China · China travel · Travel

Luoyang’s famous Longmen Grottoes and museum

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The most famous sight in Luoyang is the Longmen Grottoes. The main reason I came to Luoyang, the Longmen (Dragon’s Gate) grottoes were a UN World Heritage site and one of China’s most famous grottoes. Thousands (yes, thousands) of Buddhas were carved into caves on the cliffs on both sides of the Yi River starting from 493 AD during the Northern Wei Dynasty, though most of the statues were carved during the Tang Dynasty. Yet I have to admit that it was the history of the grottoes (and Luoyang), and not the actual statues, that first attracted me. I had looked up the history and photos of the Longmen Grottoes and I wasn’t impressed. The grottoes seemed small and the statues unimpressive. Well, I still went ahead to visit it and not for the first time, I turned out to be completely wrong. Far from being small and normal, the Longmen Grottoes were fascinating, numerous (as I said, thousands), and in some cases, magnificent.

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The site lay at the southern end of Longmen Avenue, so it was a straight bus ride from my hostel. When I got off, I passed through a lane lined with souvenir stores (a very common sight in Chinese tourist attractions), then walked out into a large open area to the entrance. On one side, there was a musuem which was almost finished but not open yet. During all this time, I still hadn’t seen any of the stone statues since I assumed they were easily visible from outside. As I entered, I found the place was actually quite pleasant. A central walkway was framed by willow trees lining the side of a placid river and a cliff where the statues were carved on. The river was spanned by a multiarched stone bridge near the entrance and another one further in the distance.

The stone statues were mostly on the cliffside and you had to climb wooden staircases to see most of them since only a few were at ground level. Be prepared for a bit of a physical workout if you want to see most of the statues. The statues were different sizes too; some were human sized, some were tiny, smaller than your hand, and others were giant. Some statues were carved inside small caverns while others, especially the hand-sized ones, were carved directly onto the rock. There were serene Buddhas, smiling Buddhas, and fierce divine figures. At some places, carvings and caverns covered the entire surface. Unfortunately, some were destroyed due to war and the ravages of time.

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On the North side of the Yi River in the Longmen Grottoes.

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The large cavern contains a Buddha but each of the open spaces also contain Buddhas.

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The walls of this mini cave are carved with thousands of tiny figures.

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The sheer amount of statues carved onto the cliff was overwhelming and impressive.

The best part was the Fengxian Cave, a large open cavern where nine giant Buddhas as high as 17 meters loomed, flanked by heavenly kings, temple guards and other divine figures. It was a really impressive sight and by itself, would warrant a visit. It took me a while to get through this entire side of the river, which was the north side. The grottoes were located on both sides of the river but most of the statues were on the north side. The south side has many shrines, temples, steles, the grave of Tang poet Bai Juyi, and a big surprise.
I walked into the 1,500-year-old Xiangshan Temple and right above it, was a much more recent villa. This was where Chiang Kai-chek, the then-leader of China, came to celebrate his birthday in 1936. The villa’s rooms were left in an impeccable state and filled with photos of him and his wife, as well as a Kuomintang flag. I knew Longshan Grottoes was a place where past emperors had come, but I certainly didn’t expect Chiang Kai-chek to have. By this time, I had spent over two hours and I had to rush to leave, so I didn’t visit Bai Juyi’s grave which was beyond the exit on the South side.

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Fengxian Cave, where the 17-meter-high Buddha is surrounded by eight other giant figures and many other statues.

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Xiangshan Temple.

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A room in the Chiang villa where Chiang Kai-shek came to mark his birthday and meet with generals in 1936. That’s the ROC flag and a photo of Sun Yat-sen, the “father of modern China”, Chiang’s mentor and a founder of the ROC.

But Luoyang, being a former great capital, had more than just the Longmen Grottoes. My next destination was the Luoyang History Museum, which was further north. I took a bus up and then got off an intersection that I knew was close to the museum. I’d even asked the bus driver but she wasn’t sure, and another passenger even said it was further north (where the museum used to be). I didn’t mind since I’m pretty sure the driver didn’t see many visitors trying to get to the Luoyang Museum. The road looked kind of shoddy and so I decided to take a taxi. The road to the museum passed through some empty lots and construction sites and was quite far from the intersection, so vindicating my decision to not walk (it looked close enough on the map!).
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The museum wasn’t new (having been opened since 1958), but its building was. It was a massive angular reddish-brown building perched on top a concrete base. The inside was spacious and new, and there were very few visitors. There was a lot of cool exhibitions including Tang Dynasty tri-colored glazed pottery (Tangsancai) horses and camels, artifacts from the Xia Dynasty (21st-16th century BC), fossils, and even a full-scale skeleton Asian mammoth. Lots of history happened in Luoyang, which dates back to the 12th century BC. I was in a rush so I breezed through the galleries on art and paintings. I needed to catch my train back to Xian in the afternoon. I exited the museum, which fronted a large park though only a few people were around. A few children were riding little bikes and a couple was getting their wedding photos done in the distance.

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Stone animal statues from the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220).

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A Tang-dynasty tricolour glazed camel. It looks like it’s in agony.

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An Asian mammoth (Palaeoloxodon naumanni).

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I’ve never seen this color used in Chinese pottery horses before but this blue horse is unique and impressive.

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Pottery lamp from the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220).

I took a taxi back to my hostel, where I had an interesting conversation with the driver. I commented on how the museum was really nice but it was a shame that there weren’t many visitors. He talked to me about Luoyang and its history, comparing it to Zhengzhou (the provincial capital) and saying that Luoyang had more. In fact, that was why Zhengzhou had taken the Shaolin Temple away from Luoyang’s jurisdiction, he said, so that it could claim a historical place as its own. I don’t know if that’s true but I know information about the Shaolin Temple always mentions Zhengzhou as the main starting point, which isn’t that much closer than Luoyang to the temple.
I quickly checked out of my hostel and took another taxi to the high-speed station, where I had another interesting conversation with the driver. This guy also bigged up his city, talking about Luoyang’s history and culture. Unfortunately he used some complex words that were beyond my limited vocabulary so I couldn’t understand a lot of what he said. What I did understand was when he said that Luoyang people had a different reputation from other Henanese. Us Henanese have a negative reputation, he said, but when people hear you’re from Luoyang, their perception changes. It’s unfortunate but true that Henan has a bad reputation for being criminals and swindlers. The province is one of China’s poorest and its people are sometimes derided. It’s sad because this was the cradle of Chinese civilization. Thousands of years ago, this was where Chinese history began and civilization took shape. I hope that more can be done to help this once-proud province.
My trip back to Xian went without incident other than a consistent stomach upset, and a cute kid who sat with her mother next to me, who sang, talked, and even danced continuously. At one point, her mother even apologized to me and there was absolutely no need!

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The train back to Xian rolls into the Luoyang station.

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