Taiji – one year on and feeling the Qi

A year ago, when we were confined to staying in China for the summer holidays, we went to a Taiji retreat on Chongming Island, hosted by the husband of Leping, one of our Mandarin teachers. The exercises and movements resonated with me and after a decade of suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and its after effects, I found that I was more energized. This was quite miraculous to me and the benefits of the movements encouraged me to continue with classes after school and to keep up my own practice each morning. I would get up half an hour early and do my wake up exercises followed by 10 minutes of meditation to set me up for the day. I found myself bouncing off to school feeling refreshed and ready for work.

There are many different styles of Taiji and we are studying Nei Gong, which means ‘inner energy’ and which focuses on posture, body alignment and working on the joints and tendons to ultimately unblock your meridians. In class we learn our ‘routine’ which has 57 movements and we add to our practice each week with another move. I found that the more movements I learned, the earlier I needed to get up to be able to fit the practice in! I was slowly becoming addicted.

Early morning practice during the holidays

As the year progressed and we still couldn’t travel we had daily classes in the Christmas and Chinese New Year holidays to learn QiGong movements, particulary one developed by Shifu to strengthen the spine.

I am aware that modern living is not good for our posture. We hunch over computers, phones or even books and slump in chairs or on sofas and that this poor posture can contribute to multiple ailments as we get older. Most people don’t even walk properly!! I find myslef watching people with poor gait as they plod down the street ahead of me with their toes turned in or knees splayed out. The worst thing that I see is ladies with shoulder bags. The shoulder with the bag strap on hunches up and the spine twists to the opposite side. Years of abusing our joints like this can lead to knee and hip problems, trapped nerves and aching shoulders.

Look closely. Each girl has one shoulder higher than the other. When the bags are heavier the shoulder will rise higher

Pro Tip: always carry backpacks across both shoulders for even weight distribution. Fashion is not more important that your health.

In Taiji, if your bones and joints are correctly aligned and if you do the correct movements then it is the equivalent of having acupressure or acupuncture treatments. Much of Taiji is about self management and prevention of problems by living and moving correctly. Just doing the routine daily has huge health benefits. The shoulder exercises that I have been doing have freed a trapped nerve for instance. Practice does need to be daily though to have the desired effects but if you commit to it the results are worth it. Prevention is ALWAYS better than cure.

There are lots of documented health benefits to practicing Taiji from improved flexibility, balance and agility to greater heart, liver and kidney functions or better sleep. For me, the increased energy and improved posture alone were great.

But the biggest benefit came to me one day in April as I was walking to work early in the morning. I remember it very clearly. I was wearing my work backpack which was reasonably heavy and kept my shoulders back quite nicely. For some months I had been trying to walk intentionally, with a straight back, heel out first and eyes ahead, (walking like a Master). My 12 minute commute to school was good practice time. I arrived at the crossing and was waiting for the lights to turn green when all of a sudden I felt a strange shooting sensation rush down my arms.

When doing the exercises correctly, I had from time to time felt a gentle tingling in my palms and fingers. This I knew was the Qi or energy that we all possess and feeling that sensation gave me a particular buzz. It was like the dopamine that kept me coming back for more. So when the shooting happened in my arms, I recognized it as Qi but boy, this was much stronger than anything that I had experienced before! And it kept on going. I walked over the crossing and on to school marvelling at what was happening in my arms and hands and wondering when it might stop. It was almost like the moment when Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider. Except that I had to carry on going to work and I didn’t transform into anything remotely super or ‘heroic’

It did feel weird though having unusual sensations shooting like tiny bolts of electricity up and down my arms. I told Shifu and he said that my meridian had unblocked and that the strange sensations were the connections in the meridians being forged. This whole process took several days and during that time my palms felt extremely sensitive, so much so that I wasn’t keen on picking things up. I couldn’t say anything to anyone as no one would understand. Not everyone who feels their Qi has an experience like this.

On day three I remember being in a meeting in my boss’s office when the sparking feelings shot down my legs and the soles of my feet began to feel as though they were alive with electricity. I was amazed and was barely able to concentrate on the ‘budget’ proposals that I was supposed to be listening to. It was all quite distracting and it was certainly the strangest meeting I have ever had!

I am pleased to say that the shooting, sparking sensations eventually calmed down and I was left with a gentle tingling feeling. I feel this all the time now, not just when I am doing the routine and the exercises. I am now used to the feeling and hardly notice it when I am busy with other things. But when I want to, I can circle my wrists and hands and ‘play’ with my Qi. I do this if I am standing waiting anywhere and my hands are free. It is a most extraordinary and beautiful thing.

I suspect that many people may be reading this with a certain amount of skepticism, and I don’t blame you. I would too, if I hadn’t actually experienced this for myself. I know what I can feel but I don’t mind if you don’t entirely believe me, I will still feel it.

In actual fact very few practitioners reach the stage of feeling their Qi all the time. Or at least admit to it, or openly talk about it. It creates jealousy among those who think that they are Masters but who can’t feel their Qi all the time.

I know of only 5 of us, Shifu, me and 3 of his other students. Because of this enhanced feeling I have graduated to the ‘high level’ group. Many people practice Taiji for years and never achieve this deep and lasting connection. Some people doing the other styles of Taiji or Kung Fu have to unlearn their incorrect movements before they can experience this. I have been told that I did a sort of ‘short cut’ and it is probably because I came to the lessons as a blank canvas, never having done any sort of martial arts before and because I have been practicing every single day.

All this is to say that I am well and truely hooked. I now have the ability to move my Qi around my body and to not only do ‘Soong’ which means to relax but also, ‘Fang Xia’ which translates as ‘letting go’. Letting go is so much more than just relaxing muscles, it is about relaxing and releasing everything including, tendons, fascia, bones and internal organs. It is a blissful, peaceful state where you can recharge your whole body.

In August it was time for the annual Milun Traditional School of Kung Fu Summer Camp on Chongming Island. This is a 10 day event when some of the high level students gather together (well those who are currently in China- we missed you Javi). It was great to be able to meet up and chat about our Taiji journeys and to practice together.

Summer Camp group

One of the opportunities we had was to practice skills such as ‘push hands’ which I had recently been learning. This involves giving and receiving Qi through contact in the arms and wrists. In some forms of Taiji this has been turned into a competition and you look to throw your opponent when their Qi is weak. When we do it though, it is a relaxing exchange and not about who is a ‘winner’. Life is so much more than that.

Yu Ting and her husband
Xiao P with Shifu

Every morning we began with exercises in the flower garden at 6.30am. This was the coolest part of the day, although not for very long as even on the island it would reach temeratures in the 30s with extremely high humidity. It was almost a 3 outfits a day experience we got so sweaty!

Early morning in the garden

After a chinese breakfast of congee, eggs and bread we had standing meditation. Being mosquito season we all had to wear these nets which I can testify were VERY HOT! We began with 25 minutes and built up to 50 minutes. I had been practicing but I do find anything over 30 minutes very difficult. My feet go numb and I get a pain behind my left shoulder blade, which we eventually attributed to carrying armsful of books for my entire working life when shelving! A librarian injury!!! I now have some daily exercies to help to loosen that muscle up.

With my buddy Ginny

After meditation we had Taiji practice. Mostly Xiao P and I went off to practice doing the routine as slowly as we could. This is actually extremely challenging as it takes 2 hours to complete and you really feel as though you have given your muscles a good work out by the end.

Moving Leping with my Qi

After lunch and a much needed nap we had I Ching lessons in the room by the lake. I Ching is an ancient Chinese philosophy and is quite complex. It is based on the Bagua symbol of elements and on one level can be used for fortune telling but it also has many rich layers of meaning.

We were told the transliteration of ancient chinese characters and had the meaning explained. The native mandarin speakers all wrote this down but I had to figure out what it actually meant and turn that into some sort of sentence that made sense in English! It was all very deep and academic but we had lots of breaks for tea ceremonies.

The centre where we stayed is also a farm so all the food we ate was organic. It was pear season so at every meal we had deliciously juicy Chinese pears. Interestingly, the chinese who eat all sort of parts of animals like chicken feet or organs, never eat fruit with peel or skin on!

