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Meeting with the ancients

updated: 2013-05-22

Shanghai Daily, May 21, 2013

To most people, Luoyang in central China's Henan Province is just a transit hub en route to the Shaolin Temple on neighboring Songshan Mountain or a quick stop-off to check out the famous Longmen Grottoes or the prefecture-level city's spring peony festival.

Luoyang's low-profile is all the more surprising as it was the capital of 13 ancient Chinese dynasties through to AD 937, witnessed the vicissitudes of the country over the millennia and was home to the central plains Heluo Culture (circa 21 century-11 century BC).

Locals often joke that the city is so full of historic sites that you don't even know whose ancient tomb you've just walked over.

But on arrival, first impressions suggested I'd got my hopes a bit too high with visions of a cultural treasure trove. Bulldozers and cranes dominated the landscape, recreating magnificent bygone palaces to satisfy a boom in tourism.

Scenic spots, such as temples, seem alike around the country; squealing tourists following guides reciting the same pat speeches to their parties.

Yet culture is resilient, and Luoyang still has much offer.

In search of art and history

A visit to a museum is a must on a visit to this ancient capital.

You can find an encyclopedic display of central plains Heluo Culture in the new and distinctive-looking Luoyang Museum. Shaped like a ding - an ancient Chinese cooking vessel, the museum sits in the city's Luonan New Area.

Private museums feature specialist collections. One founded by Chinese pottery artist Guo Aihe showcases traditional tricolor glazed art pieces, along with modern pieces.

But to get close to ancient times, visit the Luoyang Museum of Ancient Art. Perched on Mangshan Mountain, the former Luoyang Museum of Ancient Tombs serves as a time tunnel linking past and present.

Mangshan Mountain, or Beimang Mountain, facing the Luohe River, has long been regarded as an ideal burial site, as it retains qi (energy), according to Chinese feng shui.

A poem by Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) poet Wang Jian recalls the mountain with "no land left," as it was already covered with myriad tombs. The museum has relocated and restored 25 typical ancient tombs, dating back as early as Western Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 9).

Heat and uproar faded as I descended the stairs to the tombs, seven meters underground. It's cool and damp, but not creepy at all. It's not without its challenges though. I kept knocking my head on the lintels crawling in and out of the tombs.

A highlight in the Western and Eastern Han (AD 25–220) tombs are well-preserved murals inside the chambers, featuring everything from spiritual tales and legends to realistic accounts of rituals and daily life. A 12-meter mural adorns the walls of a tomb of a high-ranking Eastern Han official, depicting a huge marching army of chariots, cavalry and infantry, a vivid depiction of the dramatic life of the tomb's occupant.

Tricolor glazed tomb guardians and funeral objects in the Tang tombs are exquisite and powerful. Their shadows loom on the walls, lending solemnity, and probably also intended to deter grave robbers.

These tombs are silent biographies. Some record the prime of the occupant's life; others reflect solemn blessings and respect for an afterlife.

Buddhist sanctuary

In the east of Luoyang city stands the prosperous Baima Temple. With a history going back 2,000 years, the temple was the first Buddhist temple built by the royal family and is often hailed as the origin of Buddhism in China.

The name Baima - literally meaning white horse - commemorates the animal that carried Buddhist sutras and statues all the way from ancient India in AD 67. To accord with the name, two stone horse statues, which had previously guarded the tomb of a Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279) general and royal son-in-law, were relocated to the temple gate during renovations in 1935.

Taking a stroll among the lush pomegranate trees and bright blossoms, visitors may be surprised to find that, despite being a favorite tourism spot, Baima Temple grounds can also be a peaceful haunt for quiet reflection. Just be smart and avoid high season.

In the second of the five palaces in the temple, nestles the renowned Baima Bell.

These days, the ancient bell is only rung for special occasions. Its melodious sound, the toll echoed by an old drum in a tower more than 12 kilometers away, resonates across the city, praying for peace and warding off evil spirits.

Another must-see Buddhist site is the acclaimed Longmen Grottoes.

While its attractions of spectacular Buddhist carvings and sculptures, stretches along both banks of the Yihe River, Tang poet Bai Juyi favored the west side. "The best scenery is in west suburban Luoyang," declared Bai.

