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China 2013: Part I

So we've just boarded the train from Beijing to Xi'An. It's been busy 6 days...

Edit: No, we're not. By the time I wrote this, we were in the train. Now, the first day here in Xi'An has already passed. More on that next time, though...

Beijing is an impressive city. Not only is it huge, fast and busy (not to forget: hot at this time of the year), it's also a city of contrast. East meets west here, old meets new, socialist meets capitalist... China truly is an emerging country and a unique one to that, I believe. It'll be quite interesting to look back in a couple more years and compare the situation then to what we've experienced during that week.

When we landed, we were both pretty jet-lagged. In Vienna, we've boarded the plane at around 12. At 3pm, we stopped in Helsinki. Then, at 6pm (local time) we boarded our flight to Beijing, which landed at around 7:00am (again, local time). Neither of us had any sleep during the flight. Sitting in a seat for 8 straight hours ain't exactly invigorating or anything. When we arrived at the hostel at around 9:00am, we were wasted. Originally, I had planned to take a Sanda class in the first evening upon arrival. However, I wouldn't risk a fatigue-induced injury so early in the trip (after all, we'll go for a total of 5 weeks), so I changed plans and postponed the training. 

The second day, however, after a lot of sightseeing, I finally made my way to the [Milun Kung Fu School], run by master Zhang. Milun Kung Fu school is a beautiful Wushu center located near Wangfujing street, so the location is really great. We still had trouble finding it in the first place, but that's because we didn't find our way through the [Hutong]. Once you've been there, it's actually really easy to find. Also, master Zhang was so kind to send us one of his assistant trainers to pick us up when we called and admitted we're lost.

That wasn't the only gesture of kindness from the master's side, though. Although there was no Sanda scheduled on that day, he agreed to teach me anyhow. After a short but pretty hard warmup run by one of the other trainers (I probably perceived the warmup harder than it really was due to the climatic change), master Zhang assessed my skills and identified problems with my cross, hook, uppercut and sidekick. While the former three were only adressed quickly (although I was taught a faster, more direct version of the superman punch), improving the latter took us the rest of the session.

From a didactic point of view, I have to say that, apart from sparring, the session had everything: proper warmup, a clear technical focus, padwork, specific stretching, specific conditioning and finally, general conditioning. On a sidenote, the stretching left me limping for two days. Guess I'm pretty tight after all - might as well have been the combination of rigorous stretching and the heat, though, as master Zhang has labelled my flexibility "sufficient" at the end of the warmup.

Besides Sanda, master Zhang and his staff also teach traditional Shaolin Kung Fu and Tai Chi, amongst others. Looks like there was quite a bit of [Chin Na] involved. I can't say for sure myself, as the group split up after the warmup. The other students went outside to the courtyard while master Zhang and I stayed inside. My girlfriend didn't train, though, so she had a chance to witness the other student's training. She described what she saw as "precise, calm and highly technical". One student learned a form, the other did applications.

I particularly liked master Zhang's non-dogmatic approach. He stated that there's no such thing as a "best style" - everything is good, if it suits the practictioner. Now that sounds obvious, but it really isn't. Usually, people go around, claiming that their system is the best and all the others are inferior... master Zhang's perspective was refreshing, to say the least. Also, he stated that most westeners are confused in their training, in the sense that they want to train in all styles because everything's got a "cool thing" to it. Thing is, you can be a D,C, or even a B in many things, but you only become an A in one thing. So, if you pursue mastery, stick to what you're doing. It's ok to try other things, even to switch directions when you feel your style doesn't fit you any more, but once you've made a decision, focus on your path. Now usually I encourage my students to train in other styles as well if they show interest in that direction, but recently, I've realized that this actually can lead to... confusion. Just what master Zhang said.

Conclusively, I can say that I really enjoyed my experiences at Milun Kung Fu school and can absolutely recommend it. If you happen to be in the Beijing area, make sure to check it out and take a lesson or two with master Zhang. It'll definitely be worth your time. Master Zhang allowed me to take some photos for myself but asked me not to publish them anywhere. So, of course, I'll respect his wishes and keep this one strictly text-only.

Muay Thai
As soon as I've reovered from the pulled hamstring I sustained at the Sanda lesson, I headed for [The Legend Muay Thai] gym. It's part of the Yokkai group, so I had to check it out. The legend is situated near Da Wang Lu metro station, so it's conventient to reach by means of public transportation. I have to admit, though, that we had a hard time finding it - again. I even came late for class, if only by a couple of minutes.

The legend is a great gym, to say the least. They have a big mat area with mirrors and heavy bags, a regulation-sized ring, a gym, changing rooms, showers and even a pro-shop. All of that doesn't hold a candle compared to the quality of the training, however.

