Saturday, 1 September 2012

Luoyang and the Longmen Grottoes

Upon arriving in Luoyang with my new short-term friend, Beatrix, we took a taxi to the hostel and then shortly set out to explore the neighbourhood. We were in a central and vibrant part of town, our base seemed to be on a main high street, but cutting off this was a pedestrianised lantern street which was the night food market, set in the area of the old neighbourhood. Beatrix speaks excellent Chinese, and so in the encounters we had with the locals she would be able to yap away and translate any questions I had. We strolled through the old backstreets, exploring little alleyways and courtyards. She knew much about China and could explain various cultural traditions and shed light on things I had already wondered. Nobody paid much attention to us, though we never saw any other foreigners during our foray into the community. Some people however seemed really pleased to see us, some took photos and others wanted to stop and chat, and thankfully I was with someone who could communicate beyond my miming abilities. The people who stopped were very friendly and inquisitive, others said 'hello' or 'ni hao' as we passed, and the rest didn't pay us a blind bit of notice. Not one person tried to sell us anything, or attempted to get us to look in their shop; it was a refreshing change and endeared me immediately to the people of Luoyang. We bought some street food and nibbled as we walked into the dusk, before becoming rather lost and asking locals for directions back to where we were staying.

Central Luoyang.
Caught this guy sneakily taking our picture - so made him sit for my picture.
Grandad and baby.
And the twin...
Apples and pears...
Old woman washing clothes in a courtyard.
Lads on patrol. 
Tired old knockers...
The old Bell Tower at the end of the street...
Street siblings. 
Old neighbourhood.

Dusk in the old town.
Playing games. 
Food street and night market.

The following day I got up and took the bus to Longmen Grottoes, a place I had never heard of before arriving in China but is in fact a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I arrived in drizzle and mist after a 20 minute bus ride costing 10 pence. After wandering through a modern-built tourist-tat pedestrian street I found the ticket office, paid £12 for my entry and then a wrong turn later I found my way to the entrance. The site dates back about 1500 years, and is one of the finest examples of Chinese Buddhist art. Apparently there are up to 100, 000 statues, some only an inch high, others as high as a four storey house or more, all carved into the cliffs either side of the Yi River. Many are situated in little caves, and it reminded me of Petra in Jordan. I'd hoped for a sunny day but I'd been given the opposite, but I decided against wearing my coat as being wet with rain is better than wet with sweat. The cliffs were shrouded in mist and visibility wasn't great, you could poetically claim this added to the mysticism, but really the only mystery was wondering what it looks like in good weather. I was impressed with the sculptures, and you wonder how on earth and how long it took for these to be constructed. I did think, perhaps immaturely, that many of them seemed to be quite camp, and this amused me as it's not often you could point at an image of a God and say he looks pretty gay - in some places you'd be put to death for it. Perhaps ancient Buddhists were more accepting of homosexuality, like ancient Greeks, or perhaps it was my juvenile mind that misinterpreted cultural depictions of mannerisms. Quite a few other of the figures looked rather smug, and quite rightly so. If you're a God I think you're entitled to be smug, creator and Lord of the universe is up there with the best of the achievements I can think of. It's only just ranked one place higher than the EDF News Photographer of the Year.

What I also found though as nearly always happens to me when I am alone and faced with some site of cultural or historical importance, is my mind becomes melancholic and becomes drawn towards former romantic flames. I'm not sure what the psychological trigger is, but it's something I've noticed on a number of occasions now. Perhaps being faced with obvious beauty and wonder, I'm reminded somehow of the lack of immediate beauty and wonder in my own life; and a personal relevance becoming much more important than redundant and weathered old stone. Nevertheless I tried to put the ghosts that walk in my empty house of a heart aside, and enjoy the Longmen Grottoes for the wonder it is. About halfway around the site I met a Polish couple who reside in the UK, and they were really chatty and I spent a good hour or more walking around in the rain looking at the rest of the statues and talking about all sorts. I really enjoyed their company and my melancholy disappeared off into the mist, but once we'd reached the end they took a taxi and I wandered off to find the bus back into central Luoyang.

Longmen Grottoes.
Many were decapitated - done in some Communist purge? I don't know...
Peace yo - all Chinese pose for pictures like this. 
Hey, no photos...oh go on then.
You can still see the millennia old paint.
Caves carved out of the cliffs.
These were only an inch or two high...I zoomed in.
These were massive, see railings for scale. I zoomed out.
Set inside a deep, cuboid cave. The walls were incredibly intricate.
More caves with lots of Buddhist statues.
This section is about as big as a plasma TV.
Is it just me, or are the poses pretty camp?
The largest of all the statues, it's bigger than your house, even if you're really rich.
Another Chinese girl wants her picture taken by the foreigner. 
Looking across the river towards the cliffs. 
A lizard, millipede and a snail (top right, out of focus) hang out under a precipice. 
A misty Yi River.


  1. woow how did you menage to take so beautiful pictures in such a big mist??? you are very talented! well, with our "idiot-proof" camera, the caves are barely visible haha... we just got back to rainy land:/ Love your blog...Good luck on your travels:) -Magda & Greg (polish couple mentioned above)

  2. Hey Magda and Greg - great to hear from you! Sorry to hear you're back home already, I hope you had a fantastic time in China after I saw you. It was great to meet the two of you, I really enjoyed your company that afternoon. Thanks very much for the well wishes, maybe see you in the UK if work brings you my way. All the best, Ben. PS - if you search my email address on Facebook you'll find me.

  3. We really enjoyed your company too! It was great to meet you! China was amazing, we didnt enjoy Shanghai as much as the other cities, too modern, nothing like traditional China, but overal the whole trip was just WOW! Have fun in Japan:)