After dinner we would do half an hour of walking meditation which involved different types of intentional steps, some slow, some fast and some designed to correct our own individual posture. It was pitch dark by this time and again we had to wear our nets as it was prime mosquito time.

Finally we would take our towels down to the lake and do a seated meditation. I am rubbish at sitting cross legged and had to have a special stool, even then it was uncomfortable! When the bell chimed at the end of the meditation we could all lie back and look up at the stars. It was relaxing to lie outside on the deck in the sultry night air and contemplate nature. We even saw some shooting stars.

I couldn’t stay for the full 10 days of Summer Camp as I needed to be back in Shanghai for my operation. I was sad because I knew that once I had been under the knife then I wouldn’t be able to feel my Qi anymore. It was going to be very busy healing my insides and the anaesthetic would deaden everything.

That is exactly what happened. For four weeks I couldn’t feel my Qi at all. Mind you, I was hobbling around and barely able to walk properly. The surgeons were very keen that I resume walking and gentle Taiji as soon as possible. They don’t want patients developing thrombosis.

I am pleased to say that I can now feel my Qi again. It has come back and is even stronger than it was before. The tumor which has now gone was obviously blocking some of the meridians and impeding the flow of Qi around my body.

I may not be able to spin webs or catch criminals but I know that my Qi helps with healing and that’s a kind of super power. Things happen for a reason that we don’t always understand what they are but maybe I was meant to be here and to learn Taiji so that my Qi could help me to recover from this major operation. I feel better and better each day and I know that my Qi has played a huge part in helping with the healing process.

Some ball work by the lake

Enter the scalpel: health services east & west

Into every foreign adventure a little rain must fall… and this summer I have had quite a tsunami!!

One of the benefits of working in international schools is the health insurance package and the deal that we get with Concordia is excellent. It is so much better than the one I had at Shrewsbury which seriously was the most basic of basics. Here at Concordia, we are encouraged to have an annual wellness check up in the summer. We didn’t do one last year as everything was a bit topsy turvy with covid etc. This year, however I saw other people going for theirs so I thought , why not. The insurance company allow us 3000 RMB each for our wellness checks and surprise, surprise that is what they cost at the clinic. We thought it would be nice and satisfying to see exactly how fit we are!!! Especially as I was feeling so good after a year of learning Taiji. Little did I know.

Because we were not traveling as much in the vacation as we normally would, we had plenty of time so Kevin booked us both an appointment at the WorldPath clinic. We didn’t really know what to expect as being British, we’d never had one before. Unlike other countries we just don’t have a culture of annual health checks. I have had to explain to many people here that the NHS is so stretched with reacting that it doesn’t have the capacity to be proactive and do annual screening for the whole population. In China, they take the approach that by screening everyone, problems can be nipped in the bud which then takes the pressure off other services. It’s actually very sensible.

Anyway, at Worldpath the tests were multiple and thorough. I was told that my bone density is low (which explains the stress fracture in my foot from earlier in the year). I then had an ECG, ENT, vision tests, bloods taken, gynecology exam and ultrasounds on breast and abdomen. It was during this last one that the technician asked if I knew that I had a cyst. I told her that I didn’t. I wasn’t worried. Cysts are common and usually small and usually no problem.

The doctor then called me in and said that I had an extremely large cyst on my left kidney and I needed to see a urologist immediately. He used the word ‘huge’ several times which didn’t sound so good. We were back the next day to hear that at 17cm the cyst was bigger than my liver!!! I was dispatched to have a CT scan two days later. Being private, through the school insurance, we could get this booked in extremely quickly.

I know that doctors have to tell you the risks, but this Dr scared me somewhat by saying that there was a 1 in 100,000 chance of death from the scan. Apparently some people are allergic to whatever they inject in you to make the image contrast. However, he said he had been sending people for 20 years and everyone had been ok. The mathematician in me started calculating the statistical likelihood of it happening now! The scan was a little scary but I didn’t die. I was ok. Phew!

The scan was at a Universal Medical Imaging facility and being a foreigner I was accompanied round by a translator. It was packed there with locals having chest X-rays as part of their annual screenings. There was no space for me to sit down while waiting. I needed a cannula to administer the iodine and this was inserted at the admin desk by moving aside about 50 clipboards with other people’s info on. It was all a bit chaotic and surreal.

There was a week’s wait for the results but fortunately that was when we were away in the Henan Province with the Taiji crowd which was a great way to be distracted. I hardly thought about the cyst at all.

Interestingly though, there was a monk at the Shaolin Temple who was practicing Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). For approx £5 he could do a consultation. I was curious to see what he would say about me so I went along. The monk put 3 fingers on my right pulse and then on my left. He actually listens to the meridians rather than just the pulse as we understand it. Through an interpreter (because he spoke no English) he told me that my liver and kidney functions were low. Then he said that there was something growing in me and I should seek medical attention when I got home!! I was astonished that he could tell all that in just 2 minutes of putting his fingers on my wrists. My respect for TCM has gone up. Kudos!

On our return from Henan we met with the urologist to review the scan results. He said that I needed a ‘radical nephrectomy’ (left kidney removal) because the tumor was covering 90% of the kidney which effectively meant that there was nothing left to save. I was also informed that the tumor is most likely (85%) to be cancer but they couldn’t tell for sure until it is removed and tested. So began my intense engagement with Chinese medical services.

This was quite some news to take in, particularly as I had no signs or symptoms. I felt no pain whatsoever and if anything had been feeling generally better than I had done in a long time. You can imagine the shock. It took quite a while to process it all and for a long time it didn’t feel ‘real’

The purpose of this blog is not only to document for me what happened but also to highlight some of the cultural differences in the health services.

I was told that I needed to be admitted to a Chinese state hospital due to the complexity of the surgery. They had all the equipment and they had ICU recovery in case anything went wrong. Private international hospitals here are for smaller, more routine procedures. So, I had no choice but to accept. However, not everything was as I would expect it to be.

I should point out that in normal circumstances for an operation as major as this I would have been shipped off to one of the large, well equipped International hospitals in Thailand or Hong Kong but covid has prevented such travel. So, unlike most other teachers or ex-pats here I got to experience a ‘Chinese’ hospital.

My school HR were great, once I told them the news they swung into action and put me in touch with our health insurance broker, a guy called Owen who to my relief spoke English!!! It’s amazing how important something like that is when the chips are down.

The next big thing to happen was that the urologist at Worldpath had asked for a PET scan to see if the cancer had metastasized. BUT I got an email the next day saying that the insurance company had rejected the request. I went into a flat spin not knowing what that meant. In the UK if your doctor wants you to have a scan, you go and have one. You might have to wait for an appointment but you do get one. No third party turns around and says that you can’t have it!!! The whole medical insurance system was quite alien to me. Owen was fantastic and he sorted it all out. There had been a problem with the paperwork. I wouldn’t have known what to do myself.

After the PET scan I was presented with a large bag containing sheets with the scan images on, a CD of the images and a report in both Chinese and English. This is very different to the UK where such things are exchanged between the medical professionals only and you don’t have to schlep sheets of images around yourself.

It was quite a low point when reading the PET scan report as it began, ‘the patient has an unremarkable brain’. I was a bit disappointed to read that until I discovered from reading further that really they meant that there was nothing wrong (phew). Quite a lot of things (apart from the left kidney) were ‘unremarkable’ which was a good thing. They didn’t find any evidence of any cancer spread but the report confirmed that the tumor is ‘very likely’ to be cancer. Gulp.

It was at this point that things started to get very different from the dear old NHS. The insurance company asked me which hospital I wanted to go to for the operation. I was being asked to choose the best hospital for urology in a city where I didn’t even know what hospitals there were!!! I was sent the CVs of several surgeons which baffled me because I had no idea whether being on the editorial board of one journal was better than being on a committee for research etc etc It was all getting a bit much, particularly as I was still ‘in shock’ about the diagnosis. The urologist at Worldpath recommended The People’s 9th hospital because his mentor worked there but it turned out that my insurance company didn’t do direct billing with The People’s 9th. Also we weren’t sure if they had an International wing. This was important because I was going to need people who spoke good English. Or at least ‘some’ English.

