I have been meaning to write down some thoughts about my travels in China back in December and January but as the year has got off to a light-speed start, and we suddenly find ourselves entering the tail end of February, it feels as though a travelogue is a little late already from a trip which finished well over a month ago.
So rather than a day by day description of my time training and travelling in the awe-inspiring Yunnan province, I thought I would offer three prominent thoughts after having some time to let the experience seep into my my bones and ruminate around my mind for a while.
Back to Basics
Those who know me will know that I am a pretty minimal person (unless you just see my car on training days when it is full of equipment and pads!) and to the horror of my partner’s children I didn’t even own a TV until very recently when we moved into a new house together.
I am not one for accumulating ‘stuff’ and as long as I have a few essentials, I’m good to go… my entire trip in China was done on a bag which I could fit into hand luggage on the plane.
So it should come as no surprise that one aspect of being in the temple that I loved was the stripping away of everything that is not essential. I think this is a very important thing for people to do occasionally – whether you’re a militant minimalist, or a hardcore hoarder.
All we had were the essentials for sustenance and training, which allowed us to focus on the task at hand – learning and refining Kung Fu!
In both the online and offline worlds we inhabit these days, there are a myriad of distractions and personally it is something that I need to be very aware of in order to be productive. I’m sure I’m not alone here! I have learnt to take myself away from distractions when I’m training and working, otherwise my monkey mind with find an alluring new thing to leap towards.
Now, I admit that going to a remote corner of China to a Buddhist temple to learn traditional martial arts MAY just be taking this to the extreme but even for me it was a great reminder on how stripping away everything that isn’t essential for the task at hand give your training, work, family life… whatever it is that you are trying to improve on… a huge boost.
Get Lost in the Mountains on Christmas Day
Now I have to admit that I’m not the person with the best sense of direction – the phrase ‘turns around and he gets lost’ is one I heard on more than one occasion growing up. This coupled with an attitude of ‘screw it I’ll just do it anyway, what’s the worst that can happen?’, is perhaps not the best ingredients for a 7 or 8-ish hour hike into the mountains and wilderness alone.
(This is the one thing I did whilst in China that I didn’t tell my partner, or my mum, that I was going to do… as the pair of them would probably be having kittens on Christmas Day!)
I stayed for a few days in an amazing place called Shaxi, a small market town – still very untouched – which was part of the tea and horse trading route between China and India. It truly felt like stepping back in time and was perhaps my favourite place of the whole trip. A 2-3 hour hike away is a temple complex of grottoes perched on top of a mountain approximately 7000 ft above sea level, knows as Shibao Shan (Shibao Mountain).
Beyond this – is another temple, Baoxiang Temple, overhanging a stone cliff, which you can get to after another 3 hours of hiking and then a lot of steps!
What an amazing way to spend Christmas day I thought…. and it truly was an amazing experience. Maybe my favourite day of the whole trip even. The whole hike took me way out of my comfort zone and placed me into the middle of the wilderness with nothing but trees, mountains and nature all around me.
I feel that we can get so bogged down in the day-to-day rat race that to force ourselves out of our comfort zones occasionally, testing our nerve, our endurance, courage and spending a whole day alone in nature with no one but ourselves for company can have a tremendously refreshing and positive effect. It’s all too easy to live within our limits without testing the boundaries of what we can do and achieve. Regardless of what it is, sometimes you need to throw caution to the wind a little bit and go into your own version of uncharted wilderness.
… and then at the end of the day, as I was finally heading back to a main road to hitch a ride back to Shaxi, it was as though the natural world rewarded me for my hiking efforts, as I looked to the other side of the road and saw one, then two, then three… then about 20-30 monkeys going about their business… I was mesmerised (and slightly nervous) but watching these amazing animals, babies included, climbing, playing, eating and no doubt communicating with each other, was truly awe inspiring.
So, go get lost in the mountains on Christmas Day, it might just be the best gift you can ever give yourself.
Dedicate Yourself to Learning
My China trip preparations this time started almost a year before, when I challenged myself to finally begin learning Mandarin. I’m no natural linguist, or so I had told myself for 20 years. I can speak passable Russian but I lived there for two years in my early 20’s, and that level of immersion, I thought, was the only reason I learnt it to a proficient level.
Actually what I realised when I was in a classroom learning Mandarin, that it was my aversion to ‘traditional’ classroom learning methods – rooted in my dislike of school and the educational system that I went through, which led me to the false belief that I couldn’t learn a language without actually living in the native country.
I think that we all know something well… whatever it is. It could be car mechanics, how to make clothing, how to bring up children, quantum physics… I don’t care who you are – you are pretty damned good at something!
For me it was martial arts and teaching martial arts. (It’s not arrogant to declare a level of competency in something that you have dedicated practically every day for well over 15 years to).
The light-bulb moment we all need to come to is to take that thing which we are all good at and apply it to anything else that we want to learn, as a kind of template.
So for me, to start my Mandarin learning journey, it was a case of doing some study every damned day – whatever it was, a class, a Skype one-to-one, using an app, an Audible book… whatever, just do something every day! With a mentality of life-long learning, which I think something like martial arts gives you, you can learn and achieve anything! (See point number 1 and strip away anything that isn’t essential!)
It’s so important to keep on learning, I think it’s better now and certainly more accessible in the online age in which we live, but there was – and perhaps still is – a mentality that the bulk of our learning takes place up until the age which we leave education in our late teens or early twenties.
The brain – as much as the body – needs exercise, requires training, demands improvement and refining. There is nothing worse than meeting someone you haven’t seen for a while and asking, ‘What have you been up to?’ and hearing the phrase, ‘Same old, same old’ .. or ‘Oh not much…’
Life is here for the living and the opposite is of course decay and death. Keep the brain (and body!) alive with a dedication to learning – applying the simple technique of giving yourself belief that you can learn by thinking of how you learnt something that you are already good at!
I forget for now who said it but I believe that if you can master one thing, you can master anything!
So keep that spirit of adventure, an enquiring mind, have experiences which you can learn from and a life which can be lived to its full potential!
So, three lifelong learning tools to take away from my trip to China. Nothing too ground breaking and they were really all things that I knew already – and no doubt things which my readers will be aware of themselves – but occasionally we just need to step out of ourselves, so to speak, to bring that awareness back into our lives and move forward with a refreshed determination – who wouldn’t benefit from that?