Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Scenic Train Trip to the Buddhist Caves of Luoyang

As we mentioned in our last entry about Xi'an, we broke up our stay there with a 2-day, 1-night train trip to Luoyang.  Our hotel in Xi'an held our two suitcases and we packed our backpacks lightly with just a change of clothes and a few indispensables such as our Kindle and iPad.  The travel agent in Beijing who helped us book many of our trains and our upcoming cruise down the Yangtze suggested this side trip to Luoyang, and we're so very glad she did, partly because the Buddhist grottoes in Luoyang were fascinating (they're one of three in China, all world heritage sites), partly because this ended up being our most scenic train ride in China, and that's saying something since we did tens of thousands of kilometers by train while we were there.

The journey was in fact 380 km each way, which works out to 237 miles, 5-10 miles more than New York to Boston or New York to Washington DC on Amtrak.  Yet the fast train we took covered it in 2 hours 5 minutes each way, including making 5 stops, and a faster (and more expensive) train does it in 1 hour 34 minutes with 2 intermediate stops.  Amtrak's Acela, America's fastest train sevice, does Boston to NYC in about 3 hours 30 while NYC to Wash DC is a little faster at 2 hours 45, still well behind the Chinese trains.  At just under $20 per person each way, the train was also much cheaper than Amtrak.  The NYC to Washington fast train is $145, though a slightly slower one is a more modest $45.  As you can see from the ticket, it's in English as well as Chinese, and easy to read.

We started by taking Xi'an's brand new subway line (seen in our last blog entry) to the equally new Xi'an North Station, now the largest train station in Asia.  It was certainly large but seemed a bit underutilized, and it is.  A high speed rail line between Xi'an and Beijing is under construction, and you can see a pillar for it in the second photo below that we took shortly after we left Xi'an and before the new line turned northwards as our train continued eastward.  The new line will make Xi'an North Station undoubtedly far, far busier, since Xi'an and Beijing are two of the four most-visited cities in China.  By the way, those are corn cobs drying on top of the walls in that second photo.

Our route was almost due east down the Wei, a major tributary of the Yellow River, then down the Yellow River itself.  Except for a few modest cities we stopped at, it was an area of intense agriculture.  We'll let the photos show you some of the passing scenery of numerous small communities and diverse fields.

We think that was more corn cobs drying on the ground in the last photo, but can't say for sure.  As we rolled along, we passed a western-looking cemetery, perhaps started by Christian missionaries.  Then, after passing an 8-lane highway, we got our first glimpses of the Yellow River.

We started going through longer and longer tunnels, one of them lasting 2 minutes while our train speed was about 140 mph (we topped out at 248 kph / 154 mph), meaning that the tunnel was well over 4 miles long!  You can see from the clarity of the photos how smooth the train was!  We now entered an area of limestone caves, many of which we could see from the train.  Some were archways in the limestone, others filled in with masonry to make storage rooms and even homes.

At last we reached Luoyang where we paused to take a photo of our train before it took off again, then climbed up to the pedestrian overpass to get a good look at the whole station.  When the Chinese build these days, they don't build small!  Even though Luoyang is a fairly important city, we noticed that there are two passing tracks for select trains to whiz by on, like the super-fast T164 and T264 that routinely zip down the Yellow River Valley at 180 mph as they go to Lhasa Tibet from Shanghai and Guangzhou (Canton) respectively.  Like many Chinese cities, there is a second train station we never saw, where the slower trains stop.  It's in the older part of the city, closer to the Yellow River.  Though we later got close, we didn't actually see the station.  We did however get a good look at one of those slower trains crossing the Luo He, or Luo River.

While you're looking down or across at those unfamiliar catenaries, i.e. overhead wires, this is a good time to say something about China's electrified trains.  While some sources on the internet say that only about a third of China's lines are electrified, we personally did not see a single train line that wasn't.  Electric power makes eminent sense, as it is more conducive to high speed trains and it uses a fuel China has at hand -- electricity.  China has enormous supplies of coal so its price and availability trump Mideast oil by far, and the Chinese don't seem to have "carbon footprint" and "global warming" in their industrial or political lexicons to make the use of coal troublesome.  Electricity also has certain efficiencies over diesel in a mountainous country such as China, as trains descending long grades can use regenerative braking to slow down and put power back into the overhead line (a quick scan of the internet gives estimates of 10-20% recovery for electrified train lines).  Same deal for braking as the train comes into each station.  Throw in an electric locomotive's faster acceleration, and it's no wonder the Chinese are electifying existing lines as fast as they're building new ones.

