The China Logs: Longmen Caves

I was woken by a gentle “Happy Birthday To You” being sung in my ear by Orlando. We were in a lovely little friendly hotel in a town called Luoyang, (well it has a population of more than 6 million but that feels small by Chinese standards), about 6 hours by fast train east of Xi’an.

After doing some chores like sussing out bus routes for the next day, and booking our train back to Xi’an for later in the week (Orlando really is coming along fabulously with his Chinese!) we hopped on the number 81 bus to the Longmen Caves, which we had been promised were similar to the Yungang caves we had seen earlier in our trip. One hour and Y1 each later we arrived at what was obviously a big tourist place – all car parking and auspicious-looking signage.

The Longmen Caves are a recognised UNESCO World Heritage Site. We ran the gauntlet of a long parade of tourist shops selling the usual stuff, and I stopped to use the loo. For the first time, I was confronted by a real Chinese public toilet: three toilets opposite three, but each separated from the next only by a low tiled wall about a metre high. Each cubicle was open at the front – no doors! Unperturbed (and in desperate need in any case) I got organised to do my business: there was nobody else there so it wasn’t too bad.

As soon as I squatted (oh, yes, most toilets here are the ones in the floor over which you squat) another woman came in, but happily chose the stall alongside me. No problem still – there was a modicum of privacy afforded both of us by the dividing wall once we were both in position, so to speak. Then a third lady arrived, and chose the stall opposite me. She was a large enough lady, one of the sellers it seemed from the capacious apron she wore over her tracksuit bottoms. She squatted – or, rather, half-genuflected as best her bulk could allow – and I averted my eyes before the uncompromising view before me became too much.

In time I escaped my baptism of fire, none the worse for wear and with another Chinese first under my belt!

The Longmen Caves were a spectacle. The day was warm with hazy sun trying to break through the ubiquitous Chinese smog, and we spent almost five hours wandering slowly along the river bank from cave to niche. There are over 100,000 carvings here, of various Buddhas and their companions, but tragically Western explorers desecrated most statues in past years by removing them completely or simply by removing the Buddha’s head, apparently by a swift upward machete blow.

Some key pieces are in the Metropolitan Museum or Art in New York, and others in the British Museum. Even all those years ago, I cannot imagine anyone coming across this place and not realising its religious, spiritual, and cultural significance. How arrogant we Westerners have been. Of course, the Cultural Revolution also took its toll: Chairman Mao’s attack on the “four olds” (old customs, old culture, old thinking, old habits) from 1966 – 1970 resulted in much of China’s heritage being destroyed, and the Longmen Caves suffered in this period too.

The caves got bigger and the statues more impressive, but nothing could have prepared us for the sight of the main cave (or niche) – the Fengxiang Si or Ancestor Worshipping Temple. Here, dozens of steep steps above the valley floor, stood a beautiful 17 metre high statue (thankfully almost intact) of the Buddha Losana surrounded by 2 disciples, 2 Bodhisattvas, 2 kings, and 2 protector warriors. The Buddha’s face, allegedly modelled on the face of a Tang Dynasty Empress, was serene and benevolent; despite the crowds of tourists I could sense the peace surrounding this place.

We continued on, across the river to yet more carvings and caves, some being worked on by archaeologists and preservation experts. Our last stop was a beautiful temple high on the east river bank, where I threw money (a coin and a note) into a pond promising good health for floating money and longevity for sinking money.

As we enjoyed some birthday ice cream sitting on the temple wall, the sun sank slowly behind the caves on the west bank, and the incense hung in the still air while the monks chanted their meditations. What a lovely way to spend my birthday.

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