I was in a bit of a quandary and didn’t know what to do, which hospital should I choose from a series of complete unknowns. The Americans do exercise more control over who they see but it’s so different in Britain. I am used to being sent to a hospital/surgeon and that is that!!! Too much choice is not necessarily a good thing. I rapidly became aware that some suggestions were nepotistic (money from Insurance was involved) and some suggestions from the insurance company might well have been about getting the cheapest deal rather than the best. It was very complicated and I wasn’t entirely sure who I could trust.

Then I went to church and in a swift answer to prayer I met Richard, the GP husband of one of our members. He doesn’t attend very often and in fact I hadn’t met him before that day, but over coffee I thought I would ask him which is the best hospital for kidney removal. Half an hour later I had an appointment in two days time at The people’s 1st Hospital with Dr Liu, the associate director of the Urology department. I couldn’t believe it. It is the biggest hospital in Shanghai but they do have an international centre AND my insurance do direct billing. Phew! I felt as though a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

In the meantime the insurance company required a ‘second opinion’. Again this was not something that I am used to. I guess that when spending large sums of money they want to ensure that it is all being spent correctly and that they only pay for necessary work. The second opinion service is based in the US so a doctor phoned me for a consultation one evening. I was then asked to upload all the scan images that I had. As these had been given to me on a CD my next problem, was, who has anything that can read a CD these days!!!

Fortunately Concordia came to the rescue and the tech hub do have the requisite equipment. Nicco was brilliant and he did it all for me. The images were such a high resolution that it took well over an hour just to upload them to One Drive. I was then able to share a link to that file with the US doctor. It’s incredible when you think what technology can do these days.

I think these are cross sections of my lungs. Bits of me that I don’t normally see!!!

The second opinion service took 7 working days to complete their report and they concurred with the local doctors that I needed a radical nephrectomy (kidney & tumor removal) and that in all likelihood the tumor is cancer.

This is major surgery but to be honest I was less worried about that than the fact that multiple people had warned me about Chinese hospitals and the fact that they are not big on post op pain relief!!! I heard stories such as c section patients being given only paracetamol!!! I was more anxious about this than anything else. I knew that back at home or in the private hospitals you can get western style morphine but the Chinese don’t like using it because they worry about people becoming addicted (which is ridiculous because you can’t even get a packet of paracetamol here without showing your passport!) how could I become addicted to something that I couldn’t acquire??? This more than anything else raised my anxiety levels.

The other cause for concern was that relatives are expected to do much of the in hospital nursing care. In Chinese hospitals there is usually a chair beside the bed which converts to a sleeping position for a relative. That person does all the personal hygiene care. They even have to go and get the various bits of equipment needed for procedures (& pay) before treatment!!! They are often in charge of feeding the patient too. For people who don’t have a relative to do this there are ladies who live in the hospital and you can pay them to do this care. I myself saw multiple old men being wheeled around the corridors of the hospital by their elderly wives.

Kevin accompanied me into hospital and whilst he is good at lots of things, nursing is not one of them!!! I was quite worried. He needed a crash course on how to give a bed bath!

Concordia were also helpful when the school nurse got involved and offered to talk directly to my medical team and act as a translation service if I needed it. This was useful because Nurse Jenny is familiar with medical terminology. The doctor had given me his WeChat contact details so that I could ask any questions but his English was a little limited. Either that or he just doesn’t talk much! In a foreign country people speaking broken English in shops or restaurants can be cute. You get the general meaning and gesticulation goes a long way. When it comes to medical information, however, it’s a whole different story and you want it as articulate and as accurate as possible. Having the school nurse on board was a reassurance.

Lots of people have been very supportive and helpful as I have navigated all this. But one day someone casually asked if I had sorted out blood in case of transfusion. What! WHAT!!! I have to do that!!! ME? Really?!?! Another case of me making assumptions about how hospitals work in a foreign country. I had assumed that like the UK national blood transfusion service, blood was supplied to hospitals. After some panicked investigation I discovered that in fact, they do. Phew! But then a chance conversation with my hairdresser two days before I was admitted explained everything.

The Chinese as a population do not have much rhesus negative blood. I am O neg which is one of those rare types which means I can only receive from other O neg donors; stocks of that particular blood type are extremely low here. Hence the problem. Emily put me in touch with a friend of hers who is connected with an organization called Bloodline. This is a group of volunteers with rhesus negative blood (largely ex pats I believe) and the day before my admittance they swung into action by creating a group of 7 people who were on standby to donate to me in the event of me needing a transfusion. I was so grateful and so touched. I honestly hoped that they wouldn’t need to but it was reassuring to know that they are there. I had heard stories about operations being delayed while blood supplies were found.

What this showed me is that I cannot make assumptions about how the health systems work here and I don’t know what else I don’t know…

Since booking my surgery there has been a bit of a spike in covid cases here in China. It’s not like the rest of the world as there were only 2 cases in Shanghai but the government reacts very stringently. As a consequence I cannot have any visitors and once he is in with me Kevin won’t be able to leave the hospital. This late news necessitated some last minute packing changes as we had been advised that I could be in for 7-10 days!!! We were also advised to pack a cool box with easy food such as cheese and biscuits, yoghurt and fruit in case I don’t like/ can’t eat the Chinese menu.

On Monday 9th August I duly arrived at the IMCC (International Medical Care Centre) of Shanghai General Hospital (People’s No.1) and was shown to my room.

Fortunately it is very nice, clean and quiet. I have actually been in worse hotel rooms but then again they don’t stick sharp things in you in hotels! There were 2 beds so Kevin didn’t have to sleep in a chair.

It’s all well equipped

I was asked to change into the hospital pajamas which are NOT flattering. Every patient wears these all the time. I think that it is to help staff distinguish between who is a patient and who is a relative. Fortunately the covid spike has meant that there is only one relative per patient rather than whole families!

Then the process of sticking sharp things in me began in earnest. I was taken for another CT scan (where I was injected with more iodine), they took loads of blood! I had a heart, neck and legs ultrasound, an ECG and a lung capacity test. I have had ENT surgery in the UK but never been so thoroughly tested before an operation before.

The Number 1 People’s hospital is massive and the IMCC is in building 12. Most of these tests required me to go to other departments in the hospital. I got someone in an IMCC burgundy uniform to take me and brings me back. What is interesting is that once we arrived in each department I jumped the queue! I can only assume that this is a privilege of being private (I’ve never done it before).

On arrival at the ECG section I was manhandled to the front ahead of an elderly Chinese lady and her husband who were clearly not impressed by this queue jumping. And to be honest, being British I was a bit uncomfortable too. I was pushed forwards and motioned to lie on the bed. Clips were being attached to me including round my boobs when the couple came in and stood there watching and protesting loudly about being usurped!!! Patient privacy… what’s that!?! This is China. They did eventually go back behind the curtain (to my relief).

It’s now op day -1 and I had a long chat with members of the medical team & their translation app! I now know that they will definitely be removing my left kidney, left adrenal gland, some surrounding fatty tissue and the upper part of my ureter. Actually he said uterus and I believed him but subsequently learned he got the word wrong!!! Communication has been challenging to say the least. I suggested that they take out as much fatty tissue as they want from my stomach but that went down like a lead balloon.

Apparently they can’t tell exactly from the scans whether the tumor is sticking to other organs or if there is a gap. If there is a gap then removal will be more straightforwards. I am hoping for that.

Here is another example of communication difficulties. When asked what time the operation would be Dr #1 told me that it would be at 4 o’clock. I was disappointed to hear this as it would mean long fasting hours during the day. Then Dr #2 said the operation would be at 12 noon. Better news, I thought. Then they actually came for me at 10.30am!!! The surgery took 4 hours so maybe that’s where the details were ‘lost in translation’ It is only a small point but it does make you cast doubt over the validity of other bits of information. I quickly learned that Dr#2 had the better command of English and fortunately saw him most often.

