4/9 We had another early start to take the bus to Shaolin, a small but very famous village between Xi’an and Beijing. Many tourists stay in a heavily populated area a few hours from Shaolin but the Dragon Trip had a fabulous family run guest house a mere ten minutes drive from the temple- a luxury which meant we would be able to get to the temple itself in the morning a couple of hours before the bus loads of tourists.
The guest house was really a little family farm, and we were greeted by an adorable little girl and a whole host of chickens and geese. As the guest house was so tiny we had the whole place to ourselves which was a real relief from the hustle and bustle of the multiple hostels we had stayed in over the last few days. It was peaceful and calm- a much needed respite.
In the early evening we headed to the ‘Shaolin Kung Fu Children’s Home’ full of amazing, disciplined and focussed children ranging from 8 years old to 16.
The boys had all been selected from some of the poorest communities surrounding Shaolin, and their parents were only asked to pay £200 for the whole year which covered their food, accommodation and education. This was a massive contrast with the Shaolin Temple Kung Fu school ten minutes down the road, where rich Chinese families pay £7200 per year for their children to attend.
The master of the children’s home was formerly a Buddhist monk who felt that he needed to give something to poor young people in the community, so he left his life as monk and set up this school, where he is responsible 24/7 for the young people selected to attend. Amongst the local communities being selected is a huge privilege, and the children are more than willing to train for 8 hours a day in order to honour their place. They perform in excess of 200 back flips a day to build their core strength and dexterity and train in a range of different Kung Fu arts. The children go home once per year for Chinese New Year- I can only imagine how unrecognisable the children must seem to their parents after 365 days of minimal contact. A year in the life of a teenager is a very long time!
Following the incredible show, we took part in a Kung Fu lesson, led by the master but supported by the children. I must admit that Kung Fu isn’t really my calling in life, particularly considering my talent for falling over, but all of the money from the lessons goes directly to the children and their education, so I wanted to participate for that reason mainly, and also so that I could hang out with the children for a little longer.
I had the youngest of the school’s children as my assistant- he was incredibly strong and was constantly correcting my hand and leg position with quite some force! I tried to loosen him up a little by making silly noises and faces but then he got into trouble with the master for making animal noises at me- I must be a bad example- who would have thought it….
The lesson was quite long so we enjoyed watching the sun set as we tried to follow the master’s instructions. The others were absolutely eaten by mosquitos, many boasting more than 20 bites. However, I am yet to get a single one- I mustn’t have very tasty blood, but I’m not complaining!
Following our lesson we had some time to play with the children, so I broke the ice by teaching them some English phrases which they picked up really quickly, and all wanted to try out. We then progressed to ‘Rock Paper Scissors’. I seem to be a magnet for Chinese children so before long I was surrounded, and children were pushing each other out of the way to get their go. I enforced a queuing system (I had seen their fighting skills earlier and didn’t think I could separate a brawl) and played with them for a while. They got so invested that they physically barred the door with their bodies so I couldn’t leave even though our ride was outside!
It’s so great to be meeting children from all over the world and learning more about their lives: I’m so glad I’m bringing something positive here and many of my highlights have been with the children I’ve met. My visits to underprivileged children are constantly reminding me of how much I will be glad to get back to Thomas Estley when my travels are over and share some of the stories and lessons I’ve learned with young people at home. The difference between young people’s lives here and young people’s lives in Broughton Astley is really quite overwhelming!