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The Diary of a Karate Kid

Shaolin Students

My interest in martial arts was always radiant. I remember when I was a kid, I always looked up to idols like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. I used to love their movies and aspired to be as good as they were. I began my martial arts studies when I was four years old, but I was never serious about the sport. Karate classes became more like playtime with my friends instead of learning. It wasn’t until I was in the seventh grade when I became more serious about training to become like my idols. I would stay at my local dojos for extra classes because I was eager to learn more. I even received a black belt from the local schools, but it wasn’t enough. I still wanted to learn more.
So, the summer after my freshman year of high school, my parents sent me to China.

The Shaolin Temple

I landed in a small city in the Henan province named DengFeng. It is home to the famous Shaolin Temple, where monks train in the traditional martial arts, Gong Fu. Not familiar with the term? You are probably more familiar with the term Kung Fu, which is the westernized form of the Chinese pronunciation Gong Fu.
diary-shaolinThe Shaolin Temple is a monastery located in the mountains of Dengfeng. It is a place where traditional Buddhist monks would go and practice martial arts. The temple is rich in history as it has been through many wars and has been rebuilt numerous times. There is a story behind almost everything there. Some of my personal favorites include the room where monks would stomp the ground to create dents as they trained, the tree where monks would train finger strength by punching the trunk with one finger, and the bathrooms just because they were mere buckets.
On tour, we had the chance to walk on a prestigious path where only the grandmaster—or ShiFu—would walk. It was a great experience to see the strict disciplines that monks in training would follow. The Shaolin Temple has also been featured in several Chinese films; several martial arts celebrities have crossed its paths. Most notably, Jet Li filmed a movie here that increased the temple’s popularity. It was really cool to walk in a movie set! In addition to the temple itself, there were several other attractions. One of the most interesting attractions was the Pagoda Forest. It is a collection of tombs for the different monks that have passed and is structured to exhibit a monk’s status before passing. The higher the tower, the higher a monk’s ranking was.
After the tour, we went to watch a Gong Fu performance. The purpose of the performance was to showcase an introduction of Shaolin Gong Fu. It introduced the various “Quan” or forms that are native Shaolin Gong Fu, the weapons used, and the applications of the movements in combat. The fun thing about the performance was that they picked audience members at random to come on stage to learn some of the movements. I remember sitting there practically jumping out of my seat because I really wanted to try! Sadly, they didn’t pick me.

Tagou School of WuShu

After the tour, we went to tour the most notorious martial arts school in China. The Tagou School of WuShu is a boarding school for martial arts as well as an educational institution. This school has produced many of China’s most well-known fighters and performers. They have students attend national competitions and even students who competed in the Olympics. Fun fact, Jackie Chan performed with one of the performance teams from this school. How cool is that? At first glance, I got ridiculously excited because I saw my favorite movie scene in real life—hundreds of students practicing martial arts in sync. It was the highlight of my life to find out that it was not just a scene in a movie. My mom told me that this is where I would be staying for the summer, and I couldn’t have been happier.
diary-tagou-school-viewThe school is gigantic. It’s so big that they had to split the school into two separate campuses. They have the old campus located next to the Shaolin Temple and the new campus at the foot of the mountain near the city of DengFeng. I chose to stay at the old school near the Shaolin because I loved the mountains, and it sounded way cooler to train in the mountains versus the city.
Students of Tagou School of WuShu come from all over the world to study there. Some native Chinese students even use the school for their primary education as well. The school offers intense training sessions and education levels from kindergarten to high school. It was completely different than what I was used to in the states. The students have a crazy training schedule. The students started the day at 5 a.m. and were not done training until almost 10 p.m., six nights a week. I thought that was insane coming from the U.S. where I take an hour-long class three days a week.

