“Why the hell did I eat that?” I thought aloud, while my stomach vibrated and my elbows laid squeezed between the arms of fellow passengers on a train from Lijiang to Dali. I kept my legs and feet hunched under the seat as there was no leg room in this extremely crowded and cramped train car, which did not help my impending nausea.
I prayed I wouldn’t have to get up and use, what must be, a god forsaken toilet room. I mean there was just no way the rest room on this train was going to be a nice place. I sensed it was the type of bathroom in which one could walk into feeling perfectly well and in less than an instant, be curled up, hurling all over the floor. Yes I had heard stories from other travelers. In Asia, such dismal facilities were not altogether rare.
Apparently, I had to eat those sugary cakes that they sold at the station in Lijiang. I could have waited, I didn’t need to eat anything but I chose indulgence and my sweet tooth over feeling a little hungry. I was also tired from the busy last few days and weeks, really. Just having hiked the gorge, still dealing with a stomach bug that first emerged in Kunming and getting less than adequate sleep in dorm rooms was having an effect, without a doubt.
The couple hours went by quite slowly and I tried to find any sense of comfort that I could while seemingly, being the only foreigner in a less than polished train car, smooshed into a seat by loose bags and free flowing limbs. The thing I was starting to realize about China was, rarely anyone gives a fuck about personal space.
Arriving in the Dali Train station, I disembarked and set off into the city. Fortunately as I walked outside the train station, I saw another western traveler.
I saw a bit of relief in his eyes when he caught my glance. We approached each other from the crowded steps outside the station.
“How’s it going mate?”
“Glad to be off that train, where are you headed?” I replied.
“The Jade Emu International, and you?”
There was a shared sense of relief.
“Great! Lets try to find this bus then yeah?”
“Sounds good! Where are you from?”
Jack was Welsh and had been traveling through China for the past two months. His visa was expiring soon, so Dali would be his last stop before leaving for Hong Kong. After an hour of bus hopping around the city and then another forty five minutes of walking, we arrived at the Jade Emu.
It was a spacious hostel, complete with a restaurant and outdoor patio. It was close to Dali’s old town and near the city’s famous Buddhist Pagodas which dated back over seven centuries.
Jack and I checked into our dorm, got some food and then spent the remainder of the day exploring old town. Old Town was very similar to Lijiang in that it was a mix of old and new, authenticity and tourist traps. However, the further we went into Old Town and closer to Erhai lake, the less modern buildings and facilities we found.
The next day, Jack and I met another British man, Daniel who was on leave from the army, and a Chilean man, Christopher who was a college student studying in Beijing. Daniel was the type, who certainly was not lacking in the self esteem department and it wasn’t long into meeting him that we were treated to stories about all the women he had slept with on his travels. Chinese girls, Thai girls, Black girls, Germans and even American girls, he wasn’t shy about sharing the details.
“This Chinese Girl mate, she didn’t even hesitate, she just grabbed my…..”
While I remained passive throughout the conversation, as my mind was focused on the potential itinerary for the next few days, Christopher was roaring laughing and I sensed he had not been exposed prior to such crude locker room talk.
Being a college athlete and growing up with football players and wrestlers, it was not my first experience with obnoxious male boasting.
The next day, the four of us packers rented electric scooters and rode around Erhai lake and then explored the whole of Old Town. My first introduction into the feeling of freedom that riding a motorbike in Asia provides, was invigorating and I easily could have spent a few days doing just that around the stunningly scenic lake.
After a day of riding, we walked over to a bar in old town that was popular among backpackers. It was a rock and roll bar full of music memorabilla and a band playing so loud it was near impossible to have conversation.
The bar was full with other western travelers, though mostly Australians. The party Aussies as i liked to call them. Fuckers could drink anybody under the table and looked like they hadnt showered in weeks.
Hell, glancing down at the grey sport shorts I had been wearing for a couple days, we probably looked the same in that regard.
We began mingling with a group of Israeli women. They had just finished their required years in military service and were now spending a year traveling Asia.
I was a bit intrigued by these girls. Tall, long dark hair, sparkling eyes and muscular frames, they were friendly but a bit edgy.
The next few hours were a blur of muffled conversations in light of the music and many Tsingtaos; the horse piss beer of China.
Most everyone was well and drunk when I decided to call it a night and head back to the hostel. I had tempered my drinking and was still a bit cautious about going overboard in a place like Yunnan China.
This was not an area of the world where a westerner could deal with being thrown in the drunk tank.
