Luoyang and the Longmen Grottoes 

Henan Province, China 

Jul 31st - Aug 2nd, 2015

I left Hong Kong on a Friday morning flight, which got me into Zhengzhou-Xinzheng International Airport around 2 pm. This left me with about 3 hours to get to the Zhengzhou train station and pick up my tickets. (However, things did not go entirely to plan there – click here for more on my Zhengzhou train station experience.)

About Luoyang:
Luoyang is located in the western part of Henan province. It is (by Chinese standards) a medium size city of about 7 million people. Luoyang is among the oldest cities of China and considered to be one of the cradles of Chinese civilization. It is one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China, and served as the capital of 13 different dynasties. The first capital in this area near the intersection of the Luo and Yi River was established in 2070 BC during the Xia Dynasty. The name Luoyang first appeared as the capital of the Eastern Han Dynasty in 25 AD. In 166 AD the first mission from the Roman Empire reached Luoyang.

China descended into civil war in the late 2nd century, and most of the Han capital was burned down in 189 AD. The city was rebuilt and destroyed several more times over the next two centuries. The Jin Dynasty (265 to 420) was established in Luoyang in 265 AD, but moved its capital to modern day Nanjing in the early 4th century. The Northen Wei Dynasty moved the capital back to Luoyang in 493, which also marks the start of the construction of the Longmen Caves. Luoyang reached the height of its prominence during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907), when it is estimated that the city had a population of around 1 million, making it the second largest city in the world at the time, only behind Chang'an (modern day Xi'an).

The Longmen Grottoes
The main reason I came to Luoyang was to see the famous Longmen Grottoes, which are located just to the south of the city. I got up early on Saturday morning and took a taxi from the hotel, which took less than 30 minutes. You walk for about a kilometer through lots of food stalls and little shops from the road before you get to the entrance gate. The ticket costs 120 Yuan, and it clearly is a very popular tourist spot. There were thousands of Chinese tourists here. (I think I was the only non-Chinese tourist here today.)

The Longmen Grottoes are truly one of the most stunning sites I have seen and one of the finest examples of Buddhist art to be found anywhere in China. They are a series of man-made caves and grottoes containing thousands of buddha statues, which were carved out of the limestone cliffs along a 1 km stretch on either side of the Yi River starting over 1,500 years ago. The sheer numbers of caves and statues are truly mind-boggling: There are 1,400 caves, which contain about 100,000 Buddha statues, ranging in size from a few centimeters to almost 20 meters in height.  In addition there are about 2,500 carved stelae with inscriptions and over 60 pagodas.

The grottoes were carved in several distinct stages over a period ranging from 493 AD to 1127 AD, during the dynasties of the Northern Wei (493-534), Siu (581-618), Tang (618-907) and Northern Song (960-1127). The peak of the creation of the grottoes came during the Tang dynasty, and it is estimated that about 60% of all the caves, including some of the most monumental statues, were created in the second half of the 7th and early part of the 8th century.

The Grottoes were highly valued and recognised during the Ming and Qing dynasties, but suffered significant damage in the early 20th century. Many artifacts were stolen by souvenir hunters or destroyed by vandalism. The site was looted by the Japanese army during the second Sino-Japanese war (1937-45), and many of the buddha statues are now found in Japanese museums. And although the grottoes were declared a protected area in 1949 and a national cultural monument in 1961, many more statues were decapitated and destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

Although not that well known outside of China yet, they are now recognized as one of the great historical monuments in China, and the government is clearly putting a lot of effort and money into protecting and promoting this amazing site. In the year 2000 the Longmen Grottoes became a Unesco World Heritage site.

You should plan on spending at least 3 hours at the Grottoes. It is quite a long walk to get around the whole area (and the signs clearly state that you are not supposed to turn around and circle back). There are also a lot of stairs to climb to get up to the cliffs, which was fairly hard work here today, since the temperatures reached 36 degrees with 100% humidity. Air pollution was quite bad as well, a constant thick haze hanging over the city. (I have to admit that my pictures here look a little bit better than it did in real life thanks to my editing software's contrast enhancement and color saturation tools.)