I had really tried hard to be as calm as possible, taking the attitude of ‘what will be will be’ and ‘this is something that I just have to get through’ I felt encouraged and supported by a huge prayer community which was remarkably reassuring. But from the point that I climbed onto the trolley I began shaking uncontrollably. I had to leave my glasses and hearing aid behind so communication, which wasn’t great at the best of times became significantly worse.

I was wheeled into a large bright room and had a cannula put in. Whenever they wanted to ask me something they wrote it on a piece of paper. Then I was ‘parked’ up against a wall and I realized that I was in some sort of queue. I have no idea how long I was there but it felt like ages. Then I was taken to a side room and given a nerve block in the spine which they said would help with post op pain. It did, but not for very long.

Poor Kevin was getting worried by 3.30 back in the room and no one was able to tell him any news. It wasn’t until 6.22pm that I was brought back. In another departure from NHS practice he was asked to help lift me into bed. Normally we don’t ask the relatives to lift what is essentially a dead weight!!! What if he had hurt his back!!! What if he had dropped me!!!

What began then was two nights and two days of agony, nausea and no sleep for Kevin.

I was wired up to multiple gadgets and tubes. One was ‘patient controlled analgesic’ PCA which was suspended above me but out of my reach. Kevin could press the button and I remember asking repeatedly for the pain relief. He was instructed to only let me have some every 30 mins but he tells me that often I would ask after only 10 mins. My concerns about inadequate pain relief were being borne out.

You can see in the picture above that I had a blood pressure cuff on. I wore this for 36 hours and it inflated, waking me up, on the hour every hour!!!

I also had tubes inserted into my carotid artery and I pretty much permanently had something dripping into me, saline, protein, antibiotics… It was actually quite a convenient place for the nurses to get to and surprisingly it didn’t hurt. Although I’m glad that I wasn’t conscious when they put it in!!! I could smell and taste the medications though and I felt sick as a dog. The nausea they told me was a side effect of the anesthetic but what they meant was that it was a side effect of the PCA. By the middle of the second night I was in such pain and felt so sick that I wanted to die. I think I said as much at the time. It felt as though I had been kicked in the back by a horse and simultaneously whacked in the stomach by a wrecking ball. I felt feverish and was crying.

At this point the nurse took the PCA machine away. She came back with an anti sickness injection and things began to improve marginally.

In the morning the head honcho nurse appeared by my bed, followed by a coterie of very respectful young nurses. She told me that she had heard about my pain problems in the night and that they would tell the doctor. A new bag appeared above me, I don’t know what it was but it worked on the pain and didn’t make me sick.

My view for a week

At the same time that I was feeling sick I was also very very hot. I kept throwing off the bed clothes and asking if the air con was on. It was on so high that poor Kevin had to wrap himself in a blanket when he sat by my bed. Holding his hand was quite a relief as it was like a block of ice and helped cool me down (briefly). Then I would start shivering and want the blanket myself. The nurses told me that my temperature was too high and I was running a fever. Apparently this is quite common after major surgery but it made the whole experience harder to bear. Fortunately after several days and multiple bags of antibiotics intravenously I am feeling more human again.

From the time I came back to my room I was told nil by mouth. This was extremely frustrating as I wanted to drink water. Previous post ops had encouraged sipping water but here, in an agonizing form of water torture it wasn’t allowed. Because I was lying on my back my mouth would open when I dozed off and every time I woke it felt like the bottom of a bird cage. One of Kevin’s tasks was to dip a Q tip in water and let me rub my lips and gums. I don’t know how I would have managed if he hadn’t been there to do that. It was day 2 before I was permitted little sips of water.

Communication, which was always fairly challenging, got a whole lot worse for me in the post op days as I didn’t have my glasses on or hearing aids in. In any case the staff were all , without exception, always wearing masks which makes things harder for me at the best of times. The staff didn’t speak to me much, there was no chatty, ‘how are you doing, love?’ Or ‘how are you feeling ?’ but when they did give me an instruction I honestly had no clue what they were saying. Which meant that things were happening around me and to me but I didn’t have a know what was going on. It was quite an isolating experience.

On Day 3 I was allowed to eat soft food. Basically this meant congee which is a rice porridge that is bland in the extreme. Meals were quite interesting as I was allowed the western menu Pre op and had salami pizza, roast chicken and spaghetti carbonara. Very tasty thank you. Post op, I was told that I would have to have the Chinese menu as it was healthier ie low fat, low salt and low sugar.

Breakfast was always the same. I couldn’t eat all of this even Pre op.

The standard breakfast. Mostly I ate the congee (bland rice porridge) and the sweet but dry toast. Kevin had the rest.

Lunch and dinner were tray meals plus a clear soup. Those soups were all I could manage in the beginning. One day it was mushroom soup but boy did it look like 2 floating kidneys…

The tray meal almost always included prawns (which I don’t like) some bitter tasting green vegetable, plain dry rice and something ‘meat’. Sometimes I could face eating the meat but, not the rest.

… but sometimes I couldn’t

I will never say anything derogatory about NHS food ever again.

Fortunately I had been advised to bring in a cool box of snacks. There is a fridge in the room so we were able to store yoghurts, pears, pringles, oatcakes, cheese and a little bit of chocolate. I knew that I was on the mend when I started to want some of that.

The medical team were pleased with how the operation went. The surgery was ‘robot assisted’ which meant that very precise work could be done.

Dr Liu at the controls of the robot. Not me on the table but this is the same robot that they used.

Robots can also twist 360 degrees which the human hand cannot. It was very clever really because they inserted a plastic bag around the kidney and tumor which they vacuum shrunk to make it small enough to get out. Even so the incision in my stomach was 10cm long! I have to wait 7 working days for the biopsy results. The medical team shared a picture with me of what they removed. It’s gross and looks like a baby alien. Message me if you’d like to see it.

A week after surgery, once I had proved that I could stand the catheter came out and the next day they took out the tube in my neck and a big drainage tube from my stomach. That was quite a surreal moment too. Kevin missed it all as he was in the shower. The Junior Dr from the team had done the neck one and told me to press on the hole for 10 minutes. He opened up the Velcro belt exposing the stitched up wound (not very neatly stitched I might add) when in came the cleaning lady. Once a day she appears and mops the floor. Despite the fact that I was having a procedure she carried on sweeping!!! I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t happen back home. What if the stuff she was sweeping got into the wound? What if I’d had private bits out? I couldn’t cover anything up with my hand because I was stopping blood coming from my neck… she had a job to do and so she just did it regardless.

Step by step I have been feeling stronger and able to move a little more. The doctors were very keen that I walk a little as soon as possible. Here I am one week after surgery doing a slow perambulation of the corridor. Those drip frames make excellent walking supports.

In other, smaller differences, the staff here don’t routinely change your bedsheets. I had to ask. That didn’t feel like good nursing.

Everyone has been so supportive and kind and I have received so many messages of love and prayer from all around the world. I have felt blanketed in prayer and I am truly blessed to have so many good friends. Work have been great and very accommodating. I won’t be there for the start of the school year but I have had the chance to put plans in place. Hopefully it will all run smoothly.

In America yellow is the color of friendship. I was so touched to receive these flowers from my friends and colleagues

I know that what I have been through has been quite traumatic but I honestly believe that I have followed a call to be here in China and maybe this is why. God moves in mysterious ways and I can only be grateful that He has put me here at this time with a chance of having this tumor removed before it became fatal. I would never have known about it otherwise. I am in a wonderful prayer community and that has been of huge comfort too. It has been hard being so far away from my family but Skype is amazing and I have been able to talk to them all from my bed.

Concordia and Trinity have combined forces to organize what is known as a meal train. We don’t have this at home but I think we should. Friends have signed up to bring us food every day for a fortnight from when we get home. It’s such a bonus to have practical care and support like this. Earlier in the year I cooked for others never thinking that I would be on the receiving end of the scheme.

Recovery will be slow as I get tired easily. I have been told not to lift anything for 3 months (which will be a challenge) not even a kettle.

In many ways this whole experience has been similar to being in a quarantine hotel just with more sharp stabby things and incredible pain!

