Back in the day, Students from all around China, as well as people from outside china, would all live at the family home of Chen Xiaoxing
Since this article was first written, things have changed a lot. The Tai Chi school has a modern facility where visitors from overseas stay.
When I first arrived at the teacher's house I stayed in what was his son's room. Things were pretty basic. I have stayed on camping sites with better facilities. When you turn on a tap you learn not to expect water to be there for certain. Not surprising, since they only had running water since 1984. Some nearby villages don't even have that, or electricity. There is some hot water that comes from the kitchen stove, but during the winter it gets cold again very quickly.
They have had electricity since 1964, and power cuts are not too frequent, and don't often last more than 24 hours, but they happen without warning, usually when you are in the middle of doing something. As for the toilets: during the hot summer you learn a lot about the lifecycle of insects when you use them. In winter, its too cold to notice the sanitary conditions. There is no sewage disposal, and anyway you wouldn't want to waste all that valuable fertilizer would you? Some time when the atmospheric conditions are right the whole place smells of organic waste. Oddly enough it is not as bad a smell as you might think, strangely wholesome. Not as bad as the occasional whiffs of raw sewage that you get walking down a road in a Chinese city. In all I felt like I was an intellectual sent to live in the country side for 're-education'
I first arrived in Chen Village in April. The cold season was just finishing, and it was starting to get hotter, and boy did it get hot. During the summer the temperature soared into the 40's (Celsius), and there was no air conditioning, at least for the first three months. Sometimes you just couldn't get to sleep it was so hot. It was a real challenge to get the energy to train in these condition. In addition to the heat you had to deal with mosquitoes from hell. I've still got scars where those mosquitoes bit me. Flies are also a real nuisance. Having spent lived the early part of their life in the toilets, they spread germs everywhere.
Actually, although the food often upsets your stomach, it is actually very fresh. The vegetables you eat have often just been harvested. The local restaurant has an interesting way of preserving vegetables. They partially replant them in the back yard. As for the meat, free range? You literally see it running around the village in the morning, and by evening it is on your dinner table. Considering how little time the meat spends being stored, it is amazing how they manage to get it so contaminated so quickly.
I got sick the first week I was there, and stayed sick with one thing or other for the first two weeks. Being from England I was not used to the temperature extremes. The constant turnover of new students ensured that I got a good sample of germs from around China, as if the local ones were not enough. The communal eating habits didn't help either.
Yes, for a time I thought I would die in Chen Village. I could just imagine the tour guides in future years saying "He is the grave of 17th generation Chen Tai Chi master Chen Fake, and here we have the unmarked grave of a foreigner who ate a too many bowls of noodles". When studying the family tree of Tai Chi, I often wondered why so many masters died young. Now, having seen how they lived, I'm surprised that they lived so long. That's not even considering the wars and revolutions that they had to go through.
After the first few months things got better. The room I was staying in was converted into a permanent guest room with its own bathroom and, wait for it, western style sitting flushing toilet. The waste from the toilet goes out behind the back yard. Luckily we don't have any neighbors in that direction. There is a solar panel on the roof, so we get hot water during clear days. Also, the room had air conditioning which meant at least you could get a decent nights sleep. In all compared to what I had to put up with before I felt like I had moved into the Hilton.
In September the weather got a lot cooler, which also meant that the bacteria in the food did not multiply as fast, and nor were there as many insects. Plus the fact that my body was adapting to the conditions. The next challenge would be winter. When I asked one of the locals if it was cold, he pointed to a scar on his knuckle and said it was from frost bite. The houses do not have corridors and most of the rooms open out into fresh air, which means they get very drafty. As winter got colder, my teacher decided to install central heating in my room. It took the edge off the cold a bit.
During December the temperature during the day is about 10 Celsius, but during the night it hovers around 0. Theoretically it is not too cold, but in reality, with no doors except the bedroom doors that are ever closed, it is freezing. It snows in December, but it is in January that you get the real snow. January sees the temperature drop down to minus 10 during the night, and it can also remain below zero during the colder days. If the cold air from Siberia come, it can drop below well minus 10
Celsius. As for colds and flue, there is something special about them in China. Some people say it is because of the over population and that people and livestock live in close proximity. This all causes cross contamination and accelerated mutation.
During the cold season it is too cold to have a shower in your own house, you need to go to the public bath, which has central heating and piping hot water. Since each bath cubicle has two tubs and a shower, two people usually go together. You know the scene in all the cowboy movies when two cowboys are sat in adjacent tubs, well its a little bit like that, though somewhat more modern. During the colder spells the pipes freeze up and there is no running water. You have to store water in vats. No flushing toilets either.
The villagers have a very different approach to dressing than we do. As the seasons gets colder like an animal growing a winter coat, they progressively put on more clothes. If there is a warm day then they get too warm. If there is a cold day then they are too cold. But they don't alter the amount they wear on a day to day basis. When the seasons get warm again, they start shedding clothes. On really cold days the extremities of their bodies get very cold, but they don't seem to mind too much. Frost bitten ears and back of hands are very common, so you often see children running around gloves and earmuffs, but only wearing a tee shirt on top. They are a hardy bunch.
Basically winters are too cold, summers are too hot. Spring and autumn are too short, and autumn still has mosquitoes. The best time is in April. October is also good, because the mosquitoes will have gone by then, but it is a bit chilly. At this point I should add that if you miss your creature comforts you can always stay at a hotel in the nearby town. I chose not to because I wanted to be where the action was. It seemed to be a bit silly to come all the way from around the world and not actually go the last mile. All character building stuff. Would I do it all again if I had a chance? You bet.