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A Minnesotan In China: Learning about the world; learning about ourselves

The accommodations at Wu Dang Shan for apprentice tai chi students is Spartan. Submitted photo

August: I had a decision to make. After the small-town experiences of Henan province, was I going to travel north to sight-see the Longmen Caves? There, centuries ago, Buddhist monks decorated hundreds of caves with a museum of sculptures. Or was I to head south, into the adjacent province of Hubei?

I read about a beautiful mountain there with an abundance of history itself. Wu Dang Shan ("shan" means mountain) was the birthplace of the rhythmic martial art, tai chi, and more than stunning views and culture, I could do something else - practice tai chi.

Between the two, it was a mental coin flip. But I recall the key factor that swayed my mind: I thought, quite vividly, "Yeah, I can go see the art and caves and learn how these monks lived. Or I can go one step beyond, and actually live as they did, practicing a meditative art."

The train arrived at Wu Dang Shan in northwestern Hubei province. As it chugged off into the horizon, never in my trip had I felt as alone as I did then - and being an American trekking China for some days already, this is saying something. I wasn't depressed or lonely, just matter-of-factly solo. I was the only one who got off the train! I stood there on the platform in this rural land.

I actually missed the crowds of people who usually help indicate where to go. I went down some stairs minus the urban convenience of a ramp for my luggage, lugging my stuffed suitcase in that funny, leaning, swaying way you gotta carry something heavy in one arm. Such a bittersweet reality is this life without modernity! Now it was bitter; later it'd be sweet.

I exited the station out into the town, but rather than a downtown-y kind of happening place my guidebook told me about, it was just a few stores and small eateries. And in rural China, this looks pretty drab. And where's the mountain? I'll tell you what I began to fear: I began to wonder if I got off at the wrong station! A young man approached and aggressively offered a ride. "Wu Dang Shan," I said, stressing the "shan." He nodded, which I liked, but offered a price that I didn't - as in anI'm-going-to-rip-this-foreigner-off-for-whatever-I-can price. A bit turned off - I couldn't go with him despite his knocking the price down to less than half. Plus, there was a bus asking just a tiny fraction of what the young man wanted.

It turned out that the train station had moved since my guidebook was written and that this little outcrop of stores and shops seemed to be here as accompaniment to the new station location. Indeed, it was a good 20 minutes until I got into the real town. But once I got there, I knew I was in the right place:

The quaint little city, also called Wu Dang Shan, sits below the mountain of Wu Dang Shan.

I walked along the sidewalks rolling my suitcase along like a pet, looking for a hostel - which I never found. Luckily, the next best thing found me. A lady excitedly approached, motioning for me to follow her. I'll tell ya, these Chinese are not shy about soliciting. She saw my luggage and all, I suppose. "What the heck?" I thought, and followed her. I managed my heavy suitcase up another few dusty flights, entering her building. But from the plain, gray stairwell opened the door to a quaint little apartment with rooms renovated into a hotel.

This was great, and now with my base needs met, I was able to step upon this platform of comfort and reach for the higher needs of my time here: tai chi up the mountain. I got online and onphone, talking with a school in town. There are a couple institutions, and I found one with an English-speaking employee. The next morning, a trainer came to my hotel and took me away.

Honestly, though, I still kinda wondered where the mountain was. My limited, Minnesotan knowledge of mountainology didn't understand the idea that a mountaintop is a long and windy road trip, and that along the way to the peak, sits several lower peaks and dipping valleys, going up and down and up like a bull stock market chart.

"Come. Tai chi with me." I didn't know much about this guy except he looked right for the part.

We arrived at the "base camp," the area where we paid admission and hopped aboard a bus to the school:

On the way up, it started to get gorgeous.

I just had to hold on to my seat. After several tight lefts and sharp rights, the bus slowed and my trainer pointed out the door. We were there.

This was my home for a short while, a modest place on the hillside

My trainer and I arranged just a two-night/three-day stay. I know, I know, so brief, but I only had three weeks to trek China. And that being said, a day full of tai chi is a long day! We arrived mid-morning and after getting settled in, my trainer took me back outside to begin. Not wasting any time. Time to jump right in.

And here I gotta say, I was a little unnerved about starting. (I remember thinking, "Uh, can we do this after lunch?") I found it was easier to talk about doing tai chi on the storied mountain on which it all began, than it was to actually get out here and do it. This truth affects us in many endeavors we wish to undertake, doesn't it?

Tai chi training was an immediate challenge in that there's no "escape;" the idea behind it requires you to be right there, as present as possible, as present as you are watching the seconds tick down in a close football game. Focus on the movement of your body (the slow, smooth movements); don't drift off into thinking about last night's TV show or what your friend did the other day. Other martial arts may have appeased me from the start with quick, distracting movements, satisfying a short attention span, but not tai chi.

I'd just have to be "there," just me and my trainer. And knowing the schedule they kept - hours and hours of this each day - a part of me had that whiney, "I want to go in" kind of thinking. But "go in" where? To my boring, quiet room? And this wasn't a health club class that you can look forward to leaving afterwards, fleeing for home and the TV, couch and refrigerator to lose yourself in. Even if I did look ahead to the end of the training, after this morning's session, there's one this afternoon. After this afternoon's session, there's one this evening. And as soon as you wake up in the morning--at 5:30 a.m., there's another. AHHH! I can't wait until three days from now! Then I can go back into the city and...and what, Brandon? Watch TV? Surf the net? And what would you make of your meantime here? - always wanting for "three days from now"?

BAM! Wake up, Brandon. This is the present and tai chi is going to slam it right in your face. How a subtle art like tai chi can slam anything is a wonder, but so is the magic of Eastern thought and practice.

It seemed like a downer, but realizing that I was here and ought get comfortable with it, was the beginning of a practice that I haven't relinquished since. It helped solidify a way of seeing my life, a way that lessens the trap of living in the past, for the future, and wrapped up in the mind. It put before me loud and clear the initial pain, but voluminous blessings of staying present.

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Brandon Ferdig is a former Blackduck native who spent the last year teaching English in China and exploring the country.