Our journey to Luoyang consisted of a short, one-hour train ride to the capital of Shandong province, Jinan, with a connection to the 12 hour overnight train onwards to Luoyang. We had no expectation that the trip to Jinan would be anything other than a short, uneventful ride. Boy, were we wrong!
We muscled our way onto the train -- we look like 2 large and 1 small tank coming with our packs on -- and found seats in the hard (but still padded) seat section. Immediately, Dan's seatmate (a rather wizened looking middle-aged man) began asking Dan questions in progressively louder quasi-English that he was being instructed on by a woman two rows up. This harangue motivated Dan to consult the guidebook to find out how much it costs to upgrade to soft seat! Undeterred, the man consulted with others in the car and quickly decamped to sit with some other passengers. Soon we could hear him practising his questions laboriously with his new tutors. Dan prayed for the train to go faster, fearing a new onslaught of questioning should his seatmate ever gain enough confidence to return. About 15 minutes before arriving in Jinan, the fellow returned, bursting with pride. He slowly and laboriously asked his questions, one by one with the greatest of solemnity. Too bad he couldn't understand the answers very well -- clearly, the joy was all in the asking, which seems to be the case with the vