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A guide picked us up at our hotel at 6:00 AM for our flight to Luoyang in Henan Province. Although our primary reason for flying to Luoyang was to visit the Shaolin Monastery, we would also be visiting Longmen Grottoes, the tomb of Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi, and the White Horse Temple, which is the oldest Buddhist temple in China.

Vairocana Buddha - Longmen Grottoes

We arrived in Luoyang about 10:00 AM and were greeted by our guide. He explained our schedule for the day, and asked us how we wanted to handle lunch. It was still a bit early to eat lunch, but if we went to the Longmen Grottoes first, we would have to eat a late lunch. Since they served us breakfast on the plane, we decided to go to Longmen Grottoes first.

The Longmen Grottoes are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and are one of the top three ancient sculptural sites in China. The name Longmen means "Dragon Gate" and it was given this name because the Yi River looks like a dragon flowing through the two mountains that form a gate. In all, there are over 2,000 caves and niches, and more than 100,000 statues. Almost all of the carvings are of various Buddhas, but there are also pagodas, tablets, and steles. Most of the statues were created during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), but about 30% are from the older Northern Wei Dynasty (386-535 AD).

Yi River - Longmen Bridge

The temperature was about 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), the sun was very bright, and it was very humid. Luckily there was a decent breeze coming off of the Yi River that runs in front of the grottoes. Still, this wasn't exactly perfect weather for a long walk with lots of stair climbing. Thankfully there are several vendors along the way selling drinks, and towards the end there is a nice gift shop carved into the rock that has great air conditioning. Although I did buy a few things, I mostly lingered in the shop to soak up the cold air.

When visiting Longmen Grottoes, one of the first things visitors notice is that many of the smaller Buddhas are headless. This is a result of vandalism in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Westerners visiting the site took these statues home as souvenirs or to put them in museums. Although this was mostly confined to the smaller statues, two very large relief murals were removed and are now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Atkinson Museum in Kansas City.

Longmen Grottoes

Even more statues were stolen during the Japanese occupation during WWII, and later by soldiers from Britain, USA, and France. Also, many statues were intentionally defaced during China's Cultural Revolution, from 1966 until 1976. However, despite all the vandalism and theft, many of the statues remain intact, including most of the really large ones.

The largest statue at Longmen Grottoes is a 17 meter (56 feet) statue of Vairocana Buddha. In Vajrayana Buddhism, Vairocana traditionally sits at the center of the Five Wisdom Buddhas. Interestingly, although Vairocana is usually depicted as male, the model for this statue was most likely the Empress Wu Zetian.

Yi River

Empress Wu rose from being an Imperial concubine to eventually ruling all of China. At first, she was simply the de facto ruler of China, controlling her husband and later her sons from behind the scenes. While this was not at all an unprecedented situation, Empress Wu eventually declared herself China's first and only Empress Regnant, which was the female equivalent of Emperor. She founded the short-lived Second Zhou Dynasty and helped revive Buddhism in China. Many of the Buddha statues at Longmen Grottoes were carved during her reign, and feature her likeness.

After walking such a long way in the heat, we decided to take a boat ride to our next destination rather than walking back the way we came. Our departure was delayed for a few minutes because a group of young German tourists were refusing to get off the overcrowded boat.

The boat was only designed to hold 20 people, and about half a dozen people ignored the guy working on the dock and jumped on the boat just as it was getting ready to leave. The captain of the boat tried to explain to them in English that the boat couldn't leave with more than 20 people, but they told her that they didn't understand English. Since there were no seats available, they just sat down on the outside deck wherever they could find a spot.

Longmen Grottoes boat ride

Eventually, one of them suddenly learned to understand and speak English, and he started explaining that they didn't have time to wait for another boat. However, by this time, another boat was almost to the dock, so they finally got up and left. I wasn't really paying attention, and I didn't realize that they were claiming that they didn't understand English until our guide told me later. Although my German isn't very good, this would have been fairly easy to explain. Still, it is obvious that they understood English just fine. They just didn't want to wait for the next boat. Some rules might seem silly, but following the designated passenger capacity on a boat is not one of them.   

Our boat ride took us back towards the entrance to Longmen Grottoes. Along the way, the captain stopped briefly to let passengers take pictures of the big Buddha. The ride ended on the opposite side of the river, very close to our next destination, Bai Garden, which also includes the tomb of the famous Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi.

Bai Garden - Mountain Valley

In addition to being a poet, Bai Juyi was the governor of several small provinces. His poems were known for being understandable by ordinary people, and they were very popular during his lifetime. His popularity even spread to Japan, and his poems are still read in both China and Japan.

Bai Juyi's Tomb is located on the Pipa Peak on the east side of Longmen Mountain. It is the center of Bai Garden that starts at the base of the mountain and winds its way up to the tomb. The first section is the Qingqu, or Mountain Valley section. Here there are pools of water, waterfalls, clusters of bamboo flanking the path.

Bai Garden - Tea House

There are also several pavilions here that are built in the style of the Tang Dynasty. Just a short walk up a few stairs is a nice tea house, which wasn't busy when we walked by. I'm guessing that it is mostly there as a place to rest for people on group tours that don't want to walk to the top of the peak to see the tomb.

Bai Juyi - Tombstone

The Tomb Area at the peak makes up almost half of Bai Garden. The tomb itself is a mound about 4 meters (13 feet) high and 16 meters (52 feet) in diameter. It is surrounded by a monument house, ancient steles, and a tombstone. Walking back down the hill we pass through the poem corridor, which is lined with hundreds of stone tablets featuring Bai Juyi's poems in various styles of calligraphy.

Tomb of Bai Juyi Pavilion

After leaving Bai Garden, we went to lunch. We had shredded pork with vegetables, sesame chicken, stir-fried bok choy, eggs with ham, egg and tomato soup, and some type of flat bread. Everything tasted great

Luoyang Lunch

Following lunch, we checked into the Peony Hotel in Luoyang. This hotel was very nice, but it didn't quite match the luxury of our hotels in Shanghai or Hangzhou. The main public areas looked great, but some other areas needed some refurbishment. The 3rd floor conference center had some doors in serious need of a paint job. The rooftop garden next to the conference center was nice, but it looked a bit neglected. The day we left, there were a couple of gardeners working on it, so I think it should improve.

Peony Hotel Luoyang - Lobby

The rooms were clean and comfortable, except that my bed was very hard. Beds in China are generally very hard by Western standards, but the beds here are by far the hardest I've ever seen. I prefer to sleep on a firm mattress, but this is the first bed I would characterize as too hard. Still, I would much rather sleep on a bed that is too hard than a bed that is too soft.


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