March 14

March 14, 2003 was one of the most miserable travel days I've ever spent. Here is the story of that day.

Our train arrived at Zhengzhou (Zhenzhou) at 5am. I realized that the distance between Nanjing and Zhengzhou was too short -- with only six hours on the train, we hadn't gotten enough rest to lug our bags around all day. Also, it was raining. We bought tickets for a two hour minibus to the small town of Dengfeng. Our mission: to visit the famous Shaolin Temple, one of the first and longest established Buddhist temples in China and the home of the eminent Shaolin martial arts.

Sounds great, right? Problem was the weather was awful and torrential rain poured down all day. This might have been OK if we were camped in the city, but we were just passing through and carrying our backpacks. What was even worse was that nimble martial arts monks take the day off when the weather is bad, so no fancy kung-fu theatrics for us. About the only interesting thing we got to see was what seemed to be a warehouse of statues.

If this weren't bad enough, the hygiene of the restaurants and public toilets, never particularly impressive in either Shanghai or Nanjing, was awful. How bad you ask? Well, public toilets were communal gutters where you squatted and relieved yourself with only a two foot high enclose as your stall. And as for the restaurants, our cooks were, ahem, 'shooting snot rockets' as they cooked up our meals. And it wasn't as if they tried to hide it; this appears to be common practice. So we were eager to get up and move on.

But as we walked into the town of Dengfeng we were greeted by scenes of utter devastation.

We met up with an American who was allegedly studying at the Shaolin Temple, and he gave us the lowdown. Apparently the state authorities had come through just the other day and had torn down every building without a tourism license. They're apparently going to remake Dengfeng as a tourist attraction, and we saw the last of the Shaolin Temple as a pre-tourism spot.

It was time to move on. The problem was we couldn't find the bus station. We asked an officer at the regional military office (little military outposts that look like police stations, and they're all over the place), and indicated with written characters that we wanted to go to the bus station. He flagged down a three wheeled motorbike with a crude cover, the most common form of transportation around town (there were no taxis). We paid this guy a few Yuan to get to the bus station. The problem was he took us to the wrong bus station. Frustrated, he then took us on an off-road pass to a parking lot. The bike was clearly not meant for riding that course with three people, and it almost toppled over several times. At this parking lot there was a guy in a van who offered to take us to the next town for $10 each, and, exhausted and soaked, we agreed.

We then proceeded to take the scariest ride of my life--and this is just minutes after going off-road on a motor-tricycle! The driver took us over a mountain road covered in potholes, so much so that he never went straight but was continually swerving to miss the potholes. By now the rain had turned into fog and the driver could barely see 20 feet in front of him, and we were missing cars by mere inches as we swerved up and down the mountain. This went on for about 45 minutes in which both Roy and I wondered out loud what the emergency room facilities were like out in the middle of nowhere in China. Finally we got on to a better road and in an hour we were at the next city of Laoyuan. We had some dinner and grabbed a night train to the next city of Xi'an.

c. 2005 Christopher Gunson