Letter from China: Xi’an and the road to Shaolin

Note: This is a blog post about my six-month journey across India and China. To find out more about why I went on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin. In the interest of clarity, I am not publishing this “from China”, but Singapore, where I am back now.


Chinese Muslim, People’s Park, Xi’an

A continuation of Letter from China: It’s Wu-dang!

Despite Wudang’s serenity and peacefulness, our week there leaves us quite tired, due to a combination of 12hr days, relentless interviews and photo shoots, mountain hiking and cab shortages. Thus we are glad to board the Sunday morning bus to Xi’an, via Shiyan, the closest big city to Wudang, where we have a one-hour stopover.

Foreigners frequently stumble over the intonations and pronunciations of Chinese words, especially when reading from the “Pinyin” versions, i.e. written in the Latin alphabet. But in that one week, as we are trying to navigate a route out of Wudang, I experience more lost-in translation moments than ever before with “Xi’an” and “Shiyan”.

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Wudang (A) – Xi’an (B) – Luoyang (C) – Shaolin (D)

I don’t have too many plans for Xi’an, the starting point of the Silk road. It is simply one of these places that I have always wanted to visit that just so happens to be near where I am. Given that we have saved a fair bit of accommodation money in Wudang by staying at a simple hotel, I decide to check us in to something a bit more comfortable in Xi’an. So we end up in the Bell Tower Hotel, where luck delivers us two rooms with impossibly close views of the Bell Tower itself (pictured).


I end up spending mornings and evenings just staring out of the window, mesmerised by this 14th C Ming dynasty structure. It is located in the geographic centre of the old town, from which Ming dynasty guards could look for miles past the city walls, watching for intruders. Today it is surrounded by Uniqlo, McDonalds, and three Starbucks.

Kirit and I get into a discussion about the best hotel views on this trip: we decide that the urban Xi’an is rivalled only by the rural, and altogether different, Cheruthuruthy River Retreat in Kerala, where we had met Allan Waung, the Chindian man with relatives in Shandong (see Letter from India: People).

I also suggest to the team that we take one of the three days off: Julia uses it to catch up with an old friend; Kirit visits the terra-cotta warriors; and I try to live a developed-world writer’s life. I go for a jog, I type notes and work on my blog with the Bell Tower in the background, and for quick breaks I visit the nearby McDonalds and Starbucks.

Now, I should clarify that McDonalds and Starbucks are not my regular sources of nutrition, but after one oily week in Wudang, where even Coke was nowhere to be seen, some deep carnal impulse stirs within me. It drags my soul and stomach towards the golden arches and the green siren, and I am overcome with some deep, nostalgic, gastronomic comfort as soon as I taste that first mushy cheeseburger patty and hot, fairly traded, Timbuktu roast.

Xi’an arguably warrants a book of its own. In my short time there, a few things catch my attention. The first is diversity and tolerance. As soon as we leave the bus station, Kirit and I notice that many Chinese people look a little bit different; the Central Asian and Turkic influence is obvious. To be clear, what I mean is—in Xi’an there are Han Chinese as well as many minority groups; but even amongst the Han Chinese, many betray an ancestry of miscegenation.

The next day, I run into groups of Christian and Muslim Chinese singing and dancing happily, near each other, in the People’s Park (both pictured). Later, near the 8th C Great Mosque, in the Muslim quarter, I interview Jessica, a small-business owner (cafe and tea accessories), who is one of the most liberal Muslims I’ve met anywhere in the world, from her dress to her views on marital relations.



The second point of interest is Xi’an’s connection with India. Most importantly, we visit the Great Wild Goose Pagoda, which was built in the 7th C under the Tang dynasty, to preserve Buddhist sutras and relics that were brought back to China from India by Xuanzang, the famous Chinese Buddhist monk and traveller. Xuanzang’s travels provided the inspiration for the classic Chinese tale, Journey to the West, which was written nine centuries after his death—“the West”, of course, referring not to contemporary Western countries, but to Central and South Asia.

The 64.7m, 7-storey Great Wild Goose Pagoda (pictured) is a wonderful combination of an Indian stupa and Chinese wooden architecture—“an essential symbol of the sinicization of Buddhist architecture”, according to descriptions there. One day I hope to explore the many other Indo-connections in Xi’an, including the Famen Temple, 120km outside the city, where a relic believed to be Buddha’s finger bone is displayed.


