Friday, July 31, 2015


the Wudanggongfu Kung Fu Academy
My dear friends,

I am very nearly home again. The last portion of my Watson journey led me to Wudangshan, a town in Hubei province with two considerable claims to fame: it is the birthplace of Tai Chi and home to the "No. 1 Sacred Daoist Mountain" in China. I came to explore Daoist ideas of nature and poetry here at the mountain, and to attempt a better understanding of the role of movement, energy, and the body in our relationships to nature and writing.

Although my stay here was relatively short (serious students come from the world over to study with Master Yuan Xiu Gang for weeks, months, and sometimes years), I was able to learn the basics of Tai He, a form of Tai Chi unique to Wudang style Kungfu. It took hours and hours of following along with my coach and practicing on my own, but I'm proud of what I've learned. I even took a video to show you! 

What I fail to capture, being such a novice, is the true grace and passion that masterful practitioners command.  The master in the video below displays the fluidity and control I so deeply admire and hope to emulate more in the future. I firmly hold that there is indeed poetry in these movements, but I haven't quite translated it well in my own words yet. I'll keep ya posted on my progress.

morning Tai Chi class at Wudang Kung Fu Academy
within Yuxu Palace temple grounds
Students of all ages and skill levels study at the Wudang Daoist Traditional Internal Kung Fu Academy. Classes are held in the halls of the academy or on the grounds of the Yuxu Palace temple. It's gorgeous, and full of living history. The internal forms taught here emphasize softness and flexibility, but don't let you fool you into thinking these practitioners are no great shakes in terms of toughness and power. I got to watch many students and coaches perform in their preferred styles, and I can tell you I was impressed!

students showcasing their moves at the Wudang Kung Fu Academy 
within Yuxu Palace temple grounds
I had the great privilege of hearing Shifu (the master) explain the difference between external (Shaolin style) and internal (Wudang style) forms of Kung Fu. He also gave us a lesson on the effects of qi in martial arts training. I doubt I can paraphrase him properly, but this is what I understood: excelling in Wudang style martial arts means cultivating a keen sense of relaxed firmness in both body and spirit. 

Like other arts, it takes discipline and time, as well as passion and openness. Eventually, one can even learn to tap into the "huge energies" of qi, allowing one to exercise a soft kind of influence over the flow of energy in oneself, in the people around us, and in the spaces around us. 
a coach showcasing moves at the Wudang Kung Fu Academy 
within Yuxu Palace temple grounds

There are no classes on Thursdays, so I took the chance of a lifetime to climb the sacred mountain of Wudangshan.

beginning the climb up Wudangshan from South Cliff
Although it's unfortunately very commercialized, this hike was one of my favorite accomplishments of the year. The bus takes you to South Cliff (you can explore other lovely picturesque stops along the way). From the bus stop, it's an exhausting but highly rewarding four kilometer climb to the summit. And it's steep stone stairs nearly every step of the way.

The views are spectacular, and the cliffsides along the trail are adorned with carved stele inscribed with poems and prayers. Piled cairns marked mysterious sites within the forest and arching stone bridges enabled passage over the many harrowing crags and peaks along the way to the top.

About halfway, I came to the Pilgrimage Palace. I stopped to make a small offering and refill my water bottle from the magic spring. Here the path forks: to the right is the older Ming Dynasty "Back Way," to the left is the Qing Dynasty "Hundred Stairs." Believe me that both paths contain hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of steps, though they do vary in length and steepness. I chose to take the Back Way, and ascend via the legendary Three Gates to Heaven. Little did I know what a knee-shaking and thrilling trip it would be.

rubbish bin found poems? mantra inspiration?
aw shucks Environment, you make me blush
I quickly learned that it is easier to take the stairs at a slow, steady pace. I remembered my guide Tsewang in Bhutan chiding me that "stopping is out of the question!" and repeated aloud to myself and the chuckling/panting Chinese tourists and locals "om a ra pa tsa na di"--a Bhutanese mantra asking for wealth and wisdom. I eventually began just singing whatever I could muster, along with any other prayers, cusses, and grunts that managed to keep me moving. 

just some of the stairs up the sacred mountain
(lady ahead of me: how are you doing this in heels??)

ascending the Ming Dynasty "Back Way" path

elation at passing through the Second Gate to Heaven
 It worked marvelously.
GOOD LORD almighty there are more
But it did take a long time.

Luckily I had plenty, for I like my conversations with mountains to be long.

Ok. Yes, mountains. You're always worth it. I hear ya. 

The Third Gate to Heaven (leading toward the Golden Peak)
The weather stayed marvelously friendly right up until the moment I summited. As soon as I laid eyes on the Golden Peak at the very top of this celestial wonder of a mountain, heavy rain pelted itself out of the nearby sky. The storm put the cable car down the mountain out of commission, meaning I had to have a firm but gentle conversation with my tired legs that they'd have to take us the long way down too.

Wudangshan's Golden Peak,
a rumored celestial and spiritual wonder

Aha--I'd been waiting for you, rain. Let's just float here awhile.

Perhaps it was the altitude. Fatigue? The intoxicating effect of sublime beauty? I don't know, but I went kinda crazy hiking back down. I couldn't stop singing. I practically ran the whole way, though my knees were wobblier than they'd ever been in my life! I did take the bus from South Cliff down to the Mountain Gate (it's obligatory) but then my reeling brain and body kept waving away taxis and buses on the route back into town. I walked the additional few kms toward the city, savoring the delicious madness of being utterly and comfortably bewildered in a world so strange and full of wonder.

hiking back down
I wish you so very much joy and exhilaration. Thank you for sharing in mine.

With deepest love,

P.S. Below here are a few more samples of Suzhou adventures. As always, I promise more stories when you and I can get together in person. 

Gully of Raising Cranes, Tiger Hill, Suzhou

boat ride near Shantang St, Suzhou
exploring Shantang St, Suzhou
Tianping Shan lotus pond, Mudu

cave temple on Tianping Shan, Mudu

performing original improv poetry with Emily Snow,
The Bookworm, Suzhou

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