The sightseeing tour goes around in a circle crossing the river over two bridges located on either end of the main part of the grottoes. While the majority of the grottoes is located on the Northern shore of the river, there are a quite a few more beautiful grottoes on the Southern side of the river, but the most spectacular sight from that side are the amazing views of the large sculptures across the river.

There is also a beautiful small monastery higher up along the southern bank of the river. It is called the Xiangshan Temple, constructured in the early 18th century during the Qing Dynasty. It is definitely worth the climb up the couple of hundred stairs just for the view of the river valley below.

On my way back through the vendor stalls, I saw lots of vendors selling pearls (which I assumed come from the river, since we are about 700 km from the ocean). They are not sold as necklaces or bracelets, but as single pearls or by the pound, kept in little bowls of water. I also tried what looked to be the local delicacy here - savory pancakes wrapped around vegetables and sausages with spicy chili sauce. It was quite tasty.

The White Horse Temple
The other main site I went to see in Luoyang was the famous White Horse Temple, which is located about 10 km to the east of the city. This is one of the most important religious shrines in all of China and considered to be the oldest Buddhist temple in the country. According to legend, Emperor Ming of the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25 - 220) sent a delegation to India to learn about Buddhism. The delegation returned with two Indian monks and a white horse carrying Buddha figures. As a sign of his gratitude the emperor had a monastery, which was called the White Horse Temple, built here in the year 68 AD. It was the first time Buddhism appeared in China, and over the following years the Sutras (the main Buddhist texts) were translated here into Chinese and this area became the centre of Buddhist activity in the country. The temple is therefore revered as the "Cradle of Buddhism in China".

The temple buildings are not nearly as old as the temple itself. Most of the buildings are Ming and Qing era, but they are believed to have been built largely in the same style as the original buildings almost 2,000 year ago. The temple covers a very large area with beautiful gardens and numerous smaller buildings and pagodas. The first building, the Hall of the Heavenly Kings, contains the large wooden laughing Buddha.

Right next to the historic White Horse temple is the brand new so-called International Buddhist Temple Zone. In total contrast to the ancient and elegant temple next to it, this is quite a gaudy place, sort of like a Bhuddism Disneyland. It has three very large international temples, one Thai style temple (a copy of Arun Wat in Bangkok), one Myanmar style (a copy of the Shwedagon Paya), and one Indian style temple. They were all built in the last 10 to 15 years, and are meant to showcase they variations in Buddhist architecture.

I took a taxi back from here to the hotel, and following a short afternoon rest I went on a walk through the city. There wasn't much to see, but I just wanted to get a feel for the city. Luoyang is definitely a bit challenging to travel alone as a non-Mandarin speaking foreigner. Hardly anyone here speaks English, and there are no Western hotel chains here. (I stayed at the Luoyang Grand hotel, which is in a good central location, but a bit run down and not very recommendable otherwise.) I walked around town for a couple of hours, thinking I might find a bar to have a drink or a restaurant. But there are no bars as far as I could tell, and none of the restaurants have English menus. Imagine my excitement, when I suddenly found a modern shopping mall that had a Starbucks, something I did not expect here. People still stare at me here on the street, which is understandable given that I did not see a single other foreigner anywhere in this city. I had no problems getting around with taxis (using Google maps and Google translate on my phone), but I definitely felt a little more uncomfortable here than in any of the larger cities along the East coast. But the nice thing about China is that I never really feel unsafe. I certainly would never walk the streets of, say Nairobi or Sao Paulo at night by myself, but in China I would in most cities. No one bothers you, crime is extremely low. Taxi drivers will try to cheat you and overcharge you whenever they can, but then again I really don't mind overpaying 10 Dollars to someone for whom 10 Dollars are worth a whole lot more than to me. So, I never felt uncomfortable because I felt unsafe, it is more of a slight apprehension, because I would not want anything to go wrong here. If I got injured, or got in an accident or lost my phone or wallet, I think it would be quite difficult to find any help here. But then again, getting into unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations is just one of the things that makes travelling so interesting and exhilarating.


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  1. you are quite a trooper. i'm finally reading a lot of your blog haha will ask you plenty of questions when i see you ;)

    1. Thank you, CyberCrispy. Awesome name! Glad you like it. Let's try traveling to Thailand together and see if you like that too. ;-)