I am very grateful for the skilled surgeons, the medical insurance and state of the art scanning and robot technology that has enabled me to have this tumor removed only 6 weeks after discovery. I’m not sure, however that I would want to go into a Chinese state hospital again…

We have now had a report back from the hospital which indicates that the tumor is a Mixed Epithelial and Stromal Tumor of the Kidney (MESTK). Once again communication hasn’t been great but Dr Google tells me that these are quite rare and unlikely to be cancer.

Nancy, Niu Niu & In-Fa

Back in 2015 we got to know Nancy. Nancy was one of the Chinese students studying at our University for a semester that we looked after. She is the one at the front in this picture visiting the Christmas Tree Festival in Morecambe Parish Church.

And here in the middle on a blustery day on Morecambe seafront.

We saw her again in 2017 when we visited Jiaxing University on our big trip to China (little thinking at the time that we would end up living and working here)

Memories of when we got trapped in our hotel room in Jaixing when the door lock broke.

Nancy got married last November but although we were invited to the wedding, at that stage, COVID restrictions meant that unfortunately, we were unable to leave Shanghai.

Then in April this year, Nancy gave birth to a lovely baby girl called Niu Niu (pronounced new new).

Nancy lives in the Anhui Province which is about 3.5 hours on a high speed train away from Shanghai. We traveled by train to ChiZhou where she picked us up and then it is another hours drive to her small town of Qingyang. It’s the sort of ‘off the beaten track’ town that doesn’t see many foreign tourists. In fact when we checked in to the hotel the reception staff hadn’t dealt with a foreign passport before so it took some time!

Visiting here isn’t really a day trip affair so we had been looking for a nice long weekend occasion to make the journey . Preferably one when there was no covid alert anywhere nearby. That occasion arrived when Nancy invited us to celebrate Nui Nui’s 100 day ceremony on 24th July.

To be honest, ceremony is probably overstating the occasion. I understand that in some parts of China the parents place 5 specific objects in front of the baby and whichever one the child grabs for first is supposed to symbolize what type of person they will be or what the future might have in store for them. This is then followed by a banquet for family and friends. It is a rite of passage done at the same sort of stage in a new life that we would do a christening.

In Niu Nui’s case everyone just gathered in a large function room in the hotel (where we were staying which was handy) that had been specially decorated. There was a very short speech made by her father thanking everyone for their support.

Then it was straight onto the banquet. And what a feast it was. In traditional Chinese banquet style there was dish after dish after dish for nearly 2 hours. Some dishes were recognizable and utterly delicious. Others were strange and a bit dubious. The tiny stewed turtles were a very definite no no!

This was the lobster and rice noodle dish. The lobster is stuffed with a carrot

A consequence China’s one child policy, I have noticed, is that this new generation of babies has a set of four very devoted grandparents each of whom was only permitted one child of their own. These grandchildren are therefore extremely precious and the grandparents don’t like to let go of them.

The upside of this is that the parents have loads of free childcare. This meant that they were available to show us around, have meals with us and do train station transfers. The downside was that I didn’t get much of a look in when it came to cuddles. The one brief time that I was able to pry Niu Niu away from her grandmother is captured here.

After the sumptuous feast it was back to our room for a quick nap before Nancy, her husband Xu Zhi Nan and their friends Stacey and Timon took us to see the local sights. Namely, the big Buddha of Jiu Hua. This Buddha is renowned for bringing good fortune and we were going to need it.

It was at that point that In-Fa happened. In-Fa is the name of the typhoon which had been forecast to hit Shanghai on the Thursday but actually landed in China on Sunday. You can see the weather chart below.

If you are going to visit the Jiu Hua Buddha I would recommend that you don’t go during a typhoon!!! It was fine when we set out but very quickly got wet.

Very wet. Umbrellas were the order of the day.

At least there weren’t crowds of people getting in the way of our photo!!

The Buddha was magnificent. but we were soaked through and Kevin needed some dry shoes as he had not packed a spare pair.

Emergency shoe shopping during a break in the rain.

We thought that having stuffed ourselves to the gunnels at lunchtime, that that would be it for the day. But no!!! We were corralled and taken to the next eating event which was a hot pot.

It was delicious but way too much for us!

Breakfast the next morning (while we were still digesting the excesses of the day before) was noodles.

Nancy and Xu Zhi Nan

Fortunately we had a little walk afterwards to a lotus lake

Xu Zhi Nan braved the giant lotus pond to present Lisa with a flower.

Then it was time to say goodbye. Nancy and Xu Zhi Nan had another 100 day celebration to attend in the afternoon so they put us in a taxi back to the train station. The driver thought it was a F1 race and we made the hour long trip in 30 minutes with us clutching whatever we could in the back as there were no seatbelts! It was then that things started to go pear shaped!!!

First of all there was a slight problem with Kevin’s ticket. It had been booked for us by a Chinese colleague but Kevin’s old passport number was used which didn’t match his new passport which he needed to get into the train station. At Shanghai they had just waved us through but here the lady was extremely officious and spoke no English whatsoever. After a few phones calls to friends for translation services we understood that we needed to take the passport and ticket to the ticket office to get it changed. And it’s a good job that we did.

The line at the ticket office looked like this

And our train was due to depart in 45 minutes. The queue was not moving.

Then we heard that all the trains to Shanghai had been cancelled. Thanks to In-Fa.

Some of you may remember seeing scenes on the news from a flooded subway station in ZhengZhou the week before. The authorities were not taking the same chances again.

Then to our utter amazement a foreigner approached Kevin. He was an Austrian guy and probably the only other non-Chinese person there. He worked for a metallurgy company and had been visiting a mine nearby. His train was also cancelled but his company had approved him a driver and a car to make the journey back because was needed in the office in Shanghai for an important meeting the next morning. He had seen our British passports clutched in our hands in the stationary queue and offered us a lift back to the city in his hired vehicle. The Big Buddha brought us good fortune indeed.

The drive on the way back was fairly scary though as we were driving into a typhoon and it got dark. At times it was more aqua planing that driving but fortunately there wasn’t much in the way of other traffic on the road. The gusts of wind howled and buffeted us. I tried not to look!!!

Four and a half nail biting hours later we arrived at his apartment block in Shanghai on the Puxi side of the Huangpu river; we needed to cross the river to get to our apartment in Pudong. The metro system had been closed so we had no choice but to call a Didi (like an Uber) but there were over 200 people in the queue ahead of us. We were tired, wet (but not hungry)

Then a car suddenly appeared and we had jumped the queue. Another piece of good fortune? We surmised that this car needed to go our way and wanted the fare. It did. But largely because it was broken. The suspension was shot and the engine kept failing. Only minutes away from home and I wasn’t sure that we were going to make it!!!

Luckily many prayers and the continued good fortune of the Big Buddha later and we made it.

That has to rank among the top 3 scariest journeys of our lives. (Although Kevin still maintains that the drive over the mountains in Nepal was fun and not scary!)

Shenhou: a smashing time!

Shenhou is a town in the Henan Province famous I am told, for making high quality porcelain or china (which gave the country its modern name) It is also our Shifu’s home town.

It is a beautifully restored old regional town built in a soft warm honey shaded stone. Somewhat off the beaten tourist track we were away from the crazy crowds of other places. To be honest, we foreigners attracted quite a lot of attention from the locals.

The Old Street
Porcelain is everywhere even the lamp posts
I love the shapes that these old tiles make
And there were quirky architectural features around every corner

The porcelain produced in this town is very special because of the local clay. Unlike the clay in other areas; when it is fired that is when the natural colour and patterns show. In essence you don’t actually know what the item will look like until it comes out of the kiln. Because of this the motto of the town is ‘By chance and By nature’

Some pieces are perfect and in the olden days were used only by the Royal Family. Nowadays the top pieces are given by the government as state gifts. On the pieces below you can see the natural patterns and perfect colours.

Starry night pattern
Shouxing: The god of longevity symbolized by his long beard.

Only the most perfect items are accepted. Any pieces with even a small imperfection are destroyed. The picture below is the ornate door into the office where high officials decided the quality of pieces. Only 36 would be chosen each year from all the craftsman.

