at the Longmen caves!
Although the Longmen caves were not my only stop during my week in Henan province, this thought has certainly crossed my mind in view of many places I visited there. The Longmen caves (of which you can see a small section above), Shaolin temple, Zhongyue temple, Kaifeng with its silk road and imperial history...well, maybe not Nanjiecun where I started my week in Henan. Said to be the last Maoist collective in China the images decorating the streets and the parks are those celebrating the working man, Mao, Marx, Engels, Stalin, and Lenin. It was very quiet and clean. And very empty when I wandered through. There's a guided tour but it's all in Chinese and I don't think my Chinese is good enough to justify an 80 yuan tour I can't completely understand. After nearly 2 hours I made my way to the bus station to get to Zhengzhou.
After that madness, Kaifeng was probably my favorite out of the places I went too. I was a little outside of the city walls, which was inconvenient only because I insisted on going everywhere by foot. The walk itself wasn't bad, but the heat was and I've come back from Henan noticeably tanner from being out in the sun so much. The main street, Gulou jie, was very pretty at night and it was hard to walk with all the street food booths and tables out at night.
I arrived early to meet my guide and wandered around her neighborhood for a bit. All throughout the city, there are signs advertising halal food and it seems that the Muslim community is still pretty sizeable. One door surprised me by having a red paper square turned on its point and except for the Arabic writing, looking like any other kind of new year decoration. In a nod to the no longer standing synagogue, alleys have names like "Teaching the Torah Alley". Crawling around "Teaching the Torah Alley" brought me to a mosque that looked more like it was used for living than prayers, though one room was free of laundry or furniture which lead me to believe it was still in use. The hutongs were of course narrow, the living space looked a little tight, it was a bit dusty and dirty and I saw a few woks and pots set on what looked like old brick or mud stoves. When I passed some of the hutongs I was startled to find a big white Catholic church that looked rather pristine and recent. It was certainly a neighborhood with character and I liked it a lot, but that's easy for me to say as a traveler. I hesitate to romanticize when I sense that it wasn't the poorest part of town (no one was starving or begging or struck me as desperate), but neither was it the wealthiest. My guide later told me that part of the mix I saw was because the foreigners from the silk road lived together in one part of the city and that a Catholic group in communication with the Jewish community had built the church. I can honestly say I've never been to a corner of China quite like it. I made my way back downtown where I visited Da Xiang Guo Si, a large Buddhist temple. I normally really enjoy temples and taking time to study all the different details but this time I just kind of wandered and didn't really look. I saw nothing of the big thousand armed Guanyin so I missed out big time or timed things badly. But in the following days I'd make up for it in sheer number of Buddhas seen in the course of a day at the Longmen caves.
After Kaifeng, I made my way to Luoyang. Luoyang is also a key city in Chinese history but it hasn't retained much of its imperial structures (though the city museum has some really cool things). I should have taken the time to see more, but most of my time was spent at the Longmen caves. I had my fill of Buddhist art, paid a visit to the poet Bai Juyi, and then began to make the trip towards Dengfeng where I planned to stay for three nights and explore the area after seeing Shaolin temple.
As someone who's spent some time nerding out over the philosophical side of China's martial arts, I was excited to finally be at Shaolin temple as not only a sightseer, but as someone who now had some experience in a martial art. I wanted to see what I'd pick up on in Shaolin that differed from what I learned with tai chi. I also really love images of Bodhidharma/Damo, the monk said to have meditated in a cave above Shaolin for 9 years and have developed exercises for the Shaolin monks who were a little out of shape after largely focusing on spiritual matters. He came to China from India as a result, has a very distinct visage as tends to happen with foreigners in Chinese art. You'll find him around Chan/Zen temples throughout China.
I made my way back to Zhengzhou to catch the train to Zhuzhou with my charm from Zhongyue in my wallet and another charm from Shaolin, feeling confident that I'd make my way home without issue (and except for the train running an hour late, I did). It's not really my style to speed through a place, but in order to get a little sightseeing in this summer after waiting for my visa and still squeeze in time to go home before school starts again I didn't have much of a choice. Thanks for sticking it out with me this far into a long post. This week was a little wild at times, but it taught me something important about asserting myself and saying "no" in between letting my nerd self indulge in old capitals and temples and learning about Henan's unique place in Chinese culture. And at the other end of things, Nanjiecun's focus on the working man over gods. It was a satisfying week and now I'm happily looking forward to two weeks back in the mountains where I grew up before getting into another school year and more China adventures. Till next post!