I walked back to the hostel and crashed on the top bunk of the six bed dorm room.
The next morning I awoke and went to grab breakfast. One of the Israeli girls from the previous night, Ariel, was sitting in the hostel lobby already eating. I assumed I would have been the first person among our group to be awake this morning but was glad when she called me over.
I sat down in a seat across from her with a bowl of oatmeal in hand. After talking over the events of the previous night, she asked, “So what are your travel plans after Dali?”
“Xishuangbanna. I have to go there to complete my post grad research.”
“And when do you go home?”
“Not til November.” I said. (It was still August)
She shrugged her shoulders.
“Well, you still have plenty of time. Maybe you should wait on going to Banna.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“Shirly and I, are going to Mongolia next week. If you want, you should come with.” She said while taking a long sip of her coffee.
‘Interesting,’ I thought. Mongolia, is z deeply fascinating country but one I did not seriously consider visiting on this trip.
I nodded my head. “I can imagine Mongolia would be great. What will you do there?”
“We are walking a portion of the Gobi. It is going to be really awesome…”
“The Gobi? That’s no joke.” I replied.
“Yes. We’ll talk more about it later. But….think about it.” She said with a grin and an air of a sales person.
“I defiantly will.” I said.
Within another two hours, Jack and Daniel were awake and chatty as ever. I watched in a small state of shock, as Jack consumed an Oreo shake for breakfast (China was abundant in processed food) This was after a long night out drinking. He would then go out and have a full day of activities.
I decided I would start my day by going for a run around the northwest part of town. I ran with my hiking shoes on through cobblestone paved alleyways and in an environment that was drastically foreign. I passed a large digital billboard that relayed a People’s Liberation Army recruitment video. Heavily armored soldiers were running around and shooting frantically with jets flying high above them. It was hard not to take notice of the clear lack in originality.
I passed three picturesque Tibetan Buddhist Pagodas in which I declined to visit up close and in depth. Apparently they dated from the thirteenth century and were a reminder of the close proximity of the Tibetan Province. A Province that is near impossible for Americans to visit in light of current politics.
There were a couple of old wells with wooden wheels churning water down very medieval appearing irrigation canals.
Afterwards, I went to a local café to do some reading. While I was walking into the café, I saw a tall, lighthaired girl walking on the street, coming my way. I realized it was Anje, the German woman, who I met briefly at the start of the Tiger Leaping Gorge trail back in Lijiang.
She caught my glance. Does she remember our meeting at all?
I nodded towards her. She directed a pleasant smile back my way.
Should I try and talk with her?
I went into the café while she continued walking.
I ordered a coffee then sat down to read my Yunnan Guide book. I started reading about the Wu Wei Shan Shaolin monastery, that is said to be located in the forest just outside Dali. The monastery supposedly accepts foreigners, for a price, to stay and train with the monks.
I was intrigued by the chance to stay and train with Shaolin Buddhist monks who have a near super human reputation in the west. Not only would I be able to put that reputation to the test, the experience would no doubt compliment my field work with the Dai in the south of the province.
I returned to the hostel and hung out with Jack, Daniel, Christopher and the Israeli girls the rest of the day. We went out to another backpacker bar in Old town that night, and nearly had a confrontation with a group of Aussie and British travelers. They came off as the football hooligan types, right from the beginning, but after one directed a Nazi style salute towards the girls, we knew all that we needed to know.
Fortunately for the hooligans, we left the bar before the situation escalated.
Back at the hostel, while sitting around a table in the lounge, Shirly looked at me and said,
“You should really come with us.”
“Yea, we have talked it over. We want you to come with.” Ariel said.
“Yes, we cant go by ourselves. Mongolia can be a bit sketchy for women travelers. We need a guy that we can trust.”
“But we’ve only just—“
“Its going to be such an adventure!” Ariel gleamed with excitement
“Well its not like I don’t want to, but going up there would really throw my original plan and itinerary into chaos.” I said.
“That’s what travel and backpacking is all about!” Shirly shot back.
“Just go with the flow.” Ariel said with a big smile.
I really did not want to disappoint them but didn’t think there was any way for me to fund going all the way up north to Mongolia and then figure out how to come back to Southwest China to finish my studies. I mean I was, essentially, on this trip for work.
I changed the subject, “Have you guys heard of Wu Wei Shan Monastery?”
“Yes!” they said in tandem.
“We are going there tomorrow night!” Ariel said.
‘Jesus they are adventurous.’
“I was thinking of….”
“Yes come with!” Ariel said.