The third thing about Xi’an that fascinates me is the food. There are so many delicious treats here, from full-on, hearty meals like Yang Rou Pao Mo (羊肉泡馍), crumbled unleavened bread in mutton stew, to little nibbles like persimmon fritters and dates. My favourite is Biang Biang Mian, a simple homemade noodle that is tossed in a sauce or stew that varies from one restaurant to the next. There is something irresistible about the savoury chewiness of the fresh noodles; it joins the sweet-spicy tian shui mian of Sichuan and chilli ban mian of Malaya as one of my favourite fresh noodle dishes. (For more food, please see Culinary post from China: Xi’an and Luoyang)



Above: Biang Biang mian, as served. Below: Post toss

As interesting is the Chinese character for Biang. With 57 strokes, this is regarded as the most complex character in the Chinese language (pictured). Moreover, the character has only one purpose—to describe this humble noodle dish from Xi’an. I simply cannot understand how such a complex word would have evolved to describe such a simple thing. I am at a linguistic loss.


Biang Biang Mian

It intrigues me so much so that with everybody in Xi’an I meet, the origins of the word Biang becomes the first order of conversation. Nobody is any wiser. I later find out on Wikipedia that this character was the subject of a television show in China, but even with the help of professors, no solid conclusion was reached. In the People’s Park, much to Julia’s embarrassment, I ask a hobbyist calligrapher if he can draw the character. Challenge accepted!

Coincidentally, while I am in China, there is a launch in Singapore of the book, Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea, 1300 – 1800. I start to wonder more about the similarities between these two crossroads of people and trade. In Xi’an there is certainly a kind of multicultural buzz that evokes memories of my dear home. Three days is way too short; I can’t wait to return, hopefully with my wife.

We leave Xi’an for Luoyang, about 80km from Shaolin. My wife’s friend, Pei Yifan, meets us and shows us around her hometown. Yifan is an animal lover who is quite frank about her aversion to humans (I feel honoured that we even get to speak). She met my wife while they were both volunteering at Cheetah Outreach, a conservation centre, in South Africa. Through my conversations with Yifan, who is in her early twenties and now volunteers at the Luoyang zoo, I become a bit more confident about animal rights awareness amongst the younger generation of Chinese (more on this in the book).

Luoyang is one of China’s most historic cities—it served as the capital for 13 dynasties, and is also considered the cradle of Buddhism in the country. We marvel at the Longmen Grottoes, a collection of thousands of Buddhist statues carved into limestone caves, and dating back to the 5th C. The tallest is 17m in height, and clearly visible from across the river (pictured). I can only imagine how spectacular the 6th C 53m Buddha at Bamiyan, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, must have been.

Longmen 4

We also visit the White Horse Temple, believed to be the very first Buddhist temple in China, constructed initially in 68 AD. It has been rebuilt so many times over the years—a common trend across much of China—that we cannot find any remnants of the original two-millenia old building. Like other Buddhist pilgrimage sites, such as Sarnath in Bihar, the area around the temple now resembles a sort of global Buddhist community, with distinctive temple architecture from every major Buddhist country in the world.

There are many panels and paintings within the Temple referencing India and depicting Bodhidharma. Moreover, some Chinese texts suggest that Bodhidharma himself actually spent time in Luoyang, although this claim has been refuted by Andy Ferguson in his book Tracking Bodhidharma (2012). Regardless, all this talk of Bodhidharma is getting me excited. Shaolin awaits.

We drive to Shaolin on a cold, gloomy afternoon, with a mixture of excitement and frustration. At every other martial arts destination, we have arrived with expectant hosts waiting. Typically, about a week before we reach a place, my Singapore-based research assistants Arjun Nihalani and Eddie Choo will email us a list of martial arts schools to contact. Then Kirit, Julia and/or I will make a few phonecalls and send a few emails. By the time we actually get to a martial arts destination, there are usually at least two or three different gurus or shifus waiting to meet “a Singaporean author and his project team”.

Not so in Shaolin. The folks at Shaolin do not need any additional publicity or business. One school Julia calls flatly tells her “No. We do not want to meet you.” Another school informs Julia that we will need to get permission from the Henan government before they can talk to us.

It is worth noting here that before the trip to China began, I gave a lot of thought to conducting this research formally, i.e. going through the proper channels and obtaining permission to write a book on Chinese martial arts. But two things stopped me. First, I did not want to risk having some authority figure watching over us—“If the book is on martial arts, why are you interviewing Muslims in Xi’an?”

Second, I enjoy the spontaneity of the trip; I do not want to make and keep to hard interview schedules, but rather just drop in and drop out of places, seeing what my yuen fen, fate, delivers. That was the research style for my first book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze, and I quite like it, even though it means I sometimes miss people who are unavailable.

Another Shaolin school Julia calls conducts an over-the-phone inquisition into my writing track record. The conversation, of course, takes about five seconds, afterwhich they decide that I’m not worth the bother. My worst fears have been realised: with Bollywood, Hollywood and the rest of the damn world knocking on Shaolin’s door, who has got time for a two-bit Singaporean writer?

