When we think of China’s great statuesque artwork, the Terracotta Warriors come to mind. They’ve become the awe-inducing, must-see of China, second only to the Forbidden City.
Yet, just East of Xi’an, four hours up the railway line to Beijing, is another grand cache of art that stands in the Warriors’ shadows, but delivers almost as many “wow” moments. I’m talking Luoyang’s Longmen Grottoes — a string of over 100,000 Buddhist images and statues carved into a hillside during China’s Wei and Tang Dynasties.
Luoyang’s Longmen Grottoes are one of several sites in China for viewing ancient Buddhist cave art — besides the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, the Yungang Grottoes near Datong, and Bingling Si near Lanzhou. Mogao and Yungang are more famous (and, arguably, colorful), and Bingling Si, with its sheer cliffs by the reservoir and a huge 27-meter-high Buddha, more breathtaking. But Luoyang is just four hours from Xi’an, right on that train line from Beijing, so you can easily take in a little ancient cave art before heading to that more famous tourist attraction.
And, believe me, even if they’re not number one, the Longmen Grottoes are worth the visit.
I’ll never forget climbing the stairs to Fengxian Temple — one of the caves in the grottoes — besot by the grand scale (the Buddha at the center of the temple is 17 meters high alone, and the others are nearly as tall), the piercing (and, in some cases, haunting) eyes, the mesmerizing curves of their bodies, even the halting, stylized poses typical of Buddhist statues — all set into the cliffs beside a river, open to the elements.
While Fengxian Temple holds the most shocking works of art, you’ll feel little quakes of delight within as you wander up and down the cliffs, peering into history through the stories told in the cave sculptures, and delighting in the little details. Carved lotuses that seem to bloom from the ceiling. An entire wall stacked with row upon row of tiny Buddhas. A tantric Buddha with multiple arms.
But part of the allure of Longmen Grottoes is the setting — two cliffs set into the undulating hills that cradle a river between them. The swallows dip and sway leisurely above the water, and every now and then an egret coasts by to find refuge in wetlands beside the river. In the spacious lanes beside the cliffs, even the tour groups seem smaller and quieter.
You can take your time, linger on one of the benches beside the river, or even — in the Buddhist tradition — just sit and meditate.
When to visit
The Longmen Grottoes (龙门石窟, admission 120 RMB) are an outdoor site, best visited in the Spring, Summer or Autumn.
By Plane: Your best bet is Xinzheng Airport in Zhengzhou, and then take a bus or train to Luoyang (about 2 hours).
By Train: Trains from Shanghai, Beijing, Xi’an and Zhengzhou all stop at Luoyang. Plus, Luoyang is only 2 hours away from Zhengzhou, which has even more train connections.
Where to stay
Luoyang has accommodations for every budget. Check out Ctrip.com to find a place and book it online (no deposit needed, and you can cancel easily, if necessary).
This is the Travel China with the Yangxifu series, which appears every 2nd Wednesday of the month. Thanks to Rich for inspiring me to launch this series.
To read more, visit the Travel China with the Yangxifu archives.