Lifestyle as a student of Tagou

Before I agreed to start summer school at Tagou, I honestly did not know what to expect. I thought it was going to be a summer camp-like experience, but it was more of a culture shock and a humbling experience. Before becoming a student, I never realized how privileged I was to be living in the states where we have access to machines that help accomplish chores or technology for entertainment. There was a lot that I had to get used to as a student. My body had to get used to a new diet; my brain had to learn how to cope with limited to no internet. I also had to become less lazy and actually do chores by hand.
diary-canteen-foodI remember my first year going; my diet consisted of eggs and bananas for the first few weeks because I was not used to the food in the cafeteria for the students. I don’t remember what about it made me so sick, but my body eventually adjusted to it, and I was fine by the end of the summer. I was not used to the way you had to grab food. There was not an orderly line to the different chefs. It was a fight to who can swipe their card first to get their canteen full of food. Yes, you read that correctly: a canteen. We did not have bowls or plates to gather our food; we had to stuff a canteen full to carry food. Of course, you could go back and get seconds, but that costed more money, and you would probably have to shove your way back to the front of the food line.
As a millennial, I live on the internet. I love surfing the web to see what the latest trends are, watching YouTube videos, and seeing what my friends are up to on social media. Having limited to no internet killed me. It was already annoying that China blocked a lot of sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Google, but you are able to get around that with a VPN. The thing that was troublesome was that, since we were in the mountains, internet from the town was not that great. Often, the internet would go out in my room and I couldn’t do the things that I wanted to do. Honestly, though, it was the best thing that happened to me. It forced me to get out of my room to explore the campus, talk to some of the locals, and hang out with my classmates. I learned so much about the diary-laundrydifferent cultures in my international group and I learned fun games that the locals play to entertain themselves! My favorite game that I learned was called “Duel the Landlord” and it was a very competitive game once you got the hang of it.
After my first couple of weeks there, I remember struggling to find clothes since I burned through most of my clothes. I was asking around trying to find the closest washing machine or laundry mat just to find out that there wasn’t one. I was challenged to actually wash my clothes by hand. I was not happy about this. I am so used to throwing everything in a washing machine and calling it a day. Additionally, there were no dryers either, so I had to wring the clothes out and let them air dry. It was not a fun thing to do, but it became a part of my daily routine that I got used to.
The one thing that I got used to quickly was the training regiment. I was sore for the first couple of weeks. The workouts were really intense, but I learned a lot from the coaches. The coaches are very strict and everything we did had to be perfect.
Honestly, it was tough. It is not made for everyone, but I’m more than grateful that I had this experience. After the first year, I went back four more times to relive the experience. It’s something that I hope I get the chance to do every summer.

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Visit These Tibetan Monasteries On Your Next Trip To China

China is home to a rich and multi-layered culture textured with breathtaking vistas and complex intricacies. One of the most intriguing areas of the country is the often romanticized and always mysterious region of Tibet. It conjures up images of a deeply spiritual mountain land where robed monks keep vigil, and a higher uncomprehensible consciousness exists. The beautiful monasteries of Tibet uplift the travelers who dare to seek them out. It is a journey well worth taking. You can visit these spectacular Tibetan monasteries on your next trip to China for a one-of-a-kind experience.

Ganden Monastery

Ganden Monastery lies on the southern banks of the Lhasa River and is one of the earliest monasteries built in Tibet. Its towering location on Wangbur Mountain offers visitors a panoramic view of Lhasa Valley and the Shannon countryside. Ganden is the primary monastery in the Gelug Sect of Tibetan Buddhism and remains an important example of Gelugpa tradition. The architectural integrity of the monastery’s buildings and cultural centers are intact and, in themselves, well worth exploring.
The many chapels, shrines, and pagodas are adorned with colorful murals with historical relics remaining inside. You will want to wear your walking shoes and take advantage of the one hour Kora monastery tour. It is a steep slow walk around the grounds rewarded by the sight of prayer flags blowing in the wind and the sound of chanting monks at prayer. Your camera will get a workout trying to capture the spectacular scenery around every corner and the unique cultural symbols encountered along the way.
You can stop for lunch at the Ganden Monastery Restaurant after the tour where they offer both vegetarian and non-vegetarian choices. The Ganden monks grow a special herb called Ganden Khempa which is blessed by the monks and made into incense available for purchase as a souvenir. It is believed this natural product possesses a variety of health benefits when burned. You can get a peaceful night’s sleep once the day is through at the posh St. Regis Resort in nearby Lhasa.