My favorite photo of us all keeping perfect balance.
Our hotel

We stayed at the Gepu Hotel on Old Street which has to be one of the nicest and most tranquil places that we have ever stayed in.

We all wished that we could stay there for longer just to rest and luxuriate.

The food was local and tasty if probably a little too plentiful. This is breakfast. It was the very first time that I had been given pepper soup

It had a gorgeous private courtyard that was perfect for early morning Taiji and meditation.

This is Shifu in front of his childhood home. There was a new family there now but the children let us in. It was fascinating for us to see inside a home rather than just the tourist spots and hotels.

We got chance to have a go at a bit of pottery throwing ourselves. It was very tricky and not as easy as the pro guy made it look. What did I make? A mess!

Kevin made a dinosaur (every home should have one)
Peter turned out to be a dab hand at it. Look at that skill!

The next morning we attended a special ceremony. This is not something open to the public but Shifu’s friend has the workshop next door to this factory so he wangled us an entrance.

Basically after 3 days in the wood fired kiln, the China was ready to be opened and examined by the artist.

The items were arranged in lots. Notice that there is no #4. This is because the mandarin for ‘four’ sounds very similar to the word for ‘death’ so it is considered to be unlucky. You don’t every see a 4th floor in buildings!

The gong was sounded and this event which was being live streamed on the internet began. People began to call in to buy an unseen piece. All cost 2000 rmb (£260). When a bid was received it was opened and the artist gave the piece a thorough examination. If it was perfect then the person had purchased an item which could be valued at many times more than the price.

If an imperfection was found by the artist then the item is smashed. It’s an all or nothing game. The standards are so high that there are to be no seconds on the market.

Although it looked beautiful to me this piece was not perfectly round!
So here is where it ended up. So sad.

On average 90% of the pieces made end up being smashed. It seemed a little harsh on the buyers but apparently they would receive another item to the value of 2000 rmb but from the gas-fired, mass produced factory. It is a gamble whether you end up with a priceless piece or not.

And what do they do with all the smashed up vases? Well, this town had the most attractive gutters that I have ever come across!

Shaolin Temple

And so we moved to the highlight of the holiday: the visit to Shaolin Temple, the birthplace of Kung Fu. Behind us a statue of a monk holding his hands in the traditional salute.

As we entered the temple compound we each stepped on at least 7 of the lotus flowers carved in the stone flags. This was to represent 7 wishes /intentions as you enter the sacred space.

Shao is the name of the large mountain and means ‘young’ or ‘youth’. Lin translates as ‘forest’. So Shaolin means the temple in the young forest.

We went first to a Kung Fu performance by local students. All in all there are 1200 Kung Fu schools here and the largest has 35,000 students. These kids have a rigorous training schedule to be able achieve not only academically but also physically as the moves require great strength and flexibility. It’s a tough commitment.

(Not my photo but the routine here is tough!)

The Shaolin Temple was founded in 456 AD as the home of the Shaolin school of Buddhism when Buddhism spread eastwards from India. As the religion encountered Chinese culture it became the version which we know today as zen.

The temple was frequently attacked so the founding abbot trained his monks in fighting techniques and so Kung Fu was developed. They were the warrior monks who protected everyone else in the complex but they were highly successful so there was no shortage of recruits.

The rooflines draw the eyes heavenwards

I am fascinated by the creatures which you see on the curved rooflines. We discovered that these are usually animals associated with water eg sea horses, turtles, fish etc. The reason being that the buildings were all wood and so susceptible to fire. The animals are for spiritual protection and to keep the fire away by fooling it into thinking that the building is full of water.

The picture below is an original cooking vessel which would have been used to feed over 3000 monks. Being a kung fu school the monks would do extra endurance practice by being hung upside down over the pot to do the stirring. One has to hope that none of them ever had a runny nose!!!

The ginkgo trees in the courtyard are 1600 years old. There are multiple holes in the bark which legend says were finger punches from the monks’ training sessions but are more likely to be from them putting out the embers on the sticks that they used to poke courtyard fires in winter.

This is the son of dragon with its dragon head and turtle shell back. Sitting on and touching its head, neck and teeth is supposed to bring longevity, good fortune and health.

Busman’s holiday moment! This is the temple library where valuable manuscripts are stored. We weren’t allowed in (quite rightly)!

In the temple infirmary we each got a peach that has been specially blessed. Peaches are a symbol of longevity and although these felt suspiciously underripe at first, they were actually one of the best and most tasty peaches I have ever eaten.

Kevin found a friend!

This carving was very interesting. Can you see three faces? One in the middle and two in profile on either side. These represent the three main and interconnected religions of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.

Also in the Infirmary courtyard was a statue showing some of the body’s meridians. Taiji and Kung Fu work with these energy lines.

This is the pagoda forest. Each structure has the ashes of a master buried inside. There are so many that they are now running out of space so now only the abbot or very important contributors can have one. This picture below is the previous abbot so has trains, cameras and cars engraved on the plinth.

Michelle and Kevin enjoyed the ride

With a definite sense of dejavu we boarded a cable car and rode up to the summit on another very high mountain (only 1400 ft but who’s counting!). This was ShaoShi Mountain one of the 5 most important mountains in China. This one is considered to be the leader of the 5 so the most important mountain

And yet again, another scary cliffside walk which seemed to go on forEVER!!! I still didn’t much like it but again I did it (gripping Michelle’s hand this time). I sure am a glutton for punishment!

After that we did some filming. I put on my special Taiji outfit, the one that looks like calligraphy ink. It felt like being on a film set as there were soon crowds of curious onlookers around us, many of them also filming me as I did the Taiji routine. Part of what we do is to focus on the energy and ignore what is happening around us (which helped) It felt especially powerful doing the moves in front of the Temple gate and I could feel the energy very strongly there.

At one point we filmed me in my outfit with Peter and Shifu standing a little behind. They both had our group polo shirt on (with the Tai tree symbol that Kevin created). Shifu of course does the moves perfectly and so beautifully but someone thought that they were the students and I was the master and asked to join my school!!!!! It was all in mandarin so of course I had no idea what he was saying and just walked away! Lol!!

This was a beautiful gift for me and I am so touched and honored. It made the whole trip more meaningful and special.

We were curious to know how this place with such cultural and historical significance survived Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. We learned that in 1928 the Temple had largely been burned down after the Abbot supported the Nationalist Party. I guess the spirit animals on the roof hadn’t helped much. In any case, the temple complex was in bad shape and therefore ignored by the Red Army (fortunately). Only a few buildings are original. Most have been rebuilt or restored in recent years as martial arts have grown in popularity.

The Shaolin Temple is now more of a business than a religious institution. There are franchises all over the world and the town around has grown to deal with the tourists who flock there every year.

One of the tourist attractions was the sound and light open air show written by Tan Dun. It was quite magical to watch a cast of hundreds dancing and singing before the most impressive backdrop.

The lighting effects were out of this world. It was just a shame that many in the audience kept up loud conversations, arguments or watched videos on their phones!!!! It was frustrating for all of us who wanted to soak up the atmosphere and the music but reflecting on the experience I realize that there is no culture of attending theatrical performances (except Beijing Opera) so people did not know how to behave as an audience!!!

The original ‘Middle Earth’

While not the geographical centre of China, the Henan Province is the heart of the chicken (see previous blog) so it has cultural significance. This is the area where the Han peoples originated and they are the ones who eventually dominated all the other ethnic minorities in the country imprinting their culture and traditions as standard.

Today we visited an astronomical garden in what was the former capital of one of the early dynasties. The dynasties are numerous and complex. This is a handy (!) chart which superimposes the Chinese timeline with the Biblical one for an easy comparison. Remember to read it from right to left.

In approx 700AD Master Zhou (Ji Dan) developed this structure , an early Chinese sundial or instrument to measure the passage of time. Using the shadows he was able to calculate the longest and shortest days of the year and from that to break the year down into the seasons that we now know as the equinoxes.

This was of huge cultural and political significance. The Chinese at the time believed that the stars in the heavens were a dome and the earth was a square underneath. The Emperor used the astronomical data gathered to determine when crops should be planted or harvested. These decisions helped to reinforce the belief that this place was the literal centre of the world.

