- Lao Ta Gou (Old Tagou)
One of the oldest training Kung Fu camps in China, and particularly in Dengfeng, indisputably the best, harshest and grittiest. It’s located in the Shaolin Temple, just minutes beyond the temple’s “scenic spot gate.” It’s in a strategic spot on Mount Song, students run to the temple every morning, do Tai Chi by the gates and in the heart of the mountains, they train well over 7 hours a day by the best Shifus China has to offer. It’s the “it” school in the region for Shaolin Kung Fu. If you’ve seen TV reports, and the Nat Geo feature about Shaolin, Lao Ta Gou is usually the school that’s being featured there.
It has some decent rooms for foreigners despite being generally scruffy (and yes, some parts of the school smell of urine) and very militant. If you’re willing to put up with that and bite on the lemons (or if you’re zen enough to make the proverbial lemonade), you’ve got the best deal by enlisting in Lao Ta Gou.
Ta Gou has a new campus at the foot of the mountain, at the edges of Dengfeng and closer to town, and it’s huge, housing well over 30,000 Chinese students, but this one’s even filthier than the old one. The modern touch in the new campus kills the ambiance and you’re lucky if your Shifu knows your name among the throngs of students he or she are assigned to. Avoid the over-crowded new camp, it’s also further away from the temple and mountains. So if you’ve decided to rough it for the love of Kung Fu, go straight to the old (Lao) camp.
To join Lao Ta Gou’s elite ranks, contact Linda via this email: email@example.com or go to www.shaolintagou.com for more details.
- Shaolin Temple’s Wushu Guan
It’s the main training center of the world-famous Shaolin Si, which currently has a freeze on accepting any more disciples to train as ’fighting monks’. Believe it or not, as it stands the temple’s Kung Fu on offer is not as good as Lao Ta Gou, or as tough. It’s in a far second to the powerfully dragonish (yeah, it’s not a word) Ta Gou. Also, if you’re not Chinese, don’t expect to be trained by any of the temple’s warrior monks; it’s very rare, almost unheard of. If you’re a foreigner, you can train for as little as 4 hours per day. The perk? You get to dress like a monk, and if you’re made of hard stuff, you can run with the real monks every morning up what feels like a couple of million stone stairs to Dharma Cave (where Bodhidharma “Damo,” the founder of zen Buddhism and the saint credited for the evolution of Shaolin Kung Fu stared at a wall for nine years) and down. The climb is a feat in itself, so don’t think you can do it if you’re new to running, that mountain is a bitch! However, if you do join Old Ta Gou, which is literally next door to the Wushu Guan (both are housed on the Shaolin Temple grounds), you can still do that same strenuous run with the monks every morning.
To sell your soul to the monastery’s school, email Lisa Lau at firstname.lastname@example.org to make arrangements.
On the same level as the Wushu Guan, and a few minutes away, there’s the Songshan Wushengtuan. The Wushengtuan is one aggressively competitive school, with excellent Kung Fu coaching, a keeping of the martial arts traditions, but reputedly a hell-hole for foreigners (with 4-6 smelly students sharing your room) and with Shifus treating you like shit (like they would everyone else, because many of them believe it’s part of the character training to rough you up, manhandle you, break you down … and on occasion confiscate your computer or phone ––or if you’re unlucky smash them to pieces–– if they think either distracts you from training).
- Epo or Xiaolong “Little Dragon”
These two schools tie for third place. In some rankings, Xiaolong “Little Dragon” is the third best followed by Epo. In others, Epo’s in third place and Xiaolong is in fourth. These have better lodgings, and are much cleaner than all of the above. I’ve been studying in Xiaolong for almost five months now, and despite finally deciding I’m making a move to Lao Ta Gou next month (because I’m suicidal, not because I’m that good), I still recommend it wholeheartedly if only to ease your transition to China if you’re a newbie to the mainland and Kung Fu. Epo, Xiaolong, and Ta Gou’s big new camp are minutes away from each other at the foot of Mount Song, a bus ride from the temple, and a healthy distance from town. Xiaolong has around 5,000 students, its Kung Fu is pretty solid, especially its Taolu, and it has one of the best performing teams in China. If your Kung Fu is advanced, you may even be allowed to train with the “performing monks.” But despite its nice kitchen, and the very good rooms (with flat-screen TVs and air-conditioning) it offers its foreigners, it’s still dirty by Western standards, and the atmosphere is unapologetically army-like. The emphasis is on hard Kung Fu, acrobatics and weapon-training and the internal arts are almost entirely ignored. If military-style training doesn’t depress you, Xiaolong will more than do to turn you into a skilled Kung Fu fighter.
