to be sold in any supermarkets and asking just resulted in blank faces. I managed to track down a large pharmacy where I eventually found three cans of Lynx for the princely sum of £7 each. I was confused. Confused that this was all they had and confused that it was so expensive. Walking away £7 poorer I did a bit of googling — apparently 80 to 95% of East Asians have a gene that prevents the bacteria that like to feast on sweat. No smell means no deodorant. I had no idea.
It's hard to tell the genuine Chinese with an interest in foreigners from the people trying to con you. Nowhere else I've been have the two been so similar, normally the difference is significant. One interaction I had went like this, "Would you like help translating anything to English? Can I practice my English with you? Would you like to go for a beer? Would you like a massage? Would you like sex? Give me 20 yuan. You fucking loose out." Feeling confident that the whole country was out to get me my next interaction was a local telling me that "This way not for you", pointing in another direction instead, no thanks I say, not interested, I'm British and know where I'm going — a few minutes later I sheepishly walk back the other way feeling rather embarrassed.
The Chinese have a fascination with their own history and culture. But in part as it's as unknown to them as it is to me. This became obvious to me when learning at zen garden — these are not things that modern Chinese people study. It's becoming more popular again but they have lost their traditions and are some of the most un-Confuscian people imaginable.
China was my first experience of being a novelty. Lots of locals, especially teenagers wanted to take their photo with me. I like to think they thought I was David Beckham or Hugh Grant but I think it's more likely I was just very pasty and stood out. There were hardly any tourists here. Well... apart from the Chinese. I started writing this sat in Cat Castle, a British/castle themed cat cafe in the Nanluogu Xiang hutong. I appear to be both the only foreigner here as well as the only man. Fortunately for me the menu has pictures. That's how I knew to order something where they made the rice into the face of a cat for me. They have a few Scottish Folds here and every time one enters the room I grab my camera and try to get a picture, sadly they don't share the same enthusiasm for my photography as I do and are not very compliant. Their indifference sculpted by the hands of a thousand strangers. A few days later as I walked past at night I realised they have a massive fucking wild cat in the window, some sort of Leopard apparently. I've no idea how I didn't see it before, sadly they didn't let it mix with customers for obvious reasons.
Having enjoyed a donkey burger or two after a walk around the lake at Houhai, I thought I'd have a drink before heading back. Tea is surprisingly pricey in China — considering it's so popular I thought it would be inexpensive. It was generally twice the price of coffee at most cafes. I treated myself to a cup at a traditional tea house overlooking the lake albeit in a touristy area. I was pretty shocked when they gave me the menu. It was about $10 for the cheapest cup — and several hundred for some of the rarer varieties. It was a nice cup of tea and the experience was worth it with the formality of the preparation and the environment. I did however feel like an animal on display at a zoo. Sat in the window all alone with the Chinese tourists stopping and staring at me, the lesser spotted English man drinking the native tea. As much as I was getting used to being an oddity here, I'm sure I'd have been ogled less had I been sat in McDonalds.
There's an air of oppression in public places, particularly Tianamin Square and the train stations. A permanent presence of police, military and what I assume to be plain clothes officials felt over the top — more intimidating than reassuring. It's not that anyone seems to do anything wrong here, ever, and oppression is perhaps the wrong word, it's more that they are ready to respond to an incident quickly. You just get the feeling that the incident would be internal dissatisfaction rather than any international issues that we may be more used to seeing security forces in place for.
Travel opens your eyes to different views on the world. One such different view here is their love for Chairman Mao, in the West we're taught that he's one of the greatest mass murderers of all time yet he's respected and even worshipped here — by the people he killed. He's seen as someone who rapidly transformed the country from a poor agricultural nation to an industrial superpower. Perhaps they see it as a necessary evil or survival of the fittest. It's sometimes a little too easy to sit and judge in the cozy developed Western world. We've done some shocking things to get to where we are as well but I guess ours are less recent (unless you look to the Middle East) and time allows us to view history with less severity.
China seems to be the place to go in your old age, pensioners are out at the crack of dawn practicing Tai Chi in the park, you'll see them throughout the day exercising in what look like children's play areas but are exercise parks and in the evening you can find them dancing or singing in the park. They don't hide away in their homes waiting for death, they are enjoying their lives with dignity and probably extending them too.
Of course I went to the great wall. Travelling a bit further out meant I was able to avoid the crowds and get to see the sunset. At least I would have been able to see the sunset if there wasn’t so much smog. There wasn't a cloud in the sky but the sun was disappearing behind the dense low fog — too thick for any light to escape.
Whilst attempting to tackle all of China in one trip was clearly going to be too much, I thought it better to at least head to Xi’an to see the terracotta warriors. The 300km/h bullet train makes the journey in an acceptable 5 hours. I usually travel economy but decided on business class for this journey. It’s the first time I’ve ever not wanted to get out of my seat at the destination. From my comfortable reclining leather throne I was able to watch the countryside alternate between farmland and the infamous ghost towns in various stages of development.
Xi’an was a surprise as having headed so far from Beijing I was expecting some tranquility. Somehow it seemed busier there. More condensed perhaps. It’s an interesting city with the old walls still surrounding the centre. The gatehouses lit up at night competing with the neon signs of new China.
Leaving China was a very different rail experience, 32 hours on a sleeper train to Tumen in 6 berth open compartments. I was heading to Tumen to walk across the bridge into North Korea. A crossing only 30 Westerners a year get to make.
I’m planning on going back to China one day and exploring much more of the country, there’s a lot on offer and I've barely touched the surface.
I attended the 7 day retreat at Kung Fu Zen and highly recommend it. They also offer shorter retreats or you can study Shaolin Kung Fu from true masters.