Our journey through China took us to Henan province and the city of Luoyang, a former prosperous capital for 13 dynasties until in the 10th Century the Northern Song dynasty moved it to Kaifeng.
Luoyang has a charming Old Town, which is home to many old fashioned shops and grey brick houses. It has a Drum Tower, Wenfeng Pagoda and Guanlin Temple, all within the walls and accessed through the Lijing Gate.
Worth a visit is the Luoyang Museum situated outside of the main town. A huge museum which is free to enter, it has a good range of information and a porcelain collection; it’s a good place to get a sense of ancient Luoyang.
However, the main reason for journeying to Luoyang isn’t for the town itself; the main attraction lies beyond the city: the Longmen Grottoes.
The Longmen Grottoes
The Grottoes are 13 kilometers south of Luoyang but it’s an easy bus or taxi ride away to get to them. These ancient Buddhist rock carvings are split into an east and west side separated by the Yi River; they are an impressive sight of 100,000 carvings and statues created within the limestone cliffs and stretching for a kilometer.
Unfortunately, some of the statues at this UNESCO World Heritage site have been defaced by vandalism or have suffered the effects of erosion. The vandalism most probably occurred during the time of the Cultural Revolution and other anti-Buddhist movements. They are, however, still an impressive sight and worthy of their status.
The most significant and largest collection is on the west side but a small crop can also be admired on the east side too. On the west side you can find the Three Binyang Grottoes, known for their benevolent expressions.
Nearby, with seven figures dating to the Tang dynasty, is the Moya Three Buddha Niche. There is also the Ten Thousand Buddha Grotto, distinctive for the red pigeons on the ceiling, carvings I hasten to add! Lastly you’ll find the Losana Buddha Statue Grotto with the best examples of the sculptors work.
Over the river, on the east side, your first stop is the Leigutai Architectural Site, an earlier excavation of relics. Further along lies the Thousand Arm and Thousand Eye Grotto depicting the Goddess of Mercy and, beyond that, the Reading Sutra Grotto with a lovely carved lotus leaf on the ceiling.
On this side you’ll also find the Xiangshan Temple, the gardens surrounding the Tomb of Bai Juyi and a lovely little teahouse, which makes a perfect stop for refreshments before making the journey back to Luoyang.
White Horse Temple
After visiting the grottoes we discovered that we still had plenty of time left in the day so we decided to use it wisely and pay a visit to the White Horse Temple. This is another 13 kilometers from Luoyang, only this time to the East.
Regarded as China’s first surviving Buddhist temple and dating back to the 1st Century AD, the White Horse complex houses an active monastery within its vast and beautiful surroundings.
The Shiyuan Art Gallery and a chic tea-house, with a variety of teas, offer the perfect respite in which to relax. Also on the grounds is the beautiful 12 tiered Qiyun Pagoda, often encircled by worshippers, and the International Zone with temple contributions from countries such as Thailand, Myanmar and India. They are not quite as impressive as the real thing but are still lovely to see.
The next day we made our way to the Shaolin Temple near Dengfeng; we took a minibus from Luòyáng, which was very easy and convenient. This largly rebuilt temple is, unfortunately, a victim of its own fame and success, visited by hoards of tourists on a daily basis. It is, however, worth visiting given its wealth of history.
The Shaolin Temple has traditional architecture and is considered the ancestral home of Wushu. At various times during the day, the resident monks put on a rather theatrical display of their Kung Fu skills. They demonstrate the use of weapons and martial art movements that have been developed over the centuries, mimicking the movements of different animals such as the monkey and tiger. For me at least, it was an interesting addition to the day trip.
Once we’d had our fill of temples, watching the martial arts spectacle of the show and seeing the pockets of young monks practicing their stance work, we got away from the mass of tourists at Shaolin and out into the surrounding area. A short walk from the main temple lies the Pagoda Forest, a cemetery of 248 brick pagodas that house the ashes of eminent monks.
Further along, paths lead up to Wǔrǔ Peak. The main reason to climb to the top is to see the cave where Damo (Bodhidharma) meditated for nine years; it’s 4km uphill. From the base, you may spot the peak and the cave, marked by a large Bodhisattva figure.
En route to the cave, worthy of a short detour, is the Chūzǔ Temple, a quiet and battered counterpoint to the main temple; its main structure is the oldest wooden one in the province. As we were short on time, we only walked a little way, to the temple.
Hiking to Sanhuangzhai
The reason we declined the climb to Wǔrǔ Peak was because we wanted to embark on perhaps the most famous hike in the area, to Sanhuangzhai. Stretching for 9 kilometers and with a total of 7398 steps one way, this roller-coaster-like walkway offers superb views as you walk along the cliff edge. It is possible to skip the first 3 kilometers using the Shaolin Cableway but we avid hikers went all the way on foot.
It’s a stunning feast for the eyes the whole way with stopping points on route offering refreshments. The hike can be started and finished at either end of the trail but you’ll need to get a taxi one way, unless you want to walk both ways, which is achievable in about 6 hours. Once we reached the end, we negotiated with a taxi to take us back to Shaolin. From there we made our way back to Luoyang after an enjoyable but tiring day.
With its old town vibe and enough to keep you busy for a good couple of days, Louyang is definitely a place worth adding to your plan if you enjoy experiencing ancient Buddhist culture, traditional temples and jaw dropping cliff-face scenery.
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