I’m really trying to finish up the writeup of my Xian-Henan trip last October as I’m embarrassingly behind schedule.
After Huashan, my next destination was Luoyang, the fourth of China’s four ancient great capitals. Located in Henan province, the cradle of Chinese civilization and boasting four ancient former capitals, Luoyang was a bit overlooked in travel circles (see my recent article on Luoyang, an attempt to remedy this). I was going there mainly to see the Longmen Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage site with countless Buddhist statues that had been carved over 1,500 years ago, from when it used to be one of China’s most important cities. I was also going to visit Luoyang’s history museum and Old Town. Luoyang was also close to the Shaolin Temple, the famous kungfu institution which you’ve probably seen in movies, especially Jet Li.
Night market near Luoyang’s Old Town.
I took the high-speed train from Huashan to Luoyang, the second of three similar trips on this Shaanxi-Henan jaunt. I was midway through my journey when I looked across and got a shock. I saw somebody who I thought I recognized two rows ahead on the opposite side. That guy looked like my cousin, who I had met for the first time the year before in Zhoushan, Zhejiang. As I kept looking, the guy spoke to his companions, and his voice sounded just familiar. I felt like calling out to him, but I was a little worried about if he turned out to be somebody else. I mean, he looked like my relative, sounded like my relative, but this was halfway around the country. For Americans, this was the equivalent of being on a train in Colorado on a holiday, and seeing your distant cousin from Rhode Island, who you had only met for the first time the year before.
When the train stopped at Luoyang, I decided to ask the person besides me, who was in my “cousin’s” group. “Are you from Zhejiang?” I asked. “Yes”, he replied. “Are you from Zhoushan?” I then asked. “Yes,” he said. Then my cousin came up to me and indeed it was him! We got off the train and talked. He was with his colleagues on a company vacation, having just been to Huashan like me, and now on his way to Luoyang. We split up at the exit, he with his colleagues on a tour, while I went to the taxi stand. I got into a taxi and the driver immediately said something about the meter display and offered a fee. Apparently he didn’t want to use the meter. I asked why and he replied, but I couldn’t understand or agree. After a few minutes of this, a train station staff knocked on the window “What’s the matter? Why aren’t you on your way?” The driver then drove off, and soon he dropped me off at my destination – Luoyang International Youth Hostel. It was at the edge of a long nondescript three-storey building, which I could have easily missed. It was a good location because it was right on Longmen Avenue, a wide boulevard which went southwards directly to Longmen Grottoes. The taxi fare was RMB20, roughly the same as what the driver had told me. I was later to understand what he had been going on about when I got in. At the side of the avenue was a separate small road for bicycles, something which Taiwan should do well to copy. My first impression of this Henanese city from the vehicle traffic and the people was that it was much less urban and developed than Xian or Shanghai, which was to be expected. Henan as a whole is one of China’s poorest provinces and its people had a (unfair) negative reputation for being tricky and poor, a far cry from its glory days over 1,500 years ago when Luoyang, Zhengzhou (the current provincial capital) and Kaifeng served as imperial capitals. Nevertheless, I was glad to be in Henan because of its importance in Chinese history and because I think to fully appreciate China, visiting the less prosperous areas outside of the wealthy coastal regions (Shanghai, Zhejiang, Jiangsu etc) was in order.
The hostel may have had a casual entrance, but the inside was a different story. The entrance was decorated with posters and flyers of other hostels around the nation, and the inside was spacious and clean. There was a decent porch with couches and a computer at the side, and the rooms were arranged around this area and in the above floors. As soon as I checked in, the front-desk lady asked me if I wanted to go eat “shui-xi” (水席) for dinner. This was Luoyang’s famous water banquet, a set of over 20 soup-based dishes that dated back to the Tang Dynasty. Another guest wanted to go that very evening and he was looking for company. I agreed and I met R, a young solo traveler from Shantou. He and I set out to take the bus to Luoyang’s Old Town. I’d heard of this before and it was nice to be able to go eventually. I’d had some concern about taking the bus due to worries about pickpockets and not knowing the route, but with R, it was alright. We walked into the Old Town, which was guarded by a massive stone tower. Inside was a bunch of restaurants, bars, and stores along pedestrian lanes, housed in old-style single-storey stone buildings. We eventually found a simple restaurant that served shui xi, and had four dishes of it. One of them was quite good, having a sweet and sour flavour, though the rest were just alright. The Old Town was quite nice, and it was near a night market, which looked a bit like those in Taiwan, but not quite. The lantern-strewn lane was wide and there was a lot of meat and seafood, including “xiaomi crab”. The Old Town closed early, as by 9.30 almost all the stores and restaurants were closed. We went back by taxi because the bus stopped at 9.30 as well.
The entrance to Luoyang’s Old Town.
Inside the Old Town, with its pedestrian lanes flanked by stores which all featured lanterns and banners.
Restaurant with a big sign indicating that it serves the historic “shui xi” dishes.
The four shui xi dishes we had. I liked the top left soup stew the most as it had a sweet and sour flavor.
The next day I set out by myself to the Shaolin Temple, the aforementioned subject of countless Chinese kungfu movies. It was supposedly easy as the hostel staff told me I could take a bus directly to the town of Dengfeng right on the avenue outside, then from there take a small bus to the monastery. Indeed I was able to take the bus to Dengfeng, but it turned out to be a bigger journey than what I’d expected and my only real negative travel experience on this trip.
BBQ meat and fish eggs at the night market at one end of the Old Town.
The living room of my hostel. It was very spacious and nice.