Letter from China: Shaolin and Bodhidharma

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.

Zhang Yong

Zhang Yong, one of the shifus at the Shaolin Temple Wushu Training Center

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

The Shaolin Temple…at last

Two days after reaching Dengfeng, we visit the Shaolin Temple. After paying the RMB100 (US$16) per head entrance fee, we walk through the ticket counter, and soon pass one branch of the Tagou school on our right. We keep walking for another five minutes to arrive at the wushu demonstration centre, which has hourly performances. Even at 9 in the morning, some 30minutes before the first performance, a queue has formed.

Continue reading

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.

P1150634

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”.

Continue reading

From Kerala to Shaolin: Thanks to supporters

P1010658

Dear friends, 2013 has been a crazy, fun, wild year. For the first time since college in the US, I spent more of the year outside than inside Singapore, my home. In completing my longest research trip to date, I travelled overland more than 20,000 km from Kaniyakumari at the southern tip of India to Beijing in China, crossing Nepal and the Tibetan plateau in the process.

Having spent more than six months in China and India, I now know much more about life in both countries; and yet, have also been made painfully aware of how much more I have to learn. The research will continue next year. (For more on my book project, please see here.)

There are many people I have to thank for making this trip possible, and for helping me along the way. It may seem premature to do this before I have even started writing the book. But the publishing world is a fickle one, and I would like to say thanks regardless of what happens next.

The ones I can’t name include you, dear reader, for clicking on my frivolous blog posts and occasionally sending me comments and feedback; and all the incredibly friendly people I met in China and India.

I must, however, name the people who financially supported the project, as well as those who were part of my team. Without them, none of this would have been possible.

People in both groups took a big risk. The former because I am sure there are many wiser ways to invest one’s money than in a novice writer’s jaunt across Chindia. The latter because I know that these talented people sacrificed other projects in order to follow and help me.

So, a very big thank you. I’ll do my best not to disappoint you.

———————————-

Funders:

Ho Beng Huat

Arvind Khattar

Sat Pal Khattar

Dinesh Shahra

Ganesh Shanmugam

Angeline Tay

Anjula Thomas

Annmarie Thomas

Easaw Thomas

Singapore’s National Arts Council (NAC):

It’s only right that I thank all Singaporean taxpayers, because it’s your arts money that has been chanelled towards this project. Additionally, I want to say thanks to the NAC for supporting this project, after being unable to fund my first project, Floating on a Malayan Breeze.

Then, NAC told me that my book had “the potential to undermine the Singapore government”, so they couldn’t support it. It was, of course, hugely disappointing for me that my country’s arts council distanced itself from my very first book. But now, happiness! Good to have NAC’s support for my second project.

Project team:

Eddie Choo, who provided research assistance

Jeffrey Chu, who travelled with me in Nepal as well as Chengdu to Shanghai

Kirit Kiran, who travelled with me for six months, from Kaniyakumari to Beijing

Julia Lee, who travelled with me from Shanghai to Weifang

Arjun Nihalani, who provided research assistance

Tan Kane Juan, who travelled with me in Nepal and Tibet

And, saving the best for last, my dear wife, Ho Li Ling. Thanks for putting up with my six-month absence! (Although she had gotten so used to not having me around that my presence again was a bit disruptive, ha.)

———————————-

Thank you, everybody. I feel blessed. Here’s to a great new year!

sunset

Letter from China: Guangdong and Fujian

Note: This is an on-the-road blog post. To find out more about why I am on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin

————————————————

A continuation of First letter from China: Sichuan

Ip Man small

Bust of Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s shifu, in Foshan, Guangdong

Buses

When we try to leave Sichuan for Guangdong (Canton), Jeffrey Chu, my Shanghai-based Taiwanese-American friend, Kirit Kiran, the Delhi-based photographer, and I are faced with the contemporary traveller’s worst scheduling nightmare: the Chinese national holidays. Our journey comes near the end of the weeklong holiday around October 1st, the national day of the People’s Republic of China, when in 1949 Mao Tse-Tung declared that “The Chinese people have stood up!”

