Few things weigh more heavily on the success of a trip than…breakfast. Often the first dip of the toe into the cultural waters you have decided to immerse yourself in, the first breakfast can send you off with either a good taste in your mouth or bad (both figuratively and literally) about your chosen destination and the people who live there. As we set out for our first day in Luoyang, an ancient capital of China, we found ourselves having the better of the two experiences. On a gray and chilly morning, we mused about viewing the millennia-old grottoes, historic temples, and blossoming peonies that characterized the city over a bowl of steaming soup served out of a giant metal vat on the side of the street as people bustled about us, in a hurry to start their day. The waters, we thought to ourselves, would be just fine.
Hard hit by the struggles of China’s recent history, it became increasingly more difficult to imagine the glories of its ancient history as we made our way from our breakfast nook towards the Longmen grottoes. From the seat of our bus, we gazed out the window at the dreary spread of shabby-looking buildings as they passed by one by one. Occasionally, to our delight, a park would flicker by, a patch of fleeting green in the otherwise monotone spread of grays and browns whose lack of vibrancy was furthered by the dim light struggling through the stoic, overcast sky overhead. After nearly an hour on the bus, we finally arrived at the grottoes and exited to find ourselves in an area that in no way hinted that a UNESCO World Heritage Site was within reach but rather resembled a scene much like the one we had been witnessing for the duration of our bus ride.
Surely we were in the right place though, we thought, as tour buses lined the streets and a steady stream of people was moving off purposefully towards some unseen point in a manner that called to mind an ant colony crossing a sidewalk. Assuming the grottoes lay at the end of the stream, we promptly queued up and within minutes were at the entrance gates. So is the miracle of China, you can be walking down the most derelict street imaginable, turn the corner, and suddenly find yourself in a posh area feeling underdressed or, in our case, amidst a world-renowned tourist destination.
After purchasing our tickets and passing through the gate, it didn’t take long for us to come across the first carving we would see that day. Heavily eroded and barely bigger than the size of our palm, the three carvings sat humbly indented into the face of the mountain. If we had seen these at the end of our day at the grottoes, we most likely would have passed them by without a glance, but there is always something special about the initial sighting of something you’ve been eager to see. Like the first animal you come upon at the zoo, or first flower of spring, your first glimpse into the whole always seems to resonate more, before you sadly become desensitized to it all and seeing things like thousand-year-old cave carvings starts to feel normal. So was the case with this first one, in no way spectacular when compared to the others that we would see, but captivating all the same.
As we left that initial carving and walked on, the mountain took on the appearance of a honeycomb with countless man made caves of different shapes and sizes burrowing into its side. Their holdings, dark and mysterious from afar, came into focus with each step towards them. Cross-legged Buddhas, humble deities, and even the occasional monster emerged from the shadows, emanating an aura of peace and reverence that even the raucous Qing Ming Festival crowds adhered to.
Moving from cave to cave, we began to realize that the carvings we paid the most attention to were not the well-preserved ones, whose sharp features time had seemingly forgotten, but rather the heavily eroded ones. Within these, the separate carvings had all but lost their distinctness from one another, their individual traits disappearing into the marbled strokes of the mountain that ran through them, making them appear like one.
Sadly though, not all faded or impartial carvings that we would come across were due to erosion as some did not bear its smooth uniformity but rather jagged hack marks that were the result of the manic destruction of the Cultural Revolution. Signs welcoming visitors to the park claimed that the defaced statues were the results of natural processes but anyone with a sliver of common sense and knowledge of something that happened barely over fifty years ago could tell the difference between the two. In nearly every cave, we could count on finding at least one statue whose face or sometimes entire body was missing, symbols of peace reduced to reminders of the perils that ensue when fear and hatred of things outside one’s own belief system become the identity of a country.
As troubling as the defaced statues were, it was comforting to know that, in the end, the mindset that would have served to destroy every last one at the site did not prevail, and that the grottoes now draw people by the thousands and thousands to come see not the ugliness of the mangled statues, but the beauty of the preserved ones. Nowhere was the enthusiasm for the latter more evident than at the center of the mountain, where the carvings, stretching several stories high, were so large that they appeared to have emerged from the mountain rather than having been carved into it.