Jokhang Temple

Jokhang Temple is the oldest and holiest of all the monasteries in Tibet. It sits in the heart of old town Lhasa drawing pilgrims and scholars from all over the world to its architecture and the secrets within. Jokhang Temple’s history is colored with fantastical legends adding romance and intrigue to its majesty. The original temples were built over 1400 years ago by King Songtsen Gampo to house the statues of Buddha gifted to him as a dowry from his new wives.
There is much to see and appreciate at Jokhang Temple including the incredible life-sized statue of Shakyamuni, a brilliant-colored icon of Buddhist imagery. As you make your way among the labyrinth of small chapels in the monastery complex, you will be mesmerized by the hundreds of Buddha statues surrounded by votive candles. It is an atmospheric, moody experience and one you will likely not forget. Climb the steps to the golden rooftop, and you can overlook the square where pilgrims gather below in ceremonial worship.
The multicultural streets of Lhasa are bursting with vibrant eateries, the spicy aromas sure to entice you in after a day visiting the temples. You might want to try the Tibetan Family Kitchen for local cuisines including momo dumplings and sweet rice. The friendly staff speak English and are happy to treat you like family. You can relax later at the Zhaxi Quta Style Hotel with its classic, spacious rooms, free buffet breakfast, and WiFi. The hotel is centrally located and in walking distance to many of Lhasa’s attractions.

Potala Palace

Potala Palace has been the renowned winter residence of the Dalai Lama since the 7th-century and still stands as a symbol of traditional Buddhism. This castle-like structure reaches over 12,000 feet above the town! The palace is a Tibetan architectural wonder with golden roofs visible from miles away and a regal presence even among the other monasteries. It is an iconic tribute and mecca to practicing Buddhists from all over the globe, and many devotional events are held there each year.
The interior of Potala Palace is a rich combination of decorative stone and wood with exquisite carvings as well as artwork depicting Tibetan history. There are more than a thousand rooms showcasing a variety of murals, painted scrolls, and statues made of jewels and gold. Photographers can ascend the winding path up Chakpori Hill beside Potala Palace for a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape and a rare opportunity to capture an image of the palace as the sun rises or sets. The resulting photos will be worthy of hanging on your wall.
Once you have had your fill of all that wonder, you can wander down Lhasa’s Bakuo Street until you come upon another of its landmarks, the Makye Ame Restaurant. Its bright yellow facade will draw you in, and you will be greeted by a homey atmosphere and live Tibetan music. You can sip on freshly-brewed local barley wine while enjoying a feast of leafy greens and yak-inspired main courses. The Four Points by Sheraton Hotel is the perfect place to reflect on your day and rest in luxurious comfort and tranquility.

Considerations

Tourism in Tibet is strictly regulated, and foreign travelers are required to arrange their visit to the monasteries through a tour company. There are many reputable tour operators to choose from including WildJunket, a young-at-heart guide company for adventurous travel. Additionally, Tibet is known as the “roof of the world” because of its high altitude so some visitors might require a day or two to adapt to the change.
Visitors are not allowed to take photographs inside shrines and chapels or of people without asking for permission. Much of the food will be unfamiliar, and goat and yak meat are commonly on the menu though vegetarian dishes are delicious and plentiful. Tibet is an ancient, exotic land and one of China’s most remarkable destinations. You just might have the time of your life!

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Romantic Taiwanese Getaways for Nature Lovers

Nature Lovers

This little island nation was nicknamed “the Beautiful Island” by the Portuguese for a reason. It is full of verdant forests, charming seascapes, and some of the friendliest locals in the world. Taiwan is the perfect place for a romantic getaway, and here are some of the best locations in particular:

Hualien, Taiwan

This lovely coastal city located in Northeastern Taiwan has an unhurried mountain town feel, perfect for long, lingering walks and meaningful memories. The Taroko National Park, a 92,000-hectare national park is one of Taiwan’s nine national parks, featuring all-natural mountains, gorges, rivers, and cliffs. You can take a guided day tour of the Taroko Gorge, or make your own way through the winding mountain paths or alongside the rocky Qixingtan Beach.
In addition, Hualien also features a Cultural and Creative Industries Park–former industrial spaces that have been converted into art venues including art exhibits and craft shops. If you come at the right time, you can be treated to street performers and music shows as well! There are even opportunities to go whale and dolphin watching in Hualien, with a high likelihood of successful sightings, particularly between April and October.
And don’t forget the food: for an authentic Taiwanese night market experience, check out Dongdamen Night Market, located on Zhongshan road and open from 5:30 to 11:30 pm, daily. This subsection of a larger bazaar and events area is home to three main market lanes, including Futing Market (featuring Taiwanese food), another street representing mainland Chinese dishes, and Aboriginal street, a lane filled with local vendors offering aboriginal style snacks and gifts. Hualien is the perfect romantic vacation spot for nature-loving foodie couples from anywhere around the world.

