Buried beneath skyscrapers: Visiting the cradle of Chinese civilization

Luoyang, Henan Province, 15-17 October

After Xi’An we’re making a sidestep back east to the city of Luoyang situated along the Luo River, where we witness both the effects of China’s rapid development and the hospitality and kindness of the people of Luoyang. And visit the Longmen Grottoes and eat all the food!

As mentioned in my previous post, Luoyang is another one of the Four Ancient Capitals. Founded in the 11th century BCE, no less than 105 emperors across 13(!) dynasties have ruled from this city and it was a centre of politics, economy and culture for a total of over 1,500 years.

After learning a thing or two about Luoyang’s rich history on the train we arrive with great expectations. During the Eastern Han Dynasty, under the rule of emperor Ming, the city became the first eastern starting point of the Silk Road to Europe, which reached all the way to the Roman Empire. When the emperor’s ambassadors returned on the Silk Road bringing back sutras and monks, Luoyang became the birthplace of Chinese Buddhism. White Horse Temple, the first Buddhist temple in China, was constructed here in 68 CE.

In the 5th century BCE the Northern Wei emperor ordered the creation of the cave temples at Longmen, and thus cemented Luoyang as one of the greatest centres of Chinese Buddhism. Around the same time Taoism was also founded in Luoyang, and, last but not least, a Shaolin Temple was constructed on nearby Mount Song, which marked the beginnings of Shaolin Kung Fu.

Not convinced of Luoyang’s historical significance just yet? Three out of four great Chinese inventions were created in this city: Gunpowder, printing and paper making!

At this point one might be led to believe Luoyang has all the hallmarks of an unforgettable visit, but sadly its glory days didn’t last: In the 8th century the city fell into economic decline and by 1949 its population had dwindled to only 75.000. In the 1950’s, helped by the Soviet Union, Luoyang became one of China’s major industrial cities and the city experienced even more rapid development since the 1980’s. Today it has flourishing chemical, textile and food-processing industries and a population of 6.5 million, but rapid growth and development have come at a price.

Future site of a skyscraper.

I’m beginning to discover a pattern in China. The Great Wall, though hugely impressive, in some places has been repaired with little concern for the original. In Beijing the hutongs are fast disappearing. In Xi’An antiques markets have been replaced by tourist stalls selling knockoffs, but Luoyang takes the cake: Its ancient town has been turned into a friggin’ amusement park, with its only remains a tiny bit of wall and a pretty sad looking drum tower..

Skyscrapers and apartment blocks stand in place of what is considered to have been the cradle of Chinese civilization. Though the museum holds a vast collection of pottery and stone carvings from Luoyang’s glory days, lots of it recently discovered on building sites across town, I can’t shake the feeling much of its history has been paved over carelessly. Not to worry though, as the main reason we travelled here is to see the Longmen Grottoes.

Our first mission after getting off the train is to find our hotel and have a bite to eat. While we travelled by metro in Beijing and Xi’An, Luoyang’s metro system is still under construction so we need a bus to take us downtown. Problem is there are four different bus stations and half of the buses have no numbers. Armed with our smartphones we enlist the locals’ help, but even they seem entirely confused by their own transport system.

A very friendly man walks us to one of the bus stations, then can’t find the right bus and gets other people involved. Soon a whole group of people discuss which bus we need to take and finally a woman walks us to another bus station to find bus 81 (we have a number now) but it still remains at large.

After about an hour we gamble on bus 33, which might possibly head downtown we’re told. Luckily it does. The moment we cross the river the skyscrapers end and when we reach our stop we’re in an area which feels more like a small town than a big city, with loads of little eateries and shops. The locals are both surprised and amused to see us.

It’s beginning to get dark and rainy, so we’re keen on finding our hotel, having only a general area on the map to work with. Again we’re in luck; Eagle-eyed Lauren spots the hotel immediately in one of the back alleys. We made it!

The door is open, but the lobby is deserted except for two fluffy cats napping in a cage. We try the phone number found on the desk. When someone answers and I explain that we’re at the hotel I’m not quite sure they understand, but ten minutes later the owner of the property arrives. For some reason she seems surprised we don’t speak Chinese, but her English, sounding very much inspired by Sasha Baron Cohen’s character Borat, is very nice!

We’re staying in the family room, which, for a family room, is perhaps a bit heavy on the semi-erotic wall-art.. But hey, it’s clean and it’s comfortable (except for the beds, Chinese like their mattresses hard as rock), so we’re happy. We’re recommended a good restaurant nearby (sign in Chinese, picture of a big red chicken), and end another successful day.

