The thriller that was the misty land of China did unfold for me as we explored the country and it’s people. One of the most unique experiences I had was during our last trip within China. We went to Luoyang, one of the four ancient capitals of China, the other three being Beijing, Xian and Nanjing.
We had travelled to all the three capitals. In fact, I had been to Beijing four times and still feel very excited when I think of the Great Wall. So, Luoyang was the only one we had left out.
Actually, we had all wanted to go to Tibet as our swansong… The pictures I have seen are so scenic and the skies are so blue … But as luck would have it, we could not get our permits for Tibet in time.You need a special permit to go to Tibet. And if there is any kind of unrest, they close off Tibet to all and sundry.
I must admit that I was also a little slow in planning the trip as I was sad over losing my mother the year we were leaving China. I had to travel to India one week before my elder son’s, Aditya’s, grade twelve exam for her funeral. My friends stood me in good stead. They helped me manage my emotions and travel. They kept an eye on my kids and informed the school for me. Surya’s best friend’s(Adrian’s)mother, Marta, offered to host my children.”Just treat us like your family” was what Marta said. The love, support and warmth of these women and my wonderful husband gave me the strength and courage to undertake the journey and face the situation.
Despite the support I was distraught when I returned. The school counsellor, for who I used to report parent sessions in the school magazine on a voluntary basis,was so kind that she spent two hours giving me advise on how to deal with my emotions. And it helped! I must say my extended expat family did for me what a real one would have done for me.
In India, I had my wonderful cousins, their kids and spouses and uncles and aunts to thank for the support they lent. But, it takes time to heal. And it takes time to plan a trip to Tibet. By the time I felt well enough to think of our last holiday, we realised we had no time to organise the permit. My husband was travelling. So, Tibet was out and Luoyang was in.
Luoyang is an ancient city that started around 12 BCE. Fifteen hundred years ago, it was made the capital of the Wei dynasty. The Buddhists there made caves that have come down to us as Longmen Grottoes. This is what Aditya wanted to see. My husband wanted to visit the original Shaolin monastery that has major links to a couple of Indian monks. Surya wanted most of all to visit the stalactite caves in the neighbouring county of Luanchan. They are reputed to be the largest of such formations in China. We had visited such a cave in Guilin, called the Reed Flute cave. We decided to satiate the youngest member of our family first. So, the stalactite-stalagmite cave it was on the first day.
We had found a driver who spoke mandarin. He drove us from the airport to the hotel. He was also willing to take us around for the next few days. We fixed with him to pick us up from the hotel the next morning at 10.30 am.
There was only one hotel in Luoyang that seemed to cater western breakfasts. And as I said earlier in my last book, my threesome always thought much of the morning meal while starting out on a holiday. So, we went to that one hotel. A major discovery that we made was that the staff spoke almost no English. We were given a huge suite and a lot of warm welcome. Eventually, we noticed there were hardly any tourists of non-Chinese origins in the hotel and, subsequently, we noticed, in the town. The western breakfast was laced for high-end Chinese clientele. But, we did get down a good meal before we started on our two hour journey to the caves.
The journey was through hills and very scenic. When we reached the cave, as our driver parked the car, the security and he exchanged what seemed to me to be rapid speech in the local dialect. He told Aditya, who was our family translator for his excellent grasp of mandarin, that we needed to buy tickets and take a tram to the caves and then come straight back.
We went to the ticket booth, bought the tickets took the tram which dropped us at a trolley station. The trolley took us up to the caves.
The caves had interesting formations and were huge. We were asked to follow a guided group. They told us we could be lost in the cave if we went on our own. So, follow we did. And we saw some amazing formations, though the lights were a trifle garish. When we exited from the cave and subsequently, from the trolley that took us back, we wanted to have some family pictures taken. We saw a bunch of security personnel looking at us… A common occurrence in parts of China which are less frequented by tourists, I thought. We asked them to photograph the family. They obliged.
Then, they told us to leave. They escorted us back to our waiting car. We were totally flabbergasted. Our driver informed us that this was a restricted area for foreigners. He did not know this earlier as he had never ferried foreigners to Luanchan. The security personnel had scolded him about it. Foreigners were only allowed in with government guides hired by hotels. None of them would divulge why we could not visit the area. None of the English websites we googled had anything on this. It was truly an amazing adventure!
