After a hearty breakfast – slightly heartier than the day before, when Luke’s bowl of cornflakes came in a doll’s bowl with about 10 flakes in it – we set off to the Longmen grottoes by bus. We had essentially gone from viewing thousands of soldiers to viewing thousands and thousands of Buddhas! It is always nice to have contrasting experiences. We walked the gauntlet of tourist stalls selling shawls and model Buddhas and watched women pummelling dough with big wooden hammers to make peanut biscuits, before reaching the ticket office. After much indecision, we decided to opt for a real live guide, rather than an audio guide, given the audio guide was only available in Chinese. Our guide duly arrived, and introduced herself as ‘Ju-Si’! Juicy and Lucy! We found this quite amusing, but the reason why is hard to communicate to a non-native English speaker! Ju-Si walked us around the Western caves and told us a bit of background history. The grottoes really are incredible. There was a river with limestone cliffs on either side, and these were riddled with hand hewn caves into which had been carved thousands of Buddhas. Some of the caves were very large, and these would have been paid for by rich families; others were just small hollows. It was amazing; everywhere you looked there were buddhas. The largest one was 17.2m tall – this was really the centre piece – and some were teeny tiny, the smallest being just 2cm tall. There were two main styles – those made during the Wei dynasty were slim, but people of the Tang dynasty preferred a fat Buddha with double chins! In the larger caves, there was usually a big central Buddha, who might be flanked by other deities, and guardians with fearsome expressions carved into the rock on either side of the entrance. In many of the caves, the inside walls were covered with row upon row of smaller Buddhas. Unfortunately, a lot of the Buddhas had missing heads. Limestone is prone to water damage, so sometimes the cause was environmental, but many had been destroyed during anti-Buddhist periods of Chinese history; others had been decapitated and their heads had been taken to museums around the world. Many whole sculptures had been stolen outright, leaving behind an empty cavern. It was sad to see so much missing, but on reflection, I think it makes the site all the more interesting.
There was also a large polished peony stone. This is a type of stone that when cut, has white petal-like patterns within it. It looks as if the dark grey of the stone has been scattered with white peony flowers. Luoyang is famous for actual peonies too and they hold a peony festival here every year.
On the other side of the river, there were more grottoes, but these were not as densely packed, and often had iron bars over the entrances, which kept the Buddhas in, but did spoil the view a bit. Further along, there was a beautiful temple that was built by a famous poet, who was apparently quite fond of his drink. It didn’t show in the architecture though, which was exquisite. The location overlooking the grottoes was wonderful and I can imagine would have inspired many more poems. This temple was popular with the imperial family, who would come here to listen to poetry and compose some of their own. We finished up with a garden that contained the tomb of the poet; a winding, hilly affair, full of twists and turns and rocks engraved with Chinese poetry.
On the bus back we met a very friendly boy. He spied us as soon as we got on and left his friends to spring over to our seat. He was very keen to practise his English, which was really good. We had a really nice chat; he was a very sensitive soul and told us about how his ex was going to England, but that as the youngest son he was obliged to stay at home to look after his parents. He asked us if we wanted babies, and said that he would really like a baby! He was probably about 18 years old. He gave us Chinese names – both began with Long, which means dragon, so we were pretty pleased with that, because dragons are the coolest really, aren’t they?
Once off the bus, we fortuitously stumbled upon the night market, where we grazed on some really tasty street food, my favourite being a sort of choose your own kebab in a flat bread. You picked a selection of skewers of different types of vegetables and meat, then it was all chopped up together on a hot plate, mixed with spices and popped into the bread. Delicious!