If you take a look at the [instructors], you'll see that all trainers are highly decorated Muay Thai veterans. Rung, the trainer I was working with most of the time, has over 260 fights under his belt. Took, the other trainer I worked with, has around 15 years of experience when it comes to training fighters. J.P., a canadian expat who's lived and fought in Thailand before coming to Beijing, was involved with the martial arts since he was 4. So much for the qualitative side. When it comes to quantity, though, I was even more astonished: at The Legend Muay Thai, each class has a student-to-teacher ratio no higher than 3:1 (at least they make that claim on their website. In my case, it was absolutely true, too.). Think about it: for every three students, there's one teacher. This allows for a lot of quality one-on-one padwork.

After some jogging, rope skipping, shadowsparring and stretching, we stepped into the ring for three rounds of sparring. The mode was boxing only, light contact. Now this is actually noteworthy. More than that, for me, it's the sign of professional training. You see, in Austria, I've made the experience that sparring tends to be all-out quite often, which results in a lot of injuries and sloppy technique. Here, a great emphasis was put on the fact that sparring is fast, yet wihtout any significant impact. Of course, it might be that they only did that so as not to hurt me. On the other hand, J.P. told us that "... in sparring, you just slap the other guy. It's totally different when you [fight and] kick someone in the elbow or knee full force for the first time...", so I guess that's their standard approach to things. Actually, that totally makes sense. Fighting is fighting. You can go all-out there as much as you want - actually, you have to. Sparring is a whole 'nother animal, though. No point in getting injured in training or injuring your teammates. That's exactly the attitude I try to teach my students.

The sparring was followed by five rounds of padwork. Muay Thai is totally different from Kickboxing, both in terms of technique and strategy. I had a hard time adopting the high muay thai stance and constantly went back to a low, knees bent stance. The trainers at The Legend are excellent padholders and really do a great job in teaching and correcting technique. Although I tried to do everything as Muay-Thai-ish as I could, I fell back into my old patterns quite often. That was to be expected, though.

By the time the padwork ended, I was barely breathing. For one, [as pointed out before], I wasn't able to do a lot of technique work or sparring in the last couple weeks due to a shoulder impingement. Heat, lack of sleep and the fact that I'm not yet accustomed to the local food did the rest in wearing me down.

You see, I was in pretty perfect condition for the following three rounds of Muay Thai sparring. Now to be honest, I went down quite a few times. Not due to impact or anything like that - Rung just took me off my feet with sweeping low kicks. Also, he had this crazy switch kick that would feint and then hit somewhere else. Never did figure out how to handle that one. Interestingly, at some point during the third round, Rung did a round kick while jumping backwards - that looked pretty much like what is done in Taekwondo. Forgot to ask him about it, though.

For specific strength and conditiong, we did a circuit training where we'd alternate pushups with heavy bag work. On the first round, it was 20 right round kicks, each preceded by a shin block. Second round was right lowkicks. Finally, the third round was knees from the clinch for what felt like half a million repetitions. But then, I was really devasted at that point. To condlude the session, we dynamically stretched the hips and shoulders.

After the session, I had a nice chat with J.P., who's really a great guy. But then, that's the thing: martial artists, regardless of style and association, are quite decent guys most of the time. The stereotypical "bad-boy" image that's conveyed by pro boxing and the UFC just doesn't fit most of us. Anyways, J.P. also agreed that every martial art is good, it just depends on what you like. I really find that view on things refreshing - you don't hear such clear, pragmatic words very often on Europe.

I found it interesting that The Legend charges extra for renting shin pads. After thinking about it, I've come to actually like the idea: by charging a small amount for equipment rent (they charge 20rmb for shin pads, which is roughly €3), a budget to buy more and take care of the existing protective gear can be acquired. Also, it's an incentive for students to get their stuff together... I'll have to think about that. It's quite possible I introduce this at my school (although I'm aware that €3 would probably be pretty steep for Austrian standards).

If you're looking for quality Muay Thai training in the Baijing area, look no further - The Legend Muay Thai is one of the coolest and most professional gyms I've ever been to!

Providing an in-depth conclusion of my stay in Beijing would take too much time. Also, you probably wouldn't read a lot more anyways... However, concluding my martial arts experience here makes sense - after all, this is a martial arts blog, isn't it?

Quality-wise, I was absolutely satisfied (even astonished) by both the Milun Kung Fu School and The Legend Muay Thai. I won't compare one to the other, as they're totally different in both what they do and how they do it.

Style-wise, of course, Sanda's snap kicks suit my background better. Things just feel more naturally. I hope that I'll have a chance to learn some Chin Na as well over the course of my further journey.

Below you'll find some pictures that are not necessarily martial arts related. Just thought it'd make for a nice touch to add some travel impressions as well.

I'll keep you posted on our further journey,
so long,

take care


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