We returned to the hotel and had a tea-cum-dinner at the Pizza Hut in the neighbouring mall. The hotel fare for dinner was Chinese seafood… Not the perfect thing for four hungry stomachs. The mall had a concert on in Chinese pop. It was interesting and noisy to watch.
Food to suit our palate was quite an issue in Luoyang. We dined in this mall every evening. The last evening we saw a full-sized robotised driverless car. It moved back if it met an obstruction. The threesome in my life could not stop chasing it, walking around it to make it stop… They were so caught up with the antics of the driverless car that they never noticed the huge publicity they were gathering for this vehicle!
The next day, we were off to the famed Longmen Grottoes. They were rambling and impressive. They stretched out by the Yi river over an area of 12 kms. There are 100,000 statues and 1400 caves. The earliest caves date back to 493CE, when the Northern Wei made Luoyang their capital. The caves and statues were made by the local population under the patronage of various kings and the rich and stretch over thousands of years. However, by the end of the Tang Dynasty, most of the caves and statues had been completed.
The area of these caves is so vast that we didnot attempt to cover all of it. But, we did take a boat ride down the Yi river. It was a beautiful view with the caves dotting the entire ride, like giant beehives along the rugged cliffs.
These caves reminded me of the Ajanta and Ellora caves in India, which we had visited with our parents and kids. That was a fantastic trip, though managing a seven member troupe of ages ranging from five to seventy two is not an easy task! But, we did it. The Ajanta caves had been rediscovered by a British hunting party in 1819 in the rugged hilly forests of Sahyadri hills, near Aurangabad. The rock face there is perhaps more rugged than Longmen. The work dates from 100BCE to 650CE. They have paintings, other than sculptures.
The Ellora caves house Buddhist, Jain and Hindu sculptures and temples. They date from 600CE to 1000CE. I found the Ellora to be the most remarkable of all structures I have ever seen. It was carved into high basalt cliffs, about 100 kms from Ajanta. What was most remarkable about these caves were not just the carvings but also the spirit of tolerance reflected by the three religions’ temples existing in harmony in the same complex! There are 600 to 1000 monuments that stretch over 2 kms and reflect the excellent level of craftsmanship that existed in India in those days.
Tucked away among a lot of other sculptures was a griffin-like figure in the main temple. I wonder if it was the heritage of a workman who had come down from Europe all the way to India to earn his daily bread. Could it be that people were moving freely in a visa less world and there was no concept of refugees from deprived nations?
In China, the sheer area covered by the rolling hills and the Yi river was impressive as was the devotion stretched out over a period of many centuries… A bit like the Great Wall without the sad stories. Some of the sculptures had been defaced by the ravages of civilisation and time but it was still amazing to see how much people could do in those days! I wonder if one thousand years into posterity, people will stand outside the Burj Khalifa and make the same observations. And whether the Great Wall, Longmen Grottoes and Ellora will draw huge crowds still?
The last day of our stay in Luoyang took us to the Shaolin Temple in the neighbouring county of Dengfeng. Built 1500 years ago, the temple is another embodiment of Indian-Chinese collaboration in ancient times. The monastery was ordered built by Xiamen of the Northern Wei Dynasty for the Indian monk Budhabhadra, fondly referred to as Batuo in China, who founded the Shaolin group of monks. Martial arts at the Shaolin temple was started later by another Indian monk, Bodhidharma. All along Buddhism, you find this multicultural approach to life which perhaps came to a halt when nation building and borders became of paramount importance to the world taken by the storm of secularism.
I was of course not that keen to go and visit a martial arts temple, however old… But what I saw took my breath away. Set against the rolling Song hills, the temple covers a huge area. We had to take an electric trolley to get to the main building. The main building housed these huge stone cooking pots next to some pillars. These pots were so large that one could stew four or five men in it. We were told the monks cooked in these pots by hanging from the pillars. It was a form of exercise. I wonder how many fell into the cooking pot while practising (or didn’t they!). The trees here again had strange features.
Even for someone as disinterested in Kungfu as me, I was amazed by the show put on by the students. They were flying, leaping and doing all kinds of fantastic moves that you only get to see in movies. It was a unique, outstanding and breath-taking experience! They were fabulous.
The other remarkable thing I noticed in China were the devout pilgrims that always crowded these ancient Chinese monasteries despite the majority educated youngsters calling themselves free thinkers.
As we boarded the flight back to Suzhou, a sadness and longing crept in my heart for the things I was going to have to leave unseen, for adventures which I would miss…for within two weeks we would begin our move back to Singapore.