“And then you can decide if you want to go to Mongolia with us!”
“Well…..sure I’m In!”
I gave in to their antics.
I was very curious about Wu Wei Shan so why not go there with some friends?
I talked to Jack, Chris and Daniel about the monastery but they had other plans.
“Too expensive. And Im going to Hong Kong in two days anyway” Jack remarked. (it was 500 yuan to stay a week)
“Going back to England mate.” Daniel said.
Christopher had to get back to Beijing for classes.
Well shit, I was a bit disappointed to be the only one of the guys going.
The next morning I prepared my things to depart for the monastery that evening. I came out of the dorm and into the lobby to see the guys lounging and having a chat. I sat down next to them.
“Don’t eat breakfast mate, the hostel is having a barbeque in a few hours.”
“Really? How much?”
“Cheap price!” Christopher said.
“Well, sounds good.”
We sat, drank coffee and tea and talked backpacking over the next few hours while waiting for the barbeque.
“I am jealous of all of you.” Daniel wined.
“You get to spend the next few months traveling around Asia and I am going back to the bloody army.”
Jack and I nodded without saying anything. Going back to the military sounded…..well, not so great. We didn’t want to rub it in.
“Just two more years and when I’m out, I’m going to open a dive shop in Brazil. My favorite country in the world.”
We all agreed, it did not sound like a bad idea.
Daniel went on to tell me that if I was going to learn to dive, that I had to learn it on the Thai island of Koh Tao. I had heard a lot of things about Koh Tao and the most recent thing involved the disappearance and murders of a few British backpackers. Yet, even with the unsettling news, the island’s status of a dive haven remained strong among almost all travelers that I met in Asia.
The barbeque began in the afternoon and all four of us ate more than our fair share. What a nice offering and reminder of home.
Evening came and it was time to depart for the monastery. I said farewell to the boys and then got into the cab with Ariel and Shirley. There was another Cab taking the other Israeli backpackers and a couple other guys who just arrived in town and I figured must be boyfriends to some of the girls.
We were off to the monastery. We drove west, away from town and into the foothills of the mountains. Forty minutes later, we arrived at the Shaolin Monastery surrounded by forest and marked with statues of Buddha, dragons and what I presumed to be other figures from Buddhist and Chinese mythology.
It appeared to be as old, esoteric and curious as one would expect. The place was seemingly untouched by The Great Leap Forward or The Cultural Revolution that aimed at eliminating these types of cultural elements from Chinese society, but it is also possible it could have been rebuilt within the last few decades.
We paid the cab drivers and with day light now fading, walked to the gate and began gently knocking. We waited for almost twenty minutes, in which we began to wonder if this was a good idea and if it was even going to work out.
Finally the gate made a creaking sound and subsequently opened outwards. A young women appeared, who I guessed to be in her twenties, wearing plain black clothing and with her hair pulled back.
She acknowledged and briefly studied our group, before motioning us to follow her back into the temple.
“Come. This way.” She said.
It was curious, but good for us, that she seemed to know some English.
She had a relatively neutral expression on her face but I sensed a stern seriousness about her. I wonder what was going through her head when she glanced over our group of about ten westerners, carrying heavy packs, all wearing scrappy clothes; short shorts, tight shirts, greasy hair (speaking for myself at least) and dirt on our shins.
“Ohh here we go again.” I imagined her thinking.
We followed her into the temple before coming to a courtyard. Across the court yard there was an opening to a large room where a gold statue of Buddha stood tall and glistening. The room appeared to be an essential worship and meditation center of the temple complex. We were directed to wait in a small room full of old wood tables and books directly across from where the gold Buddha was, and we waited while the woman disappeared. As we sat, we watched as it began to rain and droplets began falling into the courtyard, producing a rhythmic tapping noise that enriched the esoteric atmosphere.
There was a problem though, I had felt a feeling of uncomfortability come on since leaving the hostel and that feeling was now manifesting in my stomach. Nausea was making it’s ugly head known, and at the worst possible time.
‘That fucking barbeque,’ I thought.
‘Should’ve known better.’
The woman wearing a black tunic returned and in her hand, she held several papers that she began handing out to us. Each, was a document several pages thick. We began to read them over.
In broken but comprehendable English, the document was read to be a contract and that as desired students of Shaolin Kung Fu at Wu Wei Shan, we had to agree to several house rules and follow a code of conduct.