There is certainly a lot of standing to be done. We stand in Emei, as hordes of domestic tourists—some with walking stick and camera, others dressed to the nines—flood the usually peaceful Emei shan, mountain. When we reach Chengdu, we stand outside the quaint boutique hotel I booked through booking.com; they are overbooked, and don’t have a room for us, and so after two hours of calling around they find us another hotel thirty minutes away.

Continue reading

First letter from China: Sichuan

Note: This is an on-the-road blog post. To find out more about why I am on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin

————————————————

A continuation of Postcard from Tibet: Drinking yak butter tea

P1130869

Chengdu streetfood

Chengdu

When I find out that our mainland China trip will begin in Chengdu, I am overjoyed. Before this Kerala2Shaolin research trip, I had visited only a few mainland Chinese cities: Chengdu, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Zhuhai. By some distance, Chengdu is my favourite.

Li Ling, my wife, and I had visited in April 2012. Ling, on her first ever visit to the land of her forefathers, was filled with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, worried about a week of musky hotel rooms, smoky restaurants and squalid, squatting-only toilets.

Deciding on Chengdu back then was easy. Ling wanted to look at animals and I wanted to eat them. Few places attract animal lovers and carnivores so effortlessly: Chengdu is home to the world’s foremost Panda sanctuary; it is also one of Asia’s gastronomic capitals, the centre of Sichuan cuisine. After five days we were smitten, by the comical, goofy pandas, by the irresistible “mala” spice (ma: numbing;  la: spicy) and, unexpectedly, by the charming, laid-back people of Sichuan, who seem less interested in China’s hot growth than China’s hot tea. (For a more detailed digression into mala and Sichuanese food, see Culinary post from China: Sichuan)

Continue reading

Postcard from Nepal: Teej and Trout

This is an on-the-road blog post. To find out more about why I am on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin.

————————————————

A continuation of Last letter from India: Manipur

I go to Nepal to get to Tibet.

It is all part of “maintaining the integrity of my trip”, as Jeffrey Chu, my Shanghai-based travel companion in China, puts it. When I first sketch out the broad outlines of this trip, one guiding principle is my desire to travel overland—no flights—from the southernmost point of India to the northernmost point of China. My experience while researching my first book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze, when Sumana Rajarethnam and I cycled around the whole of Peninsular Malaysia, taught me the importance of observing transitions in climate, land, vegetation, people, in understanding a large, diverse country.

While I am not bothered about travel within India and China, I worry about how I’m going to cross the Himalayas to get from one country to the other. Tibet, therefore, emerges as the potential Achilles Heel of this trip. Continue reading

Last letter from India: Manipur

Note: This is an on-the-road blog post. To find out more about why I am on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin.

————————————————

A continuation of Letter from India: Gatka

The first time I hear about Manipur is when I am doing my preliminary research into Indian martial arts, and something called “Thang-Ta”, which doesn’t sound very Indian at all, shows up. Subsequently, as I travel across India, different martial arts gurus insist that I must visit Manipur to see one of the country’s finest martial arts.

Having never been there, my perceptions of India’s Northeast are superficial. I believe it is a region of hill stations, tea plantations, and a thousand separatists; but beyond that I know little. If you look at a map of South Asia, you will see that the long journey of nationalism and statehood has left India with this chunk of territory, the Northeast, connected to the rest by an extremely narrow passage, which almost looks like India’s little pinky, holding on desperately (see map). Continue reading

Travel note from India: Chandipur beach, Orissa

If you enjoy visiting places that still feel raw and untouched, and where tourists are rare; yet also developed enough that you can easily get there, and enjoy clean toilets, comfortable beds and Wifi, move Orissa—now known as Odisha—up your travel list.

