In early December I took the high speed rail to Luoyang in Henan Province to see the famous Longmen Grottoes. This was one of the furthest weekend trips for me so far, one that required spending the night in Xi’An first, before heading further east to Luoyang the following morning.
Luoyang is one of China’s four great ancient capitols- the others being Xi’An, Nanjing, and Beijing. Interestingly, Luoyang itself doesn’t have massive city walls, palaces, and temples that could still be seen today in the other three. The capitol was likely burned to the ground several times in the past millennium, and hit particularly hard during the Cultural Revolution. However, it is home to some splendid rock carvings, collectively known as the Longmen (Dragon’s Gate) Grottoes.
These Buddhist grottoes were carved from the Northern Wei period 493 AD onward, and work ceased at some point in the Song Dynasty (around 1127 AD). Over the 600+ years, some 2,300 caves and 100,000 (!) Buddhist figures were dug out of the cliffs in various scale- many minuscule, and some enormous.
The one cave everyone comes here to see is the Fengxian Cave, the true masterpiece of the Tang dynasty. In this expansive, open-air grotto, there are nine carved statues, with Vairocana Buddha seated in the center. The five central figures are serene and calm- the outer four guardians are clearly ferocious warriors. This is a political work of art as well; all power radiates from the Emperor and Emperor only!
It was during the reign of the enormously powerful and wealthy Wu ZeTian – the only female emperor in all of China’s history (crazy mother-in-laws don’t count!!) – that this set of statues was carved. The effortlessly beautiful central Buddha was modeled in her image, and has distinctly feminine features – the high eyebrows, slender nose, pursed lips, etc. Her earlobes are 2 meters in length, so I would still come up 10 cm short if I were to miraculously levitate and stand next to her ears
From across the river you can get a better sense of scale for the Fengxian cave, and you can also see the many, many stairs I had to climb to enjoy this World Heritage Site.
Back in Xi’An, I revisited the Wild Goose Pagoda which was much more impressive this time around, with clear blue skies instead of a polluted grey backdrop. I got someone to take a photo of me pinching the tip of the pagoda, as if I were lifting the precious lid off a seven-tiered dessert platter.
Later I came across a group of old men playing chess, just outside the Ming city walls. This sort of hobby – chess, and the crowd of back-seat chess drivers that gather – is common across all of China, especially on a lazy weekend afternoon.
A moment like this warrants its own sketch:
I also witnessed a blazing sunset while waiting at the platform for my train back to Lanzhou the following evening, a sure reminder that another weekend trip has come to an end.
FutureLearn: The European Discovery of China
I’m taking full advantage of my free time by traveling through China, but to gain a deeper understanding of many of these sites and how they are connected, I needed more background information than what was provided in brochures, audio-guides, and WikiTravel.
There are several sites offering free online courses on almost any subject you can think of – and after some digging, I found “The European Discovery of China” through FutureLearn.
This is an eight week course (each course requires the learner to finish viewing a dozen or so short videos and an optional quiz at the end – all videos can be downloaded as PDF text as well) that explains interactions between the East and West for the past two thousand years.
The course has a heavy emphasis on the analysis of ancient maps, paintings, and letters, all of which I enjoy. Did you know life in the royal harem was boring as fuck for most of the young women living behind palace gates, many of whom might never even see the emperor in their entire lives?
It also clears up some rumors “Did Marco Polo ever reach China?” (Answer: yes, but it is strange he never mentioned the use of chopsticks, or the complex writing system!)
Usually I will download all the videos of a course onto my tablet and then watch them on the train rides during weekend trips- this is an efficient way to make use of time, on the already efficient high-speed rail!
The European Discovery of China has really added depth and context to all of the traveling I’ve done in the past year and a half, and I’m always pleasantly surprised to see Lanzhou/ Gansu pop up every now and then in a lesson.