A summarization of the contract was; a required payment of 500 yuan per week, no use of phones or electronics, drug and alcohol use was forbidden, no skimpy clothing was to be worn, no eating of food from outside the temple, men and women were to sleep in separate rooms, a strong desire to learn and study Kung Fu and Buddhism, leaving temples grounds unaccompanied at night, was not allowed and to at all times pay respect to the head monk and abbot by clasping our hands in a prayer gesture and making a slight bow, each time we cross him.
As a group, we talked over the contract briefly and without much enthusiasm.
“I don’t know if I can eat tofu for a week.” Talia said.
“Is there any place to charge our phones?” Ariel remarked.
The woman in black, who I now assumed was possibly, a Buddhist nun in training, just stood silent and listened, with the same stern expression. If she was annoyed at all by our arrival, which it was not clear that she was, it would have been understandable. It was very evident, that this place was not for fooling around.
We paid the fee, were then split up by gender and shown to our rooms. My roommate was going to be Ari, a boyfriend of one of the girls. The rooms were as bare and unsophisticated as one would expect and our beds were essentially a wood bench with a thick blanket thrown on top.
It was almost 9pm and we were preparing for bed and for a 6am wakeup to begin our training. Alarmingly, the nausea that had slowly descended upon me had grown stronger and I was now feeling very sick.
I was flustered. One of the worst times to be sick and what the hell was I to do? The “bathroom” was outside the temple and we weren’t allowed to leave the temple at night. All I had was this small bucket sitting next to the bed.
My stomach rumbled and shifted.….that bucket was not going to suffice.
I tried to block it out.
Ari and I briefly talked over the events of the day and the circumstances that led us here.
“Yes China is a cultural shock, it was difficult when I first came here.” He told me.
“This week should be interesting.” He said.
Soon he was snoring and I was left alone with my anxiety and nausea.
Freaking out, I was about to burst. From both ends.
I got up and left the room . Except for the sound of soft falling rain, it was incredibly quiet and pitch black dark. I used my phone to navigate through the hallway and down the steps to the courtyard. No lights, no sounds, the vibe felt like a haunted house.
I made it outside the temple courtyard into the surrounding forest and immediately made my first deposit of bodily fluids. I could not recall a previous time when I had felt so physically dreadful. My insides were fuming with rebellious rejection. I looked up and gazed into the forest. There was a statue of a figure with a hideous face and tongue lashing out, staring at me.
For a spiritual place, I was finding it quite creepy at the moment. I returned to the temple and to the bed with a wooden bench for a mattress.
Ari was still softly snoring.
Five minutes later; rumble, rumble.
Time to go again.
I walked back down the steps to the temple courtyard, and then through walled corridors and back into the bamboo forest. I walked further into the forest towards where the lovely squat toilets were supposed to be. The forest was dark and the path muddy from the rain.
“Do I need to be careful of poisonous snakes?”
“Are there bears or wolves out here?”
Besides the myth inspiring, Yunnan Snub nosed monkey, I was pretty clueless about the wildlife in the mountains of Yunnan. But in Southwestern China, I was sure there were all kinds of creatures that are as intriguing as they are potentially dangerous.
The toilets were in an enclosed building with no lighting and walking into it, with only a phone flashlight, triggered every alarm bell in my nervous system. Upon entering, there was a mirror and sink to my left and a wall, eight feet in front of me. To the right of the wall, was a walkway that led to a large room of squat toilets. The facility was dirty, had multiple trashcans full of toilet paper and lacked any sort of comfortability to ease adrenaline and sickness.
Violently, I threw up my entire length of entrails, then left the squat hall and tried to hurry back to the temple. Walking on the muddy trail, with rain dripping down through the trees, I noticed about halfway back, another Buddhist demigod figure standing halfway on the edge of the trail that I missed the first time. A snarl on his face and a spear in his hand, he did not have a calming affect.
Where were the serene statues of Buddha? Standing tall and wise?
“They must be trying to make sure the monks are regular, by literally scaring the shit out of them on their way to the toilet.”
Was the explanation my fatigued and near delirious mind came up with, as I walked past the statue and continued towards the temple.
Up the stairs and back into the room with Ari still sound asleep, I laid down, hoping for rest.
‘God fucking damnit,” I whispered outloud.
Up out of bed, back down the stairs, out the courtyard, through the gated corridors and out into the forest for another ten minute walk to the toilet.
The demigod statues were talking now.
“Ohh have to shit again huh?”
“Purging the demons are we?”
“Fuck off,” I mumbled aloud.
I felt twice the amount of fear of entering the squat hall this time, but I quickly got on with it.