Interestingly, the mandarin for the word ‘China’ is Zhong guo. Zhong means middle or centre and guo is country or earth. So in effect this is the original ‘middle earth’

In the garden there were 19 pieces of early Chinese timekeeping technology- most developed centuries before Greenwich Mean Time existed.

This one below is a 24 hour clock but each segment measures 2 hours. The 12 symbols are the animals of the Chinese zodiac.

I do like a good dragon. This instrument above is for measuring the night sky. The Chinese also used this site as an observatory.

The name ‘China’ I was as told, was bestowed by the English after they discovered the fine porcelain that is produced in this region. Not able to pronounce Zhong guo (pronounced jong goar), they just kept saying the easier word ‘China’ until it stuck!

This is an unusual sundial. While many are circular this is a bar held aloft by two dragons. The shadow of the bar falls against the blocks indicating the month of the year.

Here we had fun measuring ourselves in height order! I am down with the kids at the ‘short’ end. Although technically Annie and I are the same height. Lol

The large structure below does the same job and is accurate to 35 seconds in determining the length of the year when compared to modern time pieces.

In the afternoon we visited the Longmen Grottoes in Loyan. This is the best example of Chinese Buddhist art work in the whole of China.

The grotto contains 100,000 statues of the Buddha in various sizes carved into niches in the cliff face. Many are now weathered or decapitated but some are in remarkably good condition considering that they are 1600 years old.

In grueling 38.5 degree heat (it was HOT) we walked the western cliffs and admired the many many Buddhas.

This was a stunning geological feature. Called a peony stone because the natural marks resembles the flower.

This large Buddha has a very feminine face which is thought to be that of China’s only female Emperor Wu ZeTian

She was a bad-ass ruler who governed through her weak husband who wasn’t really interested in politics at all. On his death she had her eldest son killed because he made it clear that he wasn’t going to let her rule through him as his father had done. The same fate befell each of her sons in turn as they reached their majority. She liked her daughter though (!) and let her live.

It was Wu ZeTian who popularized Buddhism among the Han peoples. She had her own male concubines (why not, if it’s acceptable for the men then why not the women?) She called them monks, however to give them credibility among the populace. It was one of these men who commissioned the Buddha statue with her features to show his loyalty to her.

In a slightly bizarre turn of events, the next morning at breakfast we were discussing and allocating Chinese names to those of us who didn’t have them. Kevin is called LieLang which means ‘wolf hunter’ because Leping had dreamt about him saving her from a wolf attack! I am WuZetian because the Empress’s name actually means strong martial arts in heaven (or something like that) not because I have any intention of filicide.

The Dragon Pavillion

While yesterday was spent in the reconstruction of the Imperial Gardens in Kaifeng, today we visited the actual palace, or what remains of the vast complex from the Song Dynasty.

Dragons were thought to be the most powerful creature. This is called the Dragon Palace because only the emperor can use symbol of the dragon. no one else was allowed to.

And everywhere you can see dragons

Such expressive dragon faces
This dragon statue is 1000 years old so people massage the stone to get good energy. Sara and I tried but didn’t feel any!
Maybe she did…

From the door of the pavilion you can see the view across the lake. Notice the road dividing the lake in half. The two sides are like Yin and Yang.

Legend has it that the lake on the left was well maintained and clean like some of the courtier families in their service to the Emperor. They served with purity. The right hand lake however was dirty and not well cared for. This lake represents those courtiers who only serve the Emperor with words and platitudes but no good deeds. The wise Emperor knows that he needs both to be able to rule.

In the gardens was a large lotus pond. When all the flowers are in bloom it would look like a white carpet.

Kevin and Peter enjoyed a brief respite
Sara enjoyed the fragrant flowers

Then it was on to Lord Bao’s residence.

Lord Bao was a judge in Kaifeng from 1057 to 1058 who was famous for his adherence to justice and fairness. He took the civil service test and was one of three chosen in his year from the whole of China to serve the Emperor. He worked his way up gaining a reputation for steadfastness and honesty. He was so strong and stable that he was referred to as being ‘like iron’. As iron is a dark metal he became popularly depicted as having a black skin.

Here in this statue you can see one closed fist representing the way he dealt firmly with corruption at court and his relaxed open hand which shows how he treated the rest of the population.

Also interesting is the hat with the metre long projection from the back of hat. This was designed by the first Song Emperor who did not want his courtiers to whisper among themselves during the morning audience. He wanted to be able to hear everything they said. In effect this was a very early form of social distancing!!!

The first 3 Song Dynasty Emperors all wearing the special hat! I didn’t get their names.

This particular dragon was quite interesting because it is actually a guillotine. Look carefully and you can see the blade with its handle.

Here Lord Bao is holding a piece of wood or bamboo in his hand. Only high courtiers carried these and the purpose was to ensure that they kept their eyes respectfully averted from the Emperor during their audiences. Plus they could write their briefing notes on it as prompts for their daily reports.

Check out these shoes! Platforms for men way before the 1970s!
And at lunch we were treated to a Lord Bao cake (in black obviously)
The inside was sweet and crunchy and a little like a fig biscuit.

Henan Province.

Our second trip of the summer is to the Henan Province, the capital of China for 8 dynasties (that’s over 2000 years) the most important of which was the Song Dynasty from 960 – 1279 AD.

Chinese people say that the map of China resembles a chicken and they often refer to places as the chicken head or the chicken feet. The Henan Province is known as the heart of China because it is in the location of the chicken’s heart.

We took the high speed train and even traveling at speeds of up to 300km per hour the journey from Shanghai still took over 5 hours.

This trip is with the Concordia Taiji class (& families). Here we all are ready to board the train. Masks are compulsory on public transport here.

Our first day was spent in Kaifeng in the Millennium City Park. Built 20 years ago, this is a modern reconstruction of an ancient garden designed by Zhang Zeduan, the only record of which is a long thin painting.

Being in the park is like stepping back in time and immersing yourself in the Song Dynasty. To start off you can hire traditional costumes so Leping and I did just that. It was great fun dressing up and even having our hair done.

For about £5 we could wear the costume around the park all day. This gave plenty of opportunities for posing against various backdrops.

Then it was time to wander around the park. Dotted among the food vendors and shops were various shows and displays from stilt walking puppets to magicians.

One that you don’t see very often anywhere else was cock fighting. I had never witnessed this as it is a sport that was outlawed in the England 200 years ago. To be honest, not my favorite… poor birds!

The ancient battle re-enactments were quite stunning though with particularly loud explosions and dramatic effects.

This was the sea fight

And then there was some pretty impressive horsemanship with close fighting at a gallop.

But there were two occasions today which were hilarious. The first was the fire eater when Noah, one of our younger members at 14 years old, was picked for some audience participation and to his mother’s horror was given a cigarette to light from the guy’s breath.

Then there was the balcony show where the richest merchant in Kaifeng was offering the hand of his beautiful daughter in marriage to whoever caught the ball that was thrown down. Noah valiantly jumped and in a move worthy of a rugby forward clutched the ball of red cloth and managed to hang onto it despite being mobbed by all the surrounding men!

Up he went to the balcony where he was dressed in red robes and duly married to the daughter. It was the cause of great merriment in our party.

It was a beautiful place and a great time was had by all. I couldn’t have wished for a better day of cultural immersion.

Tianmen Mountain

View from our hotel room

This mountain is high. Higher than the previous scarily high mountains that we have been up. It is over 1500 meters high (4980 feet) which for any UK readers is higher than Ben Nevis. But unlike any British mountain which has a wide base and gentle inclines, this again was mostly sheer cliff faces rising majestically towards the clouds. It is the highest point in the whole of the Hunan province.

To reach the summit you take a cable car which alone took half an hour. HALF AN HOUR of swinging precariously over great gaping yawning sheer drops!!! I tried not to look! It is apparently the longest passenger cableway of high mountains in the world.

Drops like this!!
I looked up rather than back which helped (slightly)

Alternatively there is a road with 99 bends which also reaches the middle of the mountain. 9 is an auspicious number in Taoism. Some keen (crazy) drivers do challenges on this road.