In fact, the poet loved it there so much that he lived a hermit's life in East Xiangshan Mountain in his later days. Baiyuan Garden has been built around his tomb, with waterfalls, bamboo groves, ponds filled with white lotus and inscriptions of Bai's poems.

The 120 yuan (US$19.54) admission to Longmen Grottoes includes entry to Baiyuan Garden and the former villa of Chiang Kai-shek. It takes about two hours to flit between the sites.

Why not make the ticket worth and take your time? And when night falls, you will be rewarded with an awesome view of the Longmen Grottoes.

Old-town hustle and bustle

Like Shanghai, with Pudong New Area, Luoyang too has a new area for urban development - to the south of Luohe River. Yet many Luoyang people still prefer to stay in the crowded old town, with Lijing Gate its focal point.

Luoyang's national heyday has long past, now only found in novels and historical accounts, but the rebuilt Lijing Gate helps imagine past glories. The gate, first built in the Sui Dynasty (AD 581-618), was the west gate of the old Luoyang city.

It sets an example for Chinese gates with its complete fortifications of a gate tower, an outer wall, an inner gate wall, a bridge and a moat.

Inside the gate, snack stalls, antique shops, restaurants, tea house, book stores and calligraphy and painting shops have sprung up, their traditional grey brick and tile structures and fluttering shop banners taking you back to ancient times.

Splendidly ancient as it looks, the current Lijing Gate is actually very recent - built on the original site in 2002.

There's a 20 yuan (US$3.25) charge to get the top of the gate tower. So for foodies, I suggest save the few bucks and head to the most exciting part - Luoyang snacks.

The old streets inside the gate house most Luoyang specialties, the most famous of which is Luoyang Shuixi, or Luoyang Water Banquet.

The typical local banquet has 24 dishes, all made with soup and served one by one, like flowing water. Since Luoyang sits in a basin surrounded by mountains, the weather here is dry with limited fruit produce. So residents favor dishes made with soup to balance their diet.

Restaurants offering the water banquet are everywhere in old streets, including big names. However, it takes at least eight people to finish the whole meal. Snacks are an option for those in twos and threes.

Bordering Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces, Henan snacks share some similarities with their neighbors and are mainly spicy and sour. Some popular snacks in the old streets include: hulatang and bufantang (both pepper-flavored soups with different ingredients), guozi youcha (a deep-fried flour stick served in a local oil-based tea made with sesame oil, flour and crushed nuts), lamb and beef soup, huntun, tangmianjiao (a crescent-shaped dumpling) and all kinds of noodles, such as locals' favorite jiangmiantiao - a flavored variety with fermented sauce. Typical desserts include peony cake and pastry, and almond tea.

Dinner time is busiest in North Street, with its red lanterns and the road a little sticky with accumulated grease.

Food stalls selling barbecue, hotpots, malatang (a Sichuan cuisine with boiled meat and veg in spices) and local snacks are packed with diners. Sardined in the crowd, I had to shove myself through to place an order, then force my way out, holding my barbecue goodies up high.

If you get a chance, share a table with the locals and have a casual chat with a couple bottles of beer. Luoyang's old town is where one can fully understand the Chinese philosophy that "food is the utmost necessity of the people," and where outsiders are no longer lost, but finally let in.

If you go

Luoyang Yijia International Youth Hostel:

Nestled in the city's old town area, the hostel is an ideal spot for backpackers and budget tourists. Yijia provides basic and clean accommodation and a chance to make new friends and join up with fellow travelers for your trips. A transport hub with buses to major scenic spots and railway station is within walking distance, as well as Luoyang's popular snack street opposites Youth Palace. (329 Zhongzhou Rd E.)

Luoyang Dongshan Hotel:

Sitting halfway up East Xiangshan Mountain in the Longmen Grottoes scenic area, this five-star state hotel is situated in a Suzhou-style classical garden, with tranquil scenery and springs. The teahouse in Building No. 5 is a laidback spot with a panoramic view of the Longmen Grottoes on the West Longmen Mountain, across the Yihe River. 

Recommended China Guide:

1.Luoyang Tours

2.Shanghai Tours

3.Suzhou Tours