There, the crowds, as epic as the statues themselves, buzzed about the plaza that sat at the feet of the monumental effigies as police with loudspeakers reminded visitors to not stop and take pictures so as to keep the crowds funneling through. Like a game of Frogger, we wove through the fast paced tour groups, stationary selfie takers, and occasional wandering smartphone zombie to secure a spot at the feet of the statues.
Close enough to reach out and touch them, we could never shake the feeling of unattainability they possessed as we took in their every detail. Perhaps it was their height that made them seem this way as they towered well beyond the reach of our heads. Or perhaps it was their age, being carved in a time and place that we just couldn’t relate to. What we eventually determined made them so unattainable though was the thing that made them human: their eyes. While we could see them, we couldn’t meet them as their gaze stretched far above us and into the distant hills. In the end it was our ability to get so close to the statues yet feel so far removed from them that gave the site a sense of mystery and intrigue that kept us walking back and forth for several hours before finally deciding to call it a day.
To say that our hostel in Luoyang felt like a home would be pretty accurate given that it was quite literally a man’s apartment repurposed to hold four small rooms. The owner, who exhibited such relentless kindness so as to make one slightly suspicious, informed us on our first night in the hostel that his hip was fractured, a feat made impressive by the fact that he rode a motorbike to meet us at the bus stop in the pouring rain, walked with us up the seven flights of stairs that led to his apartment, and slept on a mat on the floor as all of the beds were full that night. He seemed to enjoy it though, chatting with the dozen or so guests inhabiting his apartment, being an armchair guide to the city, and waiting on everyone with as much spring in his step as a fractured hip could allow. On our second day, we asked how to get to Shaolin Temple, the famed birthplace of Kung Fu, but, after finding out it would be an over 6-hour round-trip journey to get there and back, we opted instead to visit White Horse Temple, the birthplace of Buddhism in China. Upon asking the hostel owner how to get there, he excitedly waved us to the kitchen where he unfolded a well-used map to show us the quickest route there.
If the Inuit have over fifty words to describe ice and snow, then it would only be appropriate for the Chinese to have an equally colorful array of terms to describe large crowds of people, one of which translates literally to “people mountain, people sea.” At no point is this arsenal of descriptors more useful than during Chinese holidays, when crowds mushroom to the mind-numbing proportions of, well, a sea or mountain.
As we got off of the bus for White Horse Temple, the image of reverence and peace that one would expect the birthplace of Buddhism in China to evoke had seemingly been trampled under the feet of the enormous crowd jostling for position to get in line for tickets and enter the temple grounds. It was an atmosphere that, much to our dismay, would follow us into the temple, back out of it, and culminate in the frenzy that is hundreds of people with no adherence to anything resembling a line, or order for that matter, fighting each other for position to squeeze onto the infrequent buses leaving the area.
Like a college freshman swearing off drinking for life after their first night of binge drinking, so we swore off traveling during Chinese holidays as we sat on the overcrowded, overheated bus for over an hour, getting off only after Kate vomited in a plastic sleeve that had previously held a painting we had bought. If a perfect anecdote existed to deter anyone from traveling in China during the holidays, this surely was it.
Our third and last day in Luoyang would be dedicated to the city’s famed peonies, which were in full bloom and, more than the grottoes or temples, served as the city’s identity which was evident in their portrayal on everything from hotels to garbage trucks. Wary of facing the monster that was the crowds of the day before, we decided to skip the larger parks of the city and go instead, on the advice of our hostel’s owner, to a free park nearby that he assured us would satisfy our peony-viewing cravings.
After breakfast and a short walk to the park, we found ourselves amidst a modest spread of people and an anything-but-modest spread of peonies, whose large and expansive blooms were matched only in their numbers as bush after bush swelled up from the landscape, delightfully clogging our view in every direction.
Over the landscape, the patchy sky cast long running shadows that would stop abruptly, dulling some flowers while leaving others brightly illuminated by contrast, almost as if they were on stage, a spotlight illuminating each and every petal.
Apart from their varying degrees of visibility, the different peonies also differed in ways as obvious as their color, as some burned a hot pink while other wore a humble white, to ways more subtle like how the petals unfurled. On one end of the spectrum were tightly coiled blooms, whose petals gave a spongy resistance when squeezed, and on the other were those that hung loose and floppy like a dog’s ears. It was a scene worth walking through several times, which we did before bidding farewell to the peonies, which, in our minds, was like bidding farewell to Luoyang itself.