Tamshui, Taipei

If you prefer a more citified feel for your love story, remember to check out Tamshui, Taipei–known for its famous Lover’s Bridge which lights up at night as live musicians serenade diners at the local restaurants along the river. Located near Tamkang University, Tamshui is a beloved spot for college-aged lovers and is a top dating spot for university students and visitors alike.
Even during the day, couples can rent bikes and ride along the peaceful coast, perhaps stopping in to visit Fort San Domingo (one of the oldest European style buildings in Taiwan) or Tamshui Old Street (full of delicious foods like the iconic fish balls and Ah Gei) for an unforgettable date.

Pingxi Sky Lanterns, Taipei

Have you ever wanted to release your own burning lantern into the night sky as a declaration of your love? After Disney released Tangled in 2010, viewers everywhere have swooned at the romantic scene where Rapunzel and Flynn sing to each other as floating lanterns glow like stars in the inky night air.
Pingxi (also known as Shi Fen) was literally awarded the “most romantic place in Taiwan” in 2014, made famous by the movie “You Are the Apple of My Eye” which also featured a romantic scene involving the releasing of a sky lantern.
If experiencing a sky lantern has always been your dream, you need dream no longer: Visitors to Pingxi are given the opportunity to decorate and release their own sky lanterns, as well as stroll along the rustic railway, hand in hand, or explore the Pingxi Old Street–a street built into a hill with a train track going overhead.
If you are looking for a memorable place and activity to declare your love to your significant other, or even pop the question, you can’t go wrong with Pingxi and its famous sky lanterns! During Chinese New Years, particularly, tourists are invited to release a Chinese lantern into the sky.

Brown Boulevard, Taitung

This picturesque path located in the center of the island nation is perfect for a romantic lovers’ bike ride. Featuring a wide expanse of green rice fields, only one solitary tree, and zero telephone poles, Brown Boulevard has long been considered an ideal backdrop for wedding photography or just a relaxing location to travel through, hand in hand. Made famous because of a Mr. Brown Coffee commercial, this verdant paradise road is nestled in the rustic Chishang township of Taitung County and is closed to non-agricultural vehicles, making it safe and peaceful–perfect for exploring and enjoying.

Penghu Islands

If you love aquatics, consider bringing your beloved to Penghu, a group of islands and islets located off the west coast of Chiayi County. And if you and your loved one appreciate history, check out the Penghu Living Museum, which offers insights into centuries of Penghu culture, from religious beliefs to child-rearing practices.
Qimei’s most arresting feature is a double heart of stacked stones, an ancient but well-preserved fish trap located in the deep green-blue ocean and visible from the sky above. It is often said to represent eternal love and is the perfect backdrop to a romantic picnic, wedding proposal, or wedding photo shoot.

Yang Ming Shan, Taipei

Yang Ming Shan is an epic vantage point from which to view Taipei’s sparkling night scenery: the Yang Ming Shan National Park features a hidden volcano and is particularly beautiful during flower season, with sakura blossoms in full bloom.
There are also numerous restaurants with spectacular views located near Yangmingshan national park, including The Peak, which offers private seats for couples and a large menu with many selections; Back Garden, a Mediterranean-Bali themed outdoor restaurant, and Sleepless, the iconic spot for couples in love since 1986. Any and all of these elegant restaurants provide the perfect place to enjoy a delicious meal after a day of hiking and exploring, and a time to talk about matters of the heart.
No matter where you go in Taiwan, an emerald land full of unspoiled nature and unique adventures, you will be sure to make one-of-a-kind memories with your significant other by your side. The most important thing is to enjoy each other and the land, and remember that, in the words of the great Charles Schulz: “in life, it’s not where you go, it’s who you travel with.”

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Why You Should Consider a Yangtze River Cruise

The language barrier and vast cultural differences that exist between eastern and western society has prevented many westerners from taking advantage of the amazing travel opportunities that exist throughout China. China has a rich, complex history and culture that makes it a great destination for any world traveler. One of the best, and easiest, ways to see China is by taking a Yangtze River cruise tour. This will expose you to some of the greatest natural and man-made wonders that exist in the region. If you have never considered a Chinese river cruise, here are just a few of the reasons to do so.