Kirit and I travel here to investigate paika akhada, one of India’s lesser-known martial art forms. I am eager to find out why, in comparison to gatka, kalarippayattu, silambam and thang-ta, Orissa’s martial art seems to be very much on the decline. (For more on my book project, From Kerala to Shaolin, please see here.)

In between our martial arts interviews and exhibitions, Orissa leaves the wanderlusty travellers in us absolutely smitten. Bhubaneshwar, where we begin our journey, is known as the Temple City of India. I am not really one for marvelling at temple architecture, but the stone and wood work is so intricate and unique—unlike all the hundred others I’ve seen in India—it takes my breath away. Moreover, when strolling around Bhubaneshwar’s old city, where the old and new are so seamlessly integrated, one can easily forget what age we’re in. It is one of these “living” old cities.

Other major Oriya attractions—which we didn’t have time for—include Puri, a seaside town which is an important Hindu pilgrimage centre, the Sun Temple at Konark, with its erotic sculptures, and the many forest reserves, including those with some of the best tiger populations around.

You should go before the international airport in Bhubaneshwar, the capital, is complete, because then, as we all know, the floodgates will open. As it stands now, it’s still very easy to get there via Bombay, Calcutta or Delhi. More info below.

For now, I will just leave you with one of the highlights of my trip so far: Chandipur Beach. I love beaches, and have been lucky to spend time on many across the entire world. Chandipur is, in a way, the most special. This is because of its unique topography. The sea bed’s incline is so gentle that the sea recedes up to five kilometres during low tide. Locals call it the vanishing sea.

At high tide, you can see the whites of oh-so-gentle waves forming from five kilometres out and slowly rolling in. At low tide, the topography creates a gigantic low-water expanse for one to explore and play in. You can let your three-year old kids run wild without ever worrying about them drowning.

Click to enlarge any image:

High tide

High tide. The whites of the waves form from far, far away, and slowly making their way to the shore Continue reading

Letter from India: Gatka

Note: This is an on-the-road blog post. To find out more about why I am on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin. In the interest of clarity, although I wrote most of this letter when in India, I am actually clicking “Publish” when in S Africa, where I am visiting my wife for a few days.

————————————————

A continuation of Letter from India: Philosophies

Buses

Screen Shot 2013-08-29 at 8.11.07 AM

By the time Kirit and I reach Punjab, buses have broken our backs. Unable to secure a seat on any northbound train, we board a series of overnight buses—Pondicherry to Hyderabad; Hyderabad to Nagpur; Nagpur to Indore; Indore to Jaipur; Jaipur to Chandigarh; and, finally, Chandigarh to Amritsar—collectively taking more than 50 hours over some 3000km, greater than the distance from Hong Kong to Singapore, or Houston to San Francisco.

In Indore we break our journey for a few days, visiting my Nani’s house every day for home cooking. Then, as if to compensate for those comforts, our karma delivers the bus from hell. We have two “upper sleepers” on a “Non-AC bus” to Jaipur. This doesn’t sound too shabby, but when we board we find a dirty, old interior. The faux leather plastic on my bed’s “headrest” is completely worn, exposing the spongy foam beneath. Every time I lift my head up, I find little bits of black foam clinging lovingly to my hair. The bed itself is sandy. That is partly its steady state, and partly my doing, as I keep my soiled slippers up there with me, rather than down below on the even filthier bus floor, where they might get trampled on by even filthier slippers.

Across the aisle, on a double-sleeper on the other side of the bus, are my travel companions: an elderly man and his white terrier, “Kutta”, literally dog in Hindi. Kutta is actually quite cute, but he annoys me by barking sporadically and also because I’m envious of his royal diet: burfi, which I look at longingly, every time the man places one delicately in Kutta’s mouth. Kutta’s bark isn’t the only aural pain. At every available opportunity our bus driver blares his irritating horn, which in India can range from the multi-layered melodious to the fart-like. The racket is worse than anything those post-South Africa 2010 Vuvuzuela nuts conjured. I regret booking a sleeper in the front of the bus.

Continue reading