Tianmen means ‘Heaven’s Gate’ Mountain. The name comes from the feature hole near the top. There is also a myth that an ancient general hid stolen treasure in the mountain because it was so inaccessible.

The hole from below
The other side of the hole

Some keen (crazy) pilots have actually flown through the hole, which is impressively skillful flying!

For us, we spent the day walking around the flat top. There are several routes you can take but ALL of them include the solid but narrow paths built on the side of the cliff face.

Like this
And this. You will notice that while I made it up there I was not near the sketchy safety rail!

In fact for much of the walk I was like this

Or this

Or clinging onto Kevin’s hand, especially the highest, narrowest and most exposed sections. The group were very good at saying encouraging things to me as we walked. They even tried singing to take my mind off it but only came up with ‘Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away’ or ‘Don’t fear the reaper’. To be honest even some of our group who don’t have vertigo said that their stomachs were churning a little at those points.

These were the views I was missing.

I did at least have the option of avoiding the glass walkway. Phew!

Lisa B on the glass Braver than me.

We didn’t go to the very highest point which was here.

The platform you can see is the point from which the totally insane launch themselves off in wing suits. This daredevil sport (!) is known as flying squirrels and even the most hardy in our party blanched at the thought of doing that.

No, thank you.

What was stunning was the beautiful red ribbon area. People write wishes or prayers and tie them to the trees. It’s nearer to heaven I suppose.

We wrote one for the family and I very bravely went near-ish to the edge to find a space to tie it on.

The walkways were fortunately very sturdy and made from concrete. It made me shudder just wondering HOW they built them at such heights. I later learned that they would have constructed bamboo scaffolding like this on the cliff face.

The scaffolders must have been as crazy as the flying squirrels!!! I just hope that they were well paid but I suspect not.

What was fascinating was the way the concrete was constructed around the trees

Oh and you have to laugh at some of the translations on the signs

Fire engine!!!! Up here!!!!

Then there was a short suspension bridge which I liked least of all because it MOVED as we walked across. I traversed that as rapidly as I could.

The others enjoyed it and waited until I had crossed before jumping!!!

I decided that I needed to conquer this fear so I tried very hard and did this

Take a look at the railing. It was strong but it does have gaps in it. What was most shocking to us all were the number of people up here with small children. Toddlers who were not on reins! Would you bring a small child up here?!?! We were extremely glad that we visited while the Chinese schools were still in session. We might all have had heart attacks if there were more children running around.

The way down was easier with an extremely long escalator ride inside the mountain which just felt like being in the London Underground.

Then there was the final challenge. 999 steps. Those auspicious numbers again. And they were STEEP

Each tread was quite narrow

In 2018 a Range Rover drove up the 99 bends and 999 steps as a challenge. They did it in 23 minutes 41 seconds which was quite an impressive feat. Check out You Tube if you are interested.

I made it!

We certainly put in some steps and stairs over the 4 days. All in all it was quite an adventure and I feel proud of what I achieved. Well I do now that I am safely back on the ground! As the book says ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’ and I certainly did that.

Next holiday should perhaps be somewhere flatter.

Many thanks to Ron, Laurie, Janice, Arthur, Lisa B and Kevin for sharing their photos

The great glass elevator and other scary tales!

The Zhangjiajie region has soaring towers of quartz sandstone topped with tufts of vegetation. These rise to some spectacular heights with sheer vertical sides. It makes for the most amazingly breathtaking scenery and today it was our turn to go UP them.

I don’t really know what possessed me to think that this trip would be a good idea! It seemed fine when it was all theoretical from the safety of our sofa in Shanghai. But other people said they had enjoyed it, so now we’re here.

Those who know me well will know that as I have grown older, I have developed vertigo. I not only get scared of heights but I also don’t like other people going near the edges. I have even found myself holding the handrails every time I go down any steps or stairs.

It is a real nuisance and it has been getting gradually worse. I don’t like sheer drops. I don’t like going anywhere remotely near the edges and looking down makes my stomach clench in gut wrenching sickening spasms accompanied by cold sweats, heart palpitations and something akin to a panic attack. So why in the world would I agree to go on a trip here? The place in China that is famous for its heights! Not only that, I arranged the whole trip!!!

This morning as I faced the glass elevator gliding effortlessly up the sides of the mountain I asked myself that very question. Was I out of my tiny mind? Did I really think that I could do this?!? What on earth possessed me?!?!

It is nothing if not HIGH. See…

But by now there was no turning back. I had committed to this and I was determined to do it! No matter how hard and how scary it was. Not only was I about to step into a great glass elevator in a Roald Dahl-esc way but I was then going to spend all day wandering around on the tops of these monoliths!!!

This is what the ascent looks like on one of those days with wispy ethereal clouds. Everyone in the lift Oooohed and Ahhhhed as we ascended but I show this video here because if I am honest, I didn’t actually look at the time.

Here I was doing one of my least favorite things but I did, have one secret weapon in my campaign against vertigo. I have been learning Taiji.

There are a great many benefits to Taiji but one of them is improved balance. I had noticed that over the course of the 10 months that I have been learning, that my balance has improved noticeably. I can now do all the standing on one leg exercises without wobbling much at all! My core feels stronger and I generally feel more stable. I have been delighted with this and I was banking on that being a huge factor in what was causing the physiological reactions when it comes to heights.

The views up here were stunning and spectacular

But we were high. Oh boy we were high!!!

Now normally even just a photo of this kind of drop would have me sweating and feeling peculiar. But I was ok (ish)

Look I went near the edges (sort of) I’m rocking it.

Actually I am pretty proud of myself for managing this. Only months ago and I wouldn’t have even entered the glass elevator never mind stood as close to the edge as this.

So, to celebrate I did some Taiji. It really helps to keep me calm, balanced and focused. Was i scared? You bet. But I did it anyway. I was up there. Not maybe as close as everyone else. And I certainly didn’t lean over the rail like others did or anything stupidly ridiculous like that. But I did it.

And the Taiji had really helped.

Then came the big test. The GLASS BRIDGE

This was easily the most terrifying part of the entire holiday. I had seen previous news reports of a tourist being trapped on a glass bridge in China during a gale when the glass panels blew off (possibly my worst nightmare). What on earth was he doing out there in a storm anyway?!?! He had to be airlifted off and I cannot imagine how he felt being buffeted about over a gaping void.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached THE BRIDGE…

This was what I was facing.

We were surprised to see the grandstand at this end as we didn’t think that crossing a glass bridge was a spectator event!!

We were not allowed to bring heavy cameras on the bridge, only phones and I could not bring my flask of water. We were told that it was in case the heavy items dropped and cracked the glass!!! Hearing that did not exactly inspire my confidence in the strength of the structure!!

But I was determined to do it. We had to wear special overshoes to protect the glass.

And then it was off. As you can see from the picture below, the glass is interspersed with metal sections so my plan was to walk briskly on those parts and not to look down. The other end seemed to be very far away!

Like this. ‘Don’t look so scared’ said Kevin!!!! But I was. Holding the Qi helped

It worked though. I kept my focus on the destination and did not dare look at the drop below. Others strolled and admired the view but I had one goal and one goal only – to make it across to the other side.

People got in my way but I didn’t deviate. I waited for them to move. At one point everyone was crowded round a couple of panels which I later learned was the bungy jumping view point. Like this.

Not my photo, obviously!!!

Mad fools!!! Then I made it!!! I got all the way across. Kevin helped and held my hand for some of it. And he wanted a couple of photos to prove that I had done it. On the glass.

It was quite an achievement and although I was pretty sweaty by the time I reached the end I was really pleased that I had made it! All thanks to Taiji.

I did though draw the line at the zip wire descent. You can have too much of a good thing!!! Maybe with another year of lessons I might be more able to do that.

Just when I thought that it was all over, I discovered that we had to traverse a glass walkway that wound along the cliffside in order to get down!!! They wanted a group photo but this was as near to the edge as I was willing to get!!!

Huge thanks to my fellow adventurers for permission to use their photos as I wasn’t up for doing any photography myself!!!