Kung fu is synonymous with China. Not unlike giant pandas, dumplings, Mao, The Great Wall and Qingdao beer … eventually, it will creep into conversation. Perhaps this has become even more the case since 2008, when the DreamWorks animation ‘Kung Fu Panda’ was released (which I confess to seeing at the movies and also watching numerous times on DVD after receiving it as a birthday present!).
With only a few days to travel on my recent holiday break, and having already travelled extensively throughout China, I decided to head northwest into Henan Province, to explore the home of Kung Fu.
Almost immediately after my arrival, I felt that Henan was different from some of its richer coastal neighbours. As I only spent a few short days in Henan I don’t want to make too many assumptions, however living here appeared to be ‘harder’. Signs of this could be seen from my bus and train windows, with heavy industry causing significant air pollution, agriculture (in sometimes difficult conditions) being the main form of employment and a visible poverty. I do want to be quick to point out though, that the people, just like the rest of China, were really lovely and friendly, and the food – just as delicious!
The Unesco World Heritage listed Longmen Caves was my first stop, and was all and more that I had anticipated. I walked around the grotto site for a few hours in stunned silence at the ancient Buddhist artistry. It is believed that the carving began in AD 494, continuing over the following 200 years, and resulting in over 100,000 images and statues of Buddha and his disciples! The carvings ranged in size from minute to as high as 17 meters. Quite spectacular.
With a brief stopover at the first Buddhist temple built on Chinese soils, the White Horse Temple, I continued on to Song Shan, Dengfeng and the Shaolin Temple (the traditional home of Kung Fu). If I was eagerly anticipating a small hilltop temple with monks reverently and disciplinarily practicing an ancient art form – I would have been bitterly disappointed! Fortunately, a friend of mine had already visited and warned me of the Chinese tourist Mecca it had become. With this in mind, I did enjoy the cheesiness of demonstrations, souvenirs and photos with kung fu clad guys. There were also a couple of redeeming points in amongst the kitsch –the beautiful backdrop of Song Shan (mountains), and also a fascinating cemetery of over 200 small pagodas known as the Pagoda Forest.
All in all an enjoyable few days, where I was able to further appreciate China, its history and diversity. However, I would probably not recommend first time travellers chose to spend time here.