To enlist in the Xiaolong army, shoot an email in simple English, or Chinese, to Shifu Li Yong Hui at email@example.com or check the school’s main website: www.xiaolongedu.com.cn
- Fawang Temple
Roughly three kilometers away from downtown Dengfeng, it’s quiet, located in the lush woods on Mount Taishi, and it provides the ultimate temple experience in this part of the world, despite not clinching any top spots in the “Best of …” ranks. Mind you, with dedication and some serious time investment, you can still hone your Kung Fu skills to an impressive standard there. Fawang Si does provide a meditative, healing atmosphere, and unlike the Shaolin Monastery, Fawang is not swarming with camera-clicking tourists around the clock. Fawang provides a balance between hard, and soft Kung Fu, internal and external arts. Plus, you get to don the monkish orange-colored robes as you train. If you dig that, can live without internet (nil! none! zero connection with virtual worlds), don’t mind sleeping on bunk beds with 20 other students in the same room (along with a medley of moths and creeping insects), plus you’re game with sharing the bathroom (read squat toilet cabins without doors), Fawang is for you. Honestly, if you can handle the rough-and-tough factor, it’s hands down the most magical place to learn Kung Fu in Dengfeng. Absolutely breath-taking scenery all around too!
Sadly, orange doesn’t go well with my skin color neither does it compliment my curves. I’m irredeemably neurotic about having my alone-in-my-room-writing-or-staring-at-the-ceiling time, and I hate moths with passion. And alas, too much meditation makes me doze off. So I’ll be sticking to Kung Fu camps like Lao Ta Gou and Xiaolong during training hours, and to roaming the different temples (for the arrested-out-of-time feel) in my free time.
- The Temple’s village schools (for super tight budgets)
These are schools stacked side by side in the village right opposite the Shaolin Temple, a mere five minute hike from the temple up a small hill on Mount Song. The camps are small, each housing around 20-30 students each, and are very cheap compared to the rest of the schools in Dengfeng. The Kung Fu is crisp, and as decent as most main schools down in Dengfeng, but considering how cheap they are, the living conditions are quite challenging. The arrangement works for students studying in China long-term. Don’t fret though if your budget is low, it is doable, and I’ve personally met loads of foreign students (American, European and African) studying there, some for over seven years on shoe-string budgets. So yes, it can be done!
I don’t have any contacts for these schools, but I reckon the best way to get into one is to book a trip to Dengfeng, stay for a few nights in a cheap hotel until you go up to the village yourself and make arrangements. You can always extend your visa permit after you come to Dengfeng, that’s what I did.
Any of the schools should be able to provide you with the needed documentations to apply for a student visa in Zhengzhou, the nearest big town with a foreign affairs office.
Last word … I can’t advise on exact costs, these depend on length of stay and your school of choice, in addition to the type and quality of accommodation that you settle on. The contact people for each school can provide all the information you need regarding fees, and accommodation options, plus training costs. However, I can assure you that China is pretty cheap compared to Europe or the US, and one month of training, food, transport and accommodation should cost anywhere between 600-1500 USD, but not more.
Training in most schools is rigorous ranging between 6 to 8 hours per day, every single day except for Sundays, and that includes a run on an empty stomach between 5:00 am and 6:00 am (timing depends on school), followed by circuit training. So come mentally prepared, and well-equipped with muscle-relief creams like Deep Heat or Tiger Balm. All schools have curfews, some stricter than others, and they do expect some discipline from students.
If you’re 100 % fresh and new to Kung Fu, don’t do the rookie mistake of imposing your demands on your Shifu/Kung Fu teacher, let him or her guide your training. The newbie’s most common mistake is to come expecting to learn hard Chi Kung, several Mantis, white crane, snake and tiger forms, the use of swords, axes, spears and whips, in addition to how to tumble, do an aerial, flip in 4 different directions and dodge bullets like Neo in the Matrix all during the first week. Take it slowly, come with an empty vessel, shut up and keep your wisdom to yourself for now, do as you’re told and wait for your body to adapt to the new training regimen. Bruce says be like water. Let me put it more plainly, if you’re an absolute beginner, for the first few weeks, be a follower, be like sheep … my friend.
Food is mostly carbs, rice, noodles, dumplings and vegetables, and it’s mostly hot and spicy (even for breakfast). Protein-intake is very low, but it’s the same kind of food that fighting monks have been consuming for years, so it somehow works. Forget Western-style food, it’s all painfully Chinese here. People either fall in love with the food or loathe it. I happen to be among the lucky camp whose tummy has acclimated well to Chinese food (despite spending a night in hospital once –– but only once–– for food poisoning).
Learn some Chinese before you venture into this part of the world. This realm doesn’t speak English, en masse, and yes, yes, yes that includes the schools and services heavily catering to foreigners.
One more tip, beware of pirate websites and phony travel agents trying to rip you off. Don’t trust untried websites that credible sources (previous travelers, Kung Fu students, locals you personally know) haven’t recommended. I personally had to pay double the amount that any regular student pays when I first came here thanks to a sleazy travel agent whose contacts I got online, sans recommendations. That said, I’ve made all arrangements on my own, without any knowledge of Chinese or how these things are done, so I’m lucky my throat wasn’t slit or that all my money wasn’t stolen at gunpoint when I first arrived here.