48 Hours or Less: Longmen Grottoes

 Article by Thabo Jaffe

“You guys up yet?
“You left yet?”
“Leaving now, you?
“I’m about to get in a taxi.”
“Cool, see you there.”

Comforted by our lies for a brief moment, we both steadied ourselves for the frantic rush of what was to come.

It was 7:45am. We partied late the night before, and our train was due to leave at 8:30am. I’d just woken up minutes before, and decided it was a good idea to check in with the other crew at this point, as they were supposed to call me to report their departure… My “you left yet?” call turned out to be a wake-up call.

As is the norm, one can never find a taxi in Xi’an when one needs it the most. And so, while I prayed that the other crew would make it in time, I hopped on the back of an e-bike because of the aforementioned dire taxi problem. It turned out to be the worst Gaoxin morning traffic ever, and so I made the executive decision to take a scenic back-of-the-bike ride to the high-speed railway station – the best way to the station is without doubt, subway line 1 all the way to the last stop in the north. After a refreshingly cool, questionably long ride, I arrived at 8:35am.

Having missed the train, I was finally united with my three other travel mates, who had already collected a set of replacement tickets for a later train. After some coffee, an exchange of our respective morning traffic horror stories, and a little tired banter, we were on the train to Luoyang. This is a budget trip in the sense of both time and money, as 110RMB will secure you a return ticket on the fast train, which will see you sitting for an hour and a half each direction.

Fast forward, and we’ve arrived in Luoyang – listen for the announcement or you could find yourself the butt end of a lot of jokes. As soon as you walk out the entrance, you’ll be greeted by a slew of taxi drivers ( licensed and not ) shouting offers of rides to Longmen Shiku (grottoes) at/for “tourist prices”. Sidestep the daredevil drivers, and you’ll immediately see some double-decker buses waiting at the roadside. Walk up to the bus and mention (even in broken Chinese) Longmen Shiku to the driver and he’ll ask you for 10RMB per person. Ten to fifteen minutes later and you’re at the famous World Heritage site.

After a short walk through a little market of local delicacies and kitsch, out-of-place children’s toys, you’ll reach the entrance where you need to buy a 120RMB ticket.

Once past a few buildings, the view will open up to a stunning one kilometre stretch of carved limestone cliff, split by the Yi River. It’s believed that there are as many as 100,000 carvings and statues of Buddha and his disciples in and around the more than 2000 little caves/grottoes that pepper the cliffs. This awe-inspiring work of art was created over a great many years, stretching from the Northern Wei dynasty all the way to the Northern Song dynasty (493 AD to 1127 AD). This also accounts for the different styles you’ll see on your walk through history. While a beauty to marvel at, the area also fell victim to theft and vandalism during various points in history, which left most of the Buddha carvings and statues faceless or completely headless. Not even slightly joking.

Going through the entire site at a steady “interested” pace should see you done in about 3 hours, during which you can take multiple selfies or pictures of the brilliantly pink cherry blossoms, or marvel at how badly the sun affects your friend’s ghostly white skin.

The sun was beginning to set on our warm spring adventure. After missing one train already, we decided to get going well before our allotted site departure time, leaving us time to bother strangers in the line for KFC at the train station. As we had a “tourist” in the group, we had to treat him to the real champion Chinese meal of choice – upon reaching Xi’an we headed straight to Haidilao to cap an amazing, slightly troubled day with beer, and hotpot.

Thabo is an avid explorer and less-than-worldly South African, always in search of new experiences. Stopping just short of suicidal, he’s a true Yes Man. You can reach him via email at thabojaffe@gmail.com