The next morning we wake up early to visit the Longmen Grottoes, and we’re well-excited! Longmen is located on the city’s Southside, where the limestone rock formations of East Hill (Xiangshan) and West Hill (Longmenshan) stand facing eachother. With the River Yi flowing in the middle, together they form a natural gateway named Yique (gate of Yi), or Dragon’s Gate.

View of Longmenshan and Yi River.

Started in 493 CE during the Northern Wei Dynasty and continued for the next 400 years across several dynasties, the limestone cliffs of the two hills house tens of thousands of statues of Buddha and his disciples, which have been carved into the rock relief and inside over 2,300 excavated niches and caves. The Grottoes are considered to contain some of the finest pieces of Chinese Buddhist art.

8 meters tall Buddha Amitabha at the Qianxisi Cave (Tang Dynasty)
Smaller carved reliefs.
Most of the carvings are missing a few parts.
Maitreya Buddha (female Buddha) at Moya Three Buddha Cave (Zhou Dynasty, Wu Zetian regime)

Xiangshan Temple, whose rooftops are described as ‘flying the clouds’ was built in 516 CE to house the monks overseeing the stone carvings. It is situated in the middle mountainside of the East Hill and offers wide views of the river and the caves of Longmenshan. Wu Zetian, China’s only ever female monarch, used to spend a lot of time at this temple, and against the backdrop of the Longmen Grottoes, she declared herself empress here!

Before we leave the Longmen Grottoes, there is one last big finale to see, which is the shrine of Fenxian Si. This monumental temple was carved out over the three-year period between 672 and 675 CE and features a colossal Buddha figure more than 17 metres high, flanked by its attendants. It truly is a sight to behold and the crown jewel of the Longmen Grottoes.

Stairs leading up to Fenxian Si.
As seen from across the river.

The Longmen Grottoes are a tough act to follow and the next day we attempt to visit the Shaolin Temple, but a late start to our morning plus the chaotic bus system in Luoyang gets the better of us. By the time we have finally found our bus at 11am, it’s not leaving until 2pm and will take over two hours to get there, so we end up strolling around the town for the afternoon instead.

Now no story about Luoyang would be complete without describing our experience with the restaurants. So far when we needed help finding buses the locals have been very friendly and helpful, but at the restaurants friendliness is taken to another level, and the food never stops coming.

Generally in restaurants we use our phones to translate a picture of the menu, but usually it just gets you gibberish. At that point we tend to try and order something simple and hope for the best, and most of the time that works. On our first night here, at our local Big Red Chicken restaurant we ask for chicken noodles, and end up getting something amazing: A humongous plate of chicken, potatoes and vegetables in a chilli broth with lip-numbing but delicious spices. When the staff sits down to eat their own dinner they give us some of their soup and bread to taste. And if that weren’t enough, fresh noodles are brought out twice and it actually cost next to nothing. The staff thinks it’s hilarious when we leave a tip!

This afternoon we randomly walk into a busy restaurant and ask for beef noodles (you can tell our vocabulary is pretty limited). The woman at the counter nods in understanding, but then her colleague starts pointing frantically at the menu. We point at what we think are the beef noodles and pay for the order. When we collect the food it turns out to be a light broth with beef and noodles, perfect.

We take a seat and dig in, it’s delicious. Minutes later one of the chefs comes running out of the kitchen, shouts at us in Chinese and leaves a basket of freshly baked bread and bread strips on the table, probably comes with the noodles we’re guessing. Then suddenly the same woman from the counter shows up and puts an even bigger and tastier bowl of beef noodles down in front of us. We can’t understand what she’s saying, but she seems upset and we’re beginning to think we may have messed up our order here. The app produces a curious translation: I told you lie down for enjoy hot noodles to warm on a cold floor. We try to pay for the extra dish, but she is having none of it and keeps smiling at us while I’m trying to finish what is a pretty unreal amount of food.

After this big lunch, in the evening we visit our local food street to get a light snack. We find a place that does dumplings and ask for a portion each. Usually a portion consists of about 8 dumplings, but in this restaurant it turns out a portion is about 40 dumplings, holy shit! And it comes with a bowl of soup, all at a cost of under £3 for the entire meal! All the tables are taken but the other diners immediately clear some space for us and fill saucers up with dipping sauces for the dumplings, amazing! I think everyone finds it super funny we cluelessly walk into the local eateries, but either way we feel incredibly welcome here in Luoyang, the city that won’t stop feeding you!

Luoyang has been a great experience and now we’re off to find even more food and visit the Giant Pandas, when we go to Chengdu in the Sichuan Province!


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