"It's not here," I panicked. "The hostel isn't here!"
It was pitch black at night and after arriving into Luoyang an hour ago we had already missed our bus stop, backtracked in a taxi for ten minutes to the address of our hostel, and anxiously walked up three flights of stairs in an abandoned building with broken tiles, dust and glass fragments strewn everywhere - at the exact address our hostel was supposed to be. This building seemed like no one had graced it's stairs for a number of years.
My heart was racing. "No, no, there's no way this can be a scam - it's got good reviews online!" Alan assured me.
We traipsed back down the stairs in the dark with our heads hung low, each mentally contemplating what our next move would be and how we would find somewhere else to stay this late at night. At the bottom of the stairs we noticed a dim crack of light peeping through a gap from behind a very thick, quilted curtain, something we both hadn't noticed as we'd entered the building earlier.
Thankfully, this curtain hid the doorway to our hostel and we both heaved a sigh of relief after those brief moments of panic, that we had found what would be our home for the next few nights.
Luoyang Longmen Youth Hostel was nothing fancy, but it did the trick. Coming from our luxurious five-star experience at the Tonino Lamborghini the previous night, I'll admit it took me a few minutes to reacquaint myself with hostel life and all that comes with it. Here, it was the sewerage pipe running through our bathroom from the level above that wafted unpleasant smells through the air - though as long as we kept the door closed and held our breath as long as possible while in there it was no problem, we got on with it. Our room was warm, and that was the main thing because now that we had traveled further north the temperatures were dropping and we were looking at days of between 0-5 degrees Celsius.
One thing about hostels is China that is different to what we had experienced in Southeast Asia is that in SEA breakfast is usually included with your room, whereas the opposite tends to be true in China. Not to worry,
we Alan had been carrying around a half pack of rolled oats since we'd been living on Koh Samui that my frugal self couldn't bear to part with - I knew we would eat them some day! Well, what do you know. All we needed was to buy a few bananas and a pack of instant coffee to feed my addiction and we were set for breakfasts for the next few days.
We had three days to spend in Luoyang, and with a couple of full days ahead we decided to spend day one doing a bit of planning, a bit of exploring and a bit of shopping - despite stocking up on a few winter woollies in Chiang Mai we were still short of gloves and a beanie - items we had quickly realised were a necessity!
Feeling refreshed after a fairly straightforward day and organised with enough warm clothes to keep us toasty, we were up early on our second day for an independent day trip to the Shaolin Monastery. Located on the Shaoshi Mountain (hence the name) in the Songshan Mountain range, Shaolin Monastery and its associated temple were established during the Northern Wei Dynasty in the year 495 A.D. It is one of China's four holy Buddhist temples and the birthplace of Chan Buddhism.
Though, perhaps Shaolin Temple is best known as the home of Kung Fu! There is a Chinese saying that "all martial arts under heaven arose out of Shaolin," so with a boyfriend who is right into his martial arts it seemed only fitting that we visit while we were nearby.
We had decided against an organised tour to Shaolin Temple. According to our research, we could catch a series of public busses to get there and, as is usually the case with tours, doing it independently would be significantly cheaper. It was going to take a couple of hours each way, but why worry, we had all day! Famous last words...
Firstly we took a twenty-minute bus into the central city of Luoyang, where we located the central bus station and, despite some language difficulties, were eventually loaded onto a bus that we were told was going to take us to Shaolin. Alan and I were the only passengers waiting on the us to begin with, so the driver kindly put an English movie on for us to pass the time while we waited. By the time we had watched The Fast and the Furious 1 in its entirety, the bus was finally full and we set off in the direction of the Shaolin Temple.
It was nearing the end of 2 Fast 2 Furious when we pulled into the bus station in Dengfeng and were herded off our bus onto a smaller bus, that would take us the rest of the way to the temple, which was another twenty minutes or so. Despite getting an early start, we had completely underestimated the time it would take to get to Shaolin Temple. I was quickly mentally planning our route for the afternoon so that we could be sure to see all the best bits of this enormous temple complex!
At last, we arrived at the entrance, eagerly paid the 100 yuan entry fee (NZ$20), and raced through the gates to begin exploring.
I'd seen some photos of how busy Shaolin Temple can be in the summer months - so despite the freezing cold it was incredible to have a place like this just about all to ourselves. We could explore and soak in the rich history without being shoulder to shoulder with other tourists all day.
Our first stop in the complex was visiting the Shaolin Temple itself. It is enormous and you could easily spend hours here, wandering around and exploring every corner. But due to our, uh, transport delays of the morning, we were now on a rather tight schedule so as to not miss the last bus back! We spent about 45 minutes looking around.
After we had finished exploring the temple, we walked through the Pagoda Forest which is the resting place for revered monks. It is said to be one of China's largest pagoda forests, consisting of more than 200 pagodas. It was pretty, though not particularly lush during winter, so we quickly ticked that one off in order to make it in time to the Kung Fu show!
Kungfu continues to be practiced and studied at Shaolin Temple, as it has been for more than 1500 years. As we walked in the direction of the performance centre we saw hundreds and hundreds of students training out in the chilly winter air.
But of course the highlight of our visit was the Kung Fu demonstration! We watched a group of monks performing a series of Kung Fu techniques, followed by a breathtaking showcase of qigong - where all of one's inner energy is focussed into a certain exercise. We witnessed a monk bending a spear with his neck, and another who threw a small needle at a sheet of glass, piercing the glass and popping a balloon held behind it. Very impressive!
After our journey from Luoyang to Shaolin Temple took over three hours, I was more than a little worried about getting back. I was feeling antsy the entire time we were exploring the temple that we would miss the last bus back. We were directed to board a bus and - after apparent road closures, a couple of hours of navigating rugged farm roads, a bus breakdown, a woman on our bus that insisted on numerous photoshoots with me, waiting in the middle of nowhere for a new bus and then elbowing our way through a mob where we managed to snap up the last two seats on the new bus - STRESS! - we finally saw the lights of Luoyang ahead. I'm pretty sure I melted with relief.
Our journey to and from the Shaolin Temple was the kind of day where we just had to put our faith in people and trust that we would end up in the right place! Although I wish we had more time to explore - there was SO much more to see! - with the beauty of hindsight, it was still a pretty amazing day. Amazing because of the incredible history, but equally amazing because we made it there and back - there were plenty of moments I was sure we wouldn't! So with that said...
...if you are going to visit the Shaolin Temple yourself, here's some tips.
Yes, it is totally possible to do an independent day trip from Luoyang - though from my experience if you don't speak the language it is likely be a rather stressful day! It is a lot cheaper (transport there and back cost us all up about $11 each) but also a lot more difficult. You may also be tight on time like we were and have to miss out on exploring certain areas of the complex.
My recommendation would be if you want to enjoy the day fully and you're staying in Luoyang, fork out for an organised tour. You'll not only spend the day worry-free but also get a lot more information out of it with a local guide.
Otherwise, and this is what I would do next time, stay in Dengfeng where you are much closer to the temple to begin with (only 13km away). This option would allow you to spend all day at the temple as you don't need to worry about missing the last bus back to Luoyang. Also there is tonnes of cool stuff to do around the mountains too that we missed out on, if you have a full day or two you will get to see and do so much more!
In my next post I'll be writing about our final day in Luoyang, where we visited a place that we had never even heard of...and turned out to be an absolute highlight of our time in China!