There are three major Buddhist grottoes in China. The first, Mogao, is far out in the west and difficult to reach. While supposedly the best due to its extensive collection of unspoiled frescoes, it was often a topic of travel conversation for me but never one that I felt was worth the challenge. Too far, too hard and not much else to justify a day of airport hopping and bus rides. I visited the second site at Yungang near the coal mining city of Datong back in 2010. While not easy to reach its difficulty is due more to the lack of flights than remoteness. It’s only an hour by air from Beijing on a plane that lands, turns around and leaves again until the same time on the next day. Datong turned out to be a nice city with some other attractions that were worth the trip and I was glad to have gone. Besides, my visit there allowed me to complete the Chinese 9 Dragon Screen Hat Trick, a goal I had no idea that I had until I was within walking distance of the other two on one hot afternoon in Beijing. The third site, Longmen lies a few hundred kilometers to the east of Xi’an and since we just happened to be there and within 2 hours by bullet train, going seemed like an obvious choice.
With tickets in hand, we left our hotel early to catch a 10 o’clock train. I was a bit apprehensive about the whole thing, worried not about getting to the city of Luoyang but more about getting from the train station to the grottoes. You never know with these small city attractions in China. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a simple taxi negotiation. Other times it requires wading through “black taxis” that would drag you around to places you’re not interested in, holding you hostage until you buy some trinkets from their uncle’s souvenir factory. Unfortunately, you never know until you get there so I had plenty of food for thought at we wound our way through the morning traffic.
The new train station lies north of the city and while open for business it remains in a state of construction. Our driver had to perform a couple of u-turns in order to figure out how to get up to the entrance. Once inside I was struck by two things – it was a huge cavern of gray marble and it was freezing. Far colder inside than out, as though all that polished stone was sucking what little heat the morning air held. We shopped for chocolate and Oreos and wandered around giving the place the once over. Very trim and efficient, with McDonalds, KFC and a handful of noodle shops under construction on the second floor. There were three little grocery shops on the first level selling local treats along with cheap bai jiu (Chinese tequila) and beer. It made me think that the second and third class cars might offer some interesting companionship. We heard the announcement and went to our gate and queued up only to discover that because we’d purchased our tickets at the old station, we’d be unable to use the automated readers. An attendant opened up a separate gate and punched ours. We took an escalator down to the platform.
It was kind of a joke when we’d made our purchase as we had seats 3 and 4, indicating that there might be no more than us and one other couple in 1st class. As it turned out, there were probably 15 additional people in a car that held 50. The train left on time and we sat back to watch the countryside roll by, cruising most of the time between 120 and 150 MPH. Being elevated and with no sense of proportion it was hard to judge how fast we were actually going. The train was quiet and very smooth.
The route hugged the banks of the Yellow River, one of the big three drainage basins in China, the other two being the Yangtze and Pearl further south. It was hard to see much of anything in the distance – the air pollution was abysmal no doubt due to the coal fired power plants we passed with regularity. I guess all those city wall lights in Xi’an come at a price. A half hour into the trip we passed Huashan, one of the 5 holy mountains of China. Sacred to both the Buddhists and Taoists, its summit is reached by a popular and very difficult trail of chains and boards attached to raw rock faces. The view of sunrise is said to be spectacular. Today it was little more than a craggy and slightly darker outline in the thick gray haze.
Shaanxi province sits atop the loess plateau region of China. Built by eons of windblown silt from the Yellow River, the land is very fertile if irrigated and highly eroded due to the soft nature of the rock formed by the dirt. Local people have used this property of the land to build terraces and cave houses for a millennia. Less popular today than in the past, you can still see ornate brick facades forming the entrances to homes that are completely underground in the tiny villages along the train’s path. Hundreds of older abandoned caves also dot the hills along the route, interspersed with the bright yellow flowers of some spring crop. I’d seen those plants last April in Yunnan but never did figure out what they were. Here they grew in bright green patches on irrigated paddies on the side of just about every eroded gully we passed.
We arrived on time and I was happy to find a genuine taxi stand where a uniformed official called up a car after I gave him our destination. The air here was no better than that in the countryside and the lack of sun provided a moderate temperature. Little chance of sunburn and overheating today. When I’d researched the route from the train station to the grottoes, I did not understand that the bullet train required a new station. Luoyang now has two and this one was on the south side of town and as it turned out at the end of our 6 minute cab ride, no more than 2 or 3 miles. The driver did not use the meter – not an uncommon rip off in tourist traps – and our ride cost 30 kuai, probably 3 times more than it should have. This was the first time I was genuinely ripped off by a cabbie in China, but hardly worth an argument as I imagine this price fixing was simply the way it was here. And who wants to make an enemy for 2 dollars. I told him it was expensive and paid up. He gave us a cheerful goodbye and pointed us on our way. The grottoes entrance turned out to be down at the end of a long retail street built in authentic Tang Dynasty style and featuring all those special artifacts available only in places like this. Today there were two specialties – poorly rendered Tang Dynasty ceramic horses and something called “peony stone”, a black rock with little green florets of what I think was supposed to be some sort of fossilized plant. We ignored the pleas to visit the stores and noodle shops and continued on.
