Longmen Grottoes, Luoyang, Henan province (龙门石窟, 洛阳, 河南省)

(Click for audio version, in TWO PARTS)





Next day…this was one of the most brilliant days I’ve had in all of my years in China…I got the 81 bus from Jin Gu Yuan Lu (金谷园路), which, as far as I could tell, had its last stop at the Grottoes themselves. Many buses here are electric, ie ones that run via overhead cables (I call them “grasshopper buses” because of their visual resemblance – a few cities here have them in small numbers, including Wuhan. The 81 bus is one of them).

Going through what seemed to be downtown Luoyang, I was pretty amazed at how few buildings were taller than maybe six storeys…of course there’s skyscrapers and shopping centres here and there, but it’s a pretty low-rise city, which, again, surprised me. As we went over the Luo river (Luo he – 洛河), the main adjective for this city, in my head, simply became dusty – not overly polluted, but just dusty (and that dust would increase a hundredfold the following day). So here I was, looking over the river, with an orange ball of sun struggling to penetrate the dust surrounding it, passing things like huge museum-like buildings being redone or rebuilt or something; intersection corners filled with tarpaulin-covered stalls selling bright red New Year paraphernalia and/or fireworks by the lorryload; massive stretches of rubble behind a lonely petrol station…I just got the feeling that this was like an ancient capital that’d been left behind.

The bus, after barely an hour, rolled up to Longmen, around twelve k’s south of the city. I got out, looked around, and found, via bilingual signs, what was called the “pedestrian street”. I quickly realised that my plan, based on a hypothesis I had, based on previous experience, turned out to be true.

Which is this…it seems that I have discovered a great, powerful secret to travelling in China…a secret so great and powerful that there simply isn’t a word for it yet. I’d wanted to test this idea since I travelled to Hangzhou last year, when I had that hillside of Buddhist temples all to myself one day, and, after the night of the fireworks, a billion zillion people suddenly appeared out of nowhere…I’d asked my Chinese friends about this, and their reply was that in the couple of days before the New Year, it’s Chinese custom for families to get together…but after the fireworks, they turn cities into oceans of black hair.

So, on those days before the fireworks, assuming that the place you want to go is open, the place is yours. So my plan with Longmen was to see if that theory was true – because, if so, I’d have this place to myself.

So did my theory work? I could instantly see that there was a euphorically small amount of people…here, at the start of the pedestrian street, it became clear that I’d been right, because this place, which was clearly a tourist trap marketplace very much akin to Nanjing’s Confucius Temple, was not just empty, it was closed. To be exact, there were at least a couple of dozen shops over a couple of streets, and only maybe five of them were slowly opening now, around half past nine, with not a customer in sight.

After passing that area, I found the “Longmen Museum” (which surprised me, I thought it’d be in the city – and it was, today, shut), walked past it, strode three or four hundred metres to the huge main gate of Longmen, discovered at the gate that I needed to buy the ticket from the museum, grumbled my way back to the museum, bought a ticket, and headed back to the gate, eagerly anticipating what I was hoping to be one of the most stunning sights I’d yet seen in this country.

OK…at this point, it’s about time I introduced this place in detail. It’s two hillsides, separated by a river, covered in Buddhist sculptures, ranging in size from an inchish to seventeen metres tall. They were carved in four distinct stages from 493 AD to 1127 AD, from the Northern Wei dynasty to the Northern Song dynasty, not long after Buddhism was introduced into China (the most common theory is that it reached China from India via the Silk Road, around the first century AD). Even though they were carved over these four periods, the majority of them (sixty percent), and the ones that get most of the attention, were carved on the east bank during the Tang Dynasty from 626 to the mid-eighth century, a time in which Chinese Buddhism was seemingly all the rage.

Over the centuries, tons of statues have been lost through vandalism, looting and erosion, mostly via civil wars, revolutions, and Japanese invaders (apparently many statues from this area are now in Japanese museums).

This looting becomes apparent immediately as I started exploring …there’s dozens of little caves (maybe sixty centimetres high) with decapitated Buddhas, just like the ones in Qixia Mountain in Nanjing. This made me rather sad, seeing all these headless statues; but, for reasons that I hope will become clear, the sight of this destruction eventually made me almost euphoric at how much was actually left.

The time of day was couldn’t possibly have been better – it was around ten am, so the entire east bank was basking in the sun, illuminating the detail in all the sculptures I was beholding. This place now has wooden staircases spread over the rock face, leading you from main cave to main cave, with little caves (sometimes occupied, sometimes damaged, sometimes empty), being your constant companions as you traverse the planks. All of these caves, and their contents, are thankfully out of arm’s reach (I only touched one the entire day), and many of them (especially in the west bank), are so environmentally vulnerable that they’re now behind bars.