The Gateway to China

One of the most significant aspects of a Yangtze River cruise is that it allows you to experience some of the magnificent sights that China has to offer. Many popular Yangtze River cruises will start with a few days on land in a major city such as Beijing or Shanghai before moving on to the cruise portion of the trip. Viking River Cruises offers a 14-day Imperial Jewels of China trip that includes nights in Beijing and Xian before the trip and finishes in Shanghai. All the trips are planned and guided by the cruise line, allowing you to truly immerse yourself in Chinese culture, making it a great low-stress option for first-time visitors.

See Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City

Should you choose a trip that begins or ends in Beijing, you will be able to explore a city with a rich heritage that dates back more than 3000 years. One of the highlights of visiting Beijing is seeing the expansive Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest square at a staggering 100 acres. Tiananmen Square is so large that it can accommodate over 1 million people at a time. Tiananmen Square also acts as the gateway to Beijing’s Forbidden City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site made up of nearly 1,000 buildings surrounded by 26-foot-high walls. The Forbidden City is not only China’s largest group of ancient buildings, but it is also the world’s largest surviving palace complex. Tour the Forbidden City named for being ‘forbidden’ to commoners for more than 500 years. See the opulent palaces, pavilions, courtyards, and gardens where two dynasties of emperors, the Ming and the Qing, once lived.

Immerse Yourself in China’s Wondrous History

China has a rich and lengthy history, with many historians believing that the region was first inhabited by humans approximately 45,000 years ago. A Chinese cruise tour will expose you to many of the most famous sites significant to Chinese history, and it will also expose you to some of its most ornate, and impressive, architecture. Should your trip include a Beijing segment, this will allow you to see one of the most impressive, and best-preserved, sections of the Great Wall of China. This 4,000-mile-long sandstone fortification was built over 2,000 years ago during the Qin dynasty and was maintained between the 5th century BC and the 16th century AD. On your visit, you will have a chance to explore its winding paths and take in the stunning views from its ramparts.

Xian and The Legendary Terracotta Warriors

After the Beijing segment, many Yangtze River cruise tours also include a stop in Xian, central city to the Tang Dynasty from 618 to 907 AD. Xian will give you the opportunity to tour the mausoleum where Emperor Qin Shi Huang was buried over 2,000 years ago. It is also where the astonishing and magnificent Terracotta Army was discovered in the 1970s. This army of life-sized warriors, archers, and infantrymen was created for the emperor and buried with him to protect him in the afterlife. The 6,000 warriors and horses are each molded with their own distinctive look and features, leading some scholars to believe that the army was molded after real soldiers. Walkways will give you a bird’s-eye view of this vast army once hidden from view until its discovery in 1974.

Spend 2 Days in Stunning Wu Gorge

From Xian, you will then travel to the mighty Yangtze river where you will board your river cruise. One of the highlights of your Yangtze River cruise tour will be the 150-mile scenic stretch of the river you will travel down as it forces its way through a series of limestone ridges known as the Three Gorges. You will first travel through Qutang Gorge, the shortest, narrowest, and arguably most spectacular of the Three Gorges. Then board smaller boats that will take you through the Lesser Three Gorges region, where you will sail through canyons lined with towering cliffs. Here, you will see extraordinary sites including the hanging coffins of the Ba people, and the ancient plank road carved into the cliffside. The cruise will also sail through Wu Gorge, renowned for its majestic scenery.

Tour The World’s Largest Dam

After passing through the natural wonders of the Three Gorges, you will then come face-to-face with the great wonder that is the Three Gorges Dam. Three Gorges Dam is an extraordinary feat of engineering that took 17 years to construct at the cost of more than 28 billion dollars. Three Gorges Dam is not only the world’s largest dam, but it is also home to the world’s largest hydroelectric power station. You will be able to marvel at the river-taming dam as you tour its exterior and experience its power firsthand as you sail through its 5-stage lock system while you continue down the Yangtze.
A Yangtze River cruise tour is a great way to experience all that China has to offer, as there are countless historical sites you will take in on this trip and memories that you’ll keep forever.