Julia, on her very first research trip, is feeling quite demotivated after all those calls. My brief experience interviewing has taught me that people, especially Asians, are much less likely to say “No” in person. Hence I am fairly relaxed, if a bit annoyed.

Even though I have been repeatedly warned about Shaolin’s over-commercialisation, it still jars. In every other martial arts destination, even Wudang, one has to get on the ground and search within the city for the martial artists. In Dengfeng—the closest city to the Shaolin Temple—one has to look past the martial artists just to see the city.

On either side of the road, there are schools that resemble military academies, with hundreds of students in identical tracksuits, milling around, some jogging, some kicking the air. Billboards everywhere advertise wushu. The streets are lined with shops that sell uniforms, punching bags and other exercise accessories.

Oh, and lots of shoes, especially many shades of Feiyue, the footwear of choice for martial artists (pictured). My friends are in shock when I tell them that a pair of Feiyues—which has achieved a cult following in the West, where it is sometimes traded for hundreds of dollars—costs RMB25 (US$5) in Dengfeng.


My wife promptly orders a pair, which I agree to buy only because she’s my wife. When one is lugging bags from sidewalks to buses to trains and back again over 24-hour trips, every gram counts; on my last trip home, I removed even unnecessary pens from my luggage.

What really shocks me is the hotel that we’re booked in. The Weilai Yiju Hotel sits in a large complex whose centrepiece is the Shi Xiaolong Martial Arts Academy, where seven thousand boys and girls are enrolled. Alongside dormitories, performance halls and canteens sits Dengfeng’s only cinema, a multi-screen complex where Kirit and I one night watch Gravity (3D).

With his giant image welcoming all visitors, one is tempted to conclude that the entire complex is an idolatrous temple for its benefactor, the 26-year old film star Shi Xiaolong, perhaps Dengfeng’s most famous native, who acted in his first film, Shaolin Popey, when he was six. But through my interviews I learn about how the school helps some children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and also inspires others to dream, not just about movie careers but other vocations, such as physical trainers, too.

And, in that escapist bubble of the multi-screen cinema with the soda dispenser and popcorn stand, Dengfeng’s residents look mighty chuffed that they can finally taste a bit of real movie magic—and not just fake DVDs. Even if his ego is outsized, the “little dragon” (xiao = little; long = dragon) is much respected here.

Unfortunately for Julia, Kirit and I, the little dragon may have forgotten to pay his bills. When we check into our rooms, we discover that in this sub-zero climate there is no hot water; the solar-generator will work only when the clouds clear, which may not happen in the next month. Worse, the flush isn’t working very well; one has to manually top up the water tank after every flush.

Julia, who is especially aggrieved by these inconveniences, hurriedly starts looking for a new hotel on Ctrip.com, a travel booking site that we use frequently in China. Thankfully, we find a decent one not too far away, and the team’s morale is restored.

Over the course of that week in Shaolin, we visit two more large academies, Epo and Tagou. On the one hand, it is uplifting to see so many young Chinese being schooled in martial arts—watching hundreds of students shouting and punching in unison gives me goosebumps. On the other hand, there is something cold, calculative and impersonal about the entire Shaolin mass-market, mass-education model that seems so far removed from the meditative origins of this artform.

To put it another way: in Wudang, most students seem to be developing a deep appreciation for taiji’s taoist philosophies in tandem with their physical training; in Shaolin, by contrast, martial arts training seems to be a secular, pragmatic means to an end.

These are all initial thoughts that I hope to explore in greater detail in the book. The one interview I want to describe is with Jiao Hong Min (焦宏敏), the shifu of the Shaolin Temple Wushu Training Center, the only martial arts school officially affiliated to the Shaolin Temple itself.

The story continues at Letter from China: Shaolin and Bodhidharma


More photos:

(For food photos, please see Culinary post from China: Xi’an and Luoyang)



The 7th C Grand Mosque of Xi’an. An impressive wooden structure


Haircut by the city wall

Indian dress up

We found this shop interesting. Chinese come in and dress as Indians for a photo shoot. Not wedding related, but just for fun. In the foreground is Kirit chatting with a university student keen to practise English. From ancient times, Xi’an has been a university hub.


A Chinese Muslim in the People’s Park. His glassy, blue-gray eyes betray some Central Asian ancestry


Forget all the wushu warriors. This is the craziest stretch I saw on the trip. Old fella held it there for at least 15 minutes.


Ping pong, People’s Park, Xi’an

Oba Mao

The “commie” Obama spotted at the bazaar in the Muslim quarter, Xi’an. If only these vendors knew how to market to the Tea Party…



Longmen 2

Longmen 3

Longmen 5

The Longmen grottoes

old town

Luoyang old town


WHT Living

WHT old man

Above three shots from the White Horse Temple



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