I passed a handful of highly impressive statues, and collections thereof, so I was already impressed by the time I found the main grotto; the one that Luoyang is famous for; the one that’s photo is on every website that mentions this city; the one that is the symbol of this ancient capital – the Fengxian Temple (fengxian si (奉先寺)).

My first glimpse of it was from the bottom of a grand staircase, which sported a little shop selling drinks and two-minute noodles, and a sign telling me about the statue above me (in Chinese, English, French, German, Japanese and Korean). The experience of climbing the staircase leading to it…having this exquisite panorama of statues unfurl like visual silk as I ascended the last steps…having this sight which instantly slammed my brain as something that I thought I’d only ever see in the pages of National Geographic or somesuch, but here it was in front of me…and it wasn’t only the “My God I can’t believe it’s here in front of me” factor…it was, indeed, spectacular, sublime, and instantly, arrestingly mesmerising…in short, if you have any kind of eye for detail, sense of history, and reverence for any kind of spirituality, this place can only be adequately described via the most eloquent of poet’s nibs. It really is that simple.

How else can I describe the splendour of this place? Check out the pics is the first thing I’d say…it’s just hard to think of adequate superlatives. For a more secular/academic description, well… it’s like a panoramic alcove, with the iconic Vairocana Buddha as the centrepiece, seventeen metres tall, and various Bodhisattvas and around him, warriors flanking him on both sides, all of which show both the evidence of the blatantly superlative craftsmanship that created them, and the wear and tear of the centuries that they’ve subsequently beheld. On top of this, a multitude of factors add to the experience – the fluttering of pigeons in the upper corners of the cave, sheltered just below the top of the hill above; signs of damage which create a palpable authenticity (eg one of the main statues has half a head missing); the morning sunlight bathing the entire courtyard like a massive golden torch; the staggering scale, and bewildering technical ability, that was clearly needed to make them; the thought that they’d been sitting here, left to nature, and witnessing history for over a thousand years; and, marvelously, the fruits of my plan of being there on that date, because, during the entire hour I spent staring at this soul-fillingly exquisite sight, less than fifty people came and went (honestly, half of the experience, especially in terms of feeling any sense of historical and spiritual reverence, would be all but lost if this alcove were crowded with yelling tourists).

I looked across the river, taking in the Buddha’s view, and, of course, I just wondered what these statues had witnessed over the centuries…and it was around this time that my sadness at the vandalism below dissipated, replaced with elation, that such an incredible sight had, miraculously, thankfully, survived the plague of invasions and revolutions that these statues had lived through. The destruction of the statues below were cause of sorrow, yes, but what remained was simply stunning…in fact, that Chinese archeologist I’ve become friends with told me that “eighty percent” of this cave is real…taking this at face value, I was simply awed that these statues had, indeed, been sitting here since the late sixth century – remember in these writings that I’ve been disappointed many times that most things in China are remakes; these feelings were absent in Longmen Grottoes. Here, I was constantly thinking the thought that I had when I saw places like Huangshan, Yangshuo, Suzhou, and Red Horse Lake…this is the China that I came to China to see.

Following that barely believable visual feast, I reluctantly left (and I mean reluctantly – I could have stayed for hours. It was like the finest of paintings), descended the staircase, and headed south, to a bridge going to the west side and then, as far as I knew, back out again. As I walked along the river, I was perpetually enticed back up the hill, as a small maze of staircases always yawned invitations to me…and, of course, I needed to check them all out.

[After seeing many other things in the area]…Leaving via the pedestrian street, I saw that a small handful of shops were now open, but with only one customer as far as I could tell (ie me). In one of the shops, I bought a glass paperweighty kinda thing. I was surprised she didn’t ask me a ridiculous foreigner price – she only asked me for fifteen. I guess it’s because I spoke natural Chinese to her. Here’s a tip – learn to say “how much is that” the lazy way, ie slurring the characters together, in the same kind of way that we take, for instance, the sentence “what are you doing” and lazily mutate it into “wotcha doin”…similarly, Chinese for “how much is that” should be duo xiao qian, ie three separate sounds, but what you hear on the street is more like, if I can attempt to write it phonetically, doe’achen, ie two, or sometimes even one, syllable. Learn how to say that properly, and you’ll get screwed less, because, believe me, no one, and I mean no one, says duo xiao qian clearly…except foreigners. So once you’ve mastered saying that, it gives the idea that you’re a bit seasoned. But, honestly, if this place is so poor, I would have happily paid more, just to help preserve this magnificent location…so I bought two.

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