Afterwards, I hurried back onto the trail and made haste towards the temple. There were many moments within the last few years that I had felt very alone and the current circumstances, was going to be another one. Sick as hell in the middle of a forest at a Shaolin temple in Yunnan Province, China. Not how I hoped this little adventure was going to play out.
Back in the room, I once again laid down on the bed. Soon after; “Rumble, Rumble.”
I sat up and before I was able to stand up, hurled all over the floor and partly on one of my shoes.
Ohh the agony.
I collapsed my head into my hands. There was no getting around it now; China was kicking my ass.
I looked up from my hands to see Ari, sitting up on his bed. He briefly studied the floor and then looked up to me.
“Bryce.” He said calmly and groggy. “You’re sick.”
“Yes I am.” I groaned.
“All fricken night.”
“Lets go for a walk yeah?” he said to me.
Ari accompanied me to a spot a little outside the courtyard, as there was a good chance I was going to be sick again and I think the smell of vomit acted as a central nervous system stimulant. It was 4am.
“This might be worse than the last time I became sick here in China.” Ari said.
He began telling me a story about his first few days in the PRC.
“Well, the first week. Daria and I could not find our hostel. We were walking the streets with no where to go and I was becoming sick.”
“Uh-oh.” I said.
“Yea so I saw a small canal on the other side of the street and I started running. I had my head down and it just started coming out. I looked up and saw someone with an umbrella. He turned around at the worst possible time and I hurled all over a poor chinese man.”
“Oh wow.” I managed a painful laugh.
“Yea it was super embarrassing.”
This story, strangely made me feel a tad better about my present situation.
Ari continued to tell me his experiences growing up in Israel, being Jewish and meeting Muslims in China.
Unbeknown to me before coming here, China has a few ethnic minority Muslim groups who have been in the far east a very long time and have long been separated from the Arabic Islamic world. So, when Ari and his girlfriend found themselves in one of their villages in Yunnan, they were astounded when they were welcomed into their homes.
“It was shocking to me.” Ari said.
“A Muslim welcoming us in to their homes and giving us a place to stay? Unbelievable. They were so kind to us. I never thought I would see the day.”
“That’s really awesome.” I replied, briefly forgetting about my dehydrated and aching body.
By 530 A.M., the monks were stirring and beginning their early morning chanting and prayers. It took a long time to communicate to them that I was sick, our room was covered in puke and I needed to leave. Finally however, there was an understanding.
As the girls woke, I weakly said goodbye to them, no hugs or kisses though. Defaintly was not going to Mongolia anymore.
“Sorry guys.” I said to Shirly and Ariel. “I just had to eat that damn barbeque.”
“Typical American.” Ariel teased.
“Its okay.” Shirly said.
“Lets keep in touch.”
We added each other on the app, WeChat.
A cab driver arrived at the temple at 730 and drove me back to the Jade Emu. I booked a private room and ate rice and museli for two days straight.
One of those days, while I was laying in bed, I recieved a message from Jack asking how I was doing.
“Not well,” I was short.
He then sent a photo revealing him to in the hospital with an IV in his arm.
“Finishing off China with two shots in my arse.” He said.
I asked, ‘what the hell happened?’ and told him that I was sick as well.
Apparently, Daniel and Christopher also had become sick after leaving the hostel.
“That fucking barbeque.” We agreed.
Should’ve known better…
After two days and feeling a little better, I got on a train and went back to Kunming. Weak and still queasy, I walked miles from the train station through the crowded metropolis attempting to locate the Cloudland Hostel. It took hours to locate the guesthouse and the only human assistance I received was from a traffic cop who upon looking at the address on my phone, replied, “Very long way.”
The day after, I went to the hospital and received a first hand experience of the Chinese medical system. Or at least the Yunnan medical system.
I became very grateful for the quality of medical care in the West. The hospital in Kunming was not only jam packed with people, it was insanely unorganized and unclean. There was a very interesting system in which patients, instead of speaking to a medical practitioner directly, would speak to one over a telecommunication system. There were several kiosks in which people were speaking to these doctors, who were based in places around the country and even the world. It was very dystopian.
Large photos above the kiosks revealed the physician’s identity and location. Many were western doctors.
I wondered if they are real doctors or just robots,
Amazingly, I was able to speak to a doctor in person. Though I communicated to her through a translation app on my phone.
She took a look at my passport and then hand palmed her face
She shook her head while looking at her assistant.
I was given some medicine and took a few days off to rest. Strength and vitality were needed, as I was about to head to Xishuangbanna in southern Yunnan.