We came to Luoyang to see the Buddhist grottoes, so let's head over there.  A short $2 taxi ride brought us to the entry area, where you first run a gauntlet of souvenir shops and small restaurants, once of which  had a picture menu that succeeded in providing us with a decent stir fry and a noodle dish.  We then each paid our $19 admission fee and entered a different world.  For 1 kilometer the Luo River cuts through a narrow gorge where caves and grottoes have been carved out since approximately 493 AD, peaking in the period from about 600-900 AD.  Today there are over 2,300 caves, grottoes and niches cut into the hillside on both sides of the river, filled with over 100,000 statues and bas relief figures.  Most were deliberately inaccessible at the time, but today a crazy network of stone and metal stairs allows the curious to get up close and personal with many of them.

Sadly, many have been defaced or damaged over the centuries, including many during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

while a few are in rather good condition considering their age.

The most spectacular area is the Fengxian Temple centered around a five and a half story tall Buddha Vairocana with ears as long as Jeff is tall.  The figures to both sides are also in excellent condition, especially considering that this grouping dates to 676 AD.

As the valley broadened out again and the grottoes came to an end, we swooped down to the river and crossed to the other side, which was not nearly as spectacular but just as topographically challenging.

A look back across the river gave a different perspective on the collection of grottoes and on Fengxian Temple.

Our last stop was in a place called Jiangsong Villa, a country home of sorts built next to a Buddhist temple by Chiang Kai-shek and his wife Soong May-ling.  In pinyin their names are written in English as Jiang Jieshi and Song Meiling, thus explaining the name of the villa.  They visited in December 1936 and a week after their stay Chiang suffered the humiliation of the so-called "Xi'an Incident" where he was kidnapped by one of his generals, a fellow we mentioned when we were talking about our visit to Shenyang:  Zhang Xueliang.  Despite the history and scenery of Jingsong Villa, the memory of that event apparently dissuaded them from revisiting.  As for the kidnapping, the price of Chiang's release was an agreement to stop fighting the Chinese Communists and resume a united front to fight the Japanese.  He did stop the one and start the other until 1941, though the general consensus is that he was never happy until he could start shooting at the Communists again.  A new incident in 1941 gave him the excuse he wanted.

We had added Luoyang as a destination after leaving Seattle, so did not have a decent map of the city downloaded on the iPad.  Our travel agent had found the hotel for us, so we did not have a good internet link to a map showing us exactly where it was.  But we had seen a guidebook that told us the #81 city bus went right from the grottoes to downtown Luoyang.  We decided to take a chance that our hotel was down there, and used this as an opportunity to experience a city bus ride.

Since the bus route starts at the grottoes, it was pleasant enough for the first 15 minutes, but for the next 45 we looked up at a crush of standees getting on an off as the bus made its way slowly into the heart of the city.  We got off close to the older train station, the one the slow trains still use, and decided a taxi would be the logical way to navigate the rest of the way to our hotel, which we still assumed was somewhere nearby.  To our amazement the taxi drove half-way back toward the grottoes before depositing us at our high-rise hotel.  Well, not exactly a Grey Line tour of Luoyang, but we did get to see a good bit of the town and to savor, if that's the word, the urban experience there.  Writing about it months later, we can almost forget the nagging doubts that we were ever going to see that hotel, or the sensory overload one gets from almost an hour in a crowded bus.

Before leaving the hotel the next morning, we heard hundreds of firecrackers going off outside, below our window.  We grabbed the camera and you can just make out one of the hundred exploding next to the line of cars arriving for a wedding, safe in the reassurance that evil spirits have been chased away by the explosives.  As we came down later to check out we looked through a window wall to the reception room where the wedding was going on.  The sound, lights and ubiquitous slide show were being carefully choreographed from the sidelines.  The bride arrived Hollywood style through a cascade of oversized confetti.  The happy couple bowed and smiled to the room of 150 or so guests.  Our unplanned tour of Chinese wedding customs continued.

The new train station where our fast train would pick us up for the return to Xi'an was only 2 km away and we were able to photograph a detailed map (in Chinese, of course) to navigate us there, so off we went on foot.  It was fascinating.  We passed one small patch, bypassed for the moment, of what the whole neighborhood looked like three or four years ago: farmland.  Now the rest of the farm was being transformed into wide streets lined by a few blocks of shopping malls under construction and high-rise apartments and condos, some built, most also under construction.

We chose one superblock of nine highrise condominiums going up to show both the construction and the way they're being marketed. If you're interested, the three floor plans are roughly 1000, 1500 and 1850 square feet, respectively (click on the image to enlarge it if you're interested in the details, then hit the back button to return to the blog).  In the large picture of the entire neighborhood, the new high speed train station is at the bottom of the map, our hotel is behind the writing in the top left, and the development we photographed marked by the red square.  The whole neighborhood seemed well planned in an Orwellian sort of way, or at least that was our take on it. It would be interesting to come back in a dozen years and see if having real people and actual trees taking the place of construction equipment and debris actually humanizes the place.

We told you about the final part of our stay in Xi'an in the last blog entry.  We'll take you to Chongqing in our next one.

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