Five offers a welcome second chance to catch
Paul Merton’s tour of China, following its recent
BAFTA nomination for Best Factual Series. In
this episode, Paul tries his hand at kung fu, visits a
Tibetan monastery and takes in two of the most
populous cities in China.
In search of some spiritual relaxation, Paul heads
for the Shaolin Temple in Henan Province, famed
as the birthplace of Zen Buddhism. Sitting on the
temple’s steps, Paul reflects on his interest in
Buddhism and the afterlife: “I’ve had my spiritual
moments,” he says. “I have meditated in the past.”
The Shaolin Temple is also a centre of kung fu
training, and when Paul checks in for some
meditation classes, he ends up on a kung fu
course instead. A 5km dawn run is followed by a
gruelling exercise regime, and Paul finds that the
boot-camp mentality goes against all his instincts:
“I’ve never felt less like an individual in my life!” he says. When he watches a fellow trainee receive a sharp jab in the stomach, he calls a premature end to his kung fu career. Fortunately, a ‘showbiz’
version of kung fu is happening nearby, and Paul gets to play a cameo role in a TV movie. With a little help from his stunt double, he trounces a gang of thugs.
Still in search of spiritual enlightenment, Paul takes a trip to one of the most politically sensitive areas in China: eastern Tibet. Under the watchful eyes of his Chinese minders, Paul and his local guide, Wandhi, embark on a ten-hour trip over rough mountain roads to the Tibetan monastery of Labrang. Founded in 1707, this centre of pilgrimage belongs to the yellow-hat sect of Buddhism, and Paul is visibly moved by the sight of over 1,000 monks chanting together.
In the town, Paul meets Wandhi’s Dutch wife, Clary, who talks about life in this remote part of China. When she first visited 12 years ago, Labrang reminded her of a “Wild West town”.
Now Clary worries that new roads will open up the region and damage the local way of life. It is a fear shared by the nomadic families living on the grasslands. Paul meets friends of Wandhi in their tent and shares a lunch of lamb meat cooked in the animal’s own stomach. He has fun playing with the nomads’ children, introducing them to their first balloon, and is shocked to hear that the government plans to build an airport nearby: “I feel fortunate to have seen this place before it’s too late,” he says.
From one of the emptiest areas of China, Paul travels to the most populous: Chongqing, the fastest-growing metropolis in the world with 30 million people. Heavy industry has created a haze of pollution over the city, but British resident David Foster is enthusiastic about the government’s efforts to stimulate the economy: “It’s a city where you get a really close feel for what’s happening in China,” he says. At night, Paul joins in the mass line dancing in the People’s Square. Although he railed against this sort of uniform activity in the kung fu college, Paul finds the dancing “strangely compulsive”. “Maybe China’s beginning to rub off on me,” he reflects.
Before boarding a train to Chengdu, Paul makes an impulse buy of two fighting crickets, which he swiftly names Tony and Gordon – only for them to make a bid for freedom on the train. More oddity lies in store in Chengdu, where Paul meets a businessman with a chain of dog-grooming parlours. And, whilst searching for a place to eat, he witnesses a very different example of the Chinese fondness for man’s best friend.

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