In 493AD Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty moved his capital from Datong to Luoyang and began the carving of the grottoes. The work continued during the Tang (618 – 907AD) and Song (960 - 1127AD) Dynasties. Today there are more than 2000 niches, 2800 steles, 1300 caves and 100,000 individual carvings. Unlike Yungang, this place has been extensively damaged starting with Western artifact collectors in the early 20th century and culminating with rampaging Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Almost all of the carvings at ground level are faceless.
After walking past the entrance and retracing our steps across a field of newly laid sod, we bought our tickets and began the tour. Places like this can impart a wonderful sense of peace and spirituality. That feeling here was a bit disturbed by the loud acoustic guitar music playing from speakers along the path. It was a 30 second tape loop which I recognized as the same music that Air China plays during the mandatory safety briefing before each flight. I was worried that it would be stuck in my head forever, but the challenge of climbing all the steps up to see the art put it out of my mind. The grottoes extend about ½ mile south along the west bank of the Yi River. You walk along this set, cross a bridge and then continue back north along the east side. We climbed and photographed and visited with a nice Aussie couple who were spending 3 weeks backpacking across the country. Despite the vandalism, the statues were wonderful, including a very special lotus flower carving on the roof of one cave and another that featured more than 10,000 four-inch square Buddhas. I’m always amazed at the fact that carvings like these were done in relief, starting at a rock face, continuing into a niche and resulting in a Buddha that stands out from the wall. Up above we could see the original edge of the rock wall.
The centerpiece of Longmen lies at the end of the walk, on a platform at the top of what seems like a thousand steep stairs. Carved during the Tang Dynasty and called Fengxian Temple, it features a 53’ carving of the Vairocana Buddha sitting on a lotus flower and bracketed by four equally spectacular statues of disciples.
All those stairs required a rest so we found and empty bench and plopped down for some water and Oreos. A middle-aged man walked slowly by staring and I knew the look so I asked him if he wanted our photograph. It’s gotten so that I know the drill. He nodded shyly and brought out his camera. His mother appeared off to our side. She was perhaps ninety and certainly no more than 5 feet tall. Dressed in traditional Chinese peasant garb she smiled slightly and nodded and tried to sit down to the right of my lovely wife. I told her “no” and we moved to make room in between us. I told her “Zhongjian” and patted the seat. She sat down and we each put an arm on her shoulder. Her son took our photo and smiled broadly. Grandma thanked us and got up and walked away.
We crossed the river and from there on it was an easy stroll back to the entrance punctuated with photo ops. The next was a middle-aged woman and her husband. Where the previous grandma was reticent, this woman was excited, happy and bubby. Her husband took our photo with Fengxian Temple as the backdrop across the river. She thanked us effusively and went on her way, grinning from ear to ear.
The last picture session was probably the most memorable in my experience of having my picture taken. Done with the park, we found a bench in the shade and settled in to kill some time before heading back to the train station. Three young women were hovering behind us so I asked the question once again. They giggled and agreed and handed their cameras to a young man who appeared out of nowhere. The group swelled to perhaps 8 people and we spent the next 15 minutes cycling young women between the bench seat and standing behind us. The man continued to take pictures, counting “yi er san” with each one. The original young woman came back for a second shot and I figured we were done. No, the man had to have his shot at fame as well. Before leaving one of the women used her best English to say “Welcome to China” and “Welcome to Shaanxi”, the latter comment being amusing as we were now in Henan province. It didn’t matter, everyone’s day was made and we sent them off happy.
We skipped the retail street on the way our, walking instead through the parking lot. At the end of the walk we found a few cabs, some sort of family taxi cartel and they had a brief discussion about who would take us. I asked how much and the answer of “30” confirmed my earlier notion that taxi rides to Longmen are a fixed rate commodity. We agreed and took the 6 minute ride back to the station.
There was an hour to wait and I spent my time using my iPhone to translate the nuances of the schedule sign at the station. I now understand the characters for “platform” and “ticket checking place” and “on time” even though my phone struggled mightily with the character for “minute.” The train arrived on time and much to our surprise the 1st class car was full of people. Unfortunately most of them were men snorting up phlegm and a woman across from us who talked for an hour straight when she wasn’t loudly choking on something. I spent my time watching the train speedometer which topped out at 215 MPH. Out the window, the cave houses and green terraces raced by. I was lucky to sit on the north side for the return trip, and so I was able to see the sun slowly set over wide expanses of the Yellow River, blood red due to the pollution. We arrived a bit early and found Lily waiting for us. The driver was waiting for us in what will no doubt someday be a parking lot. Today it was some sort of heavily rutted dirt construction zone. The drive to town was faster in the afternoon traffic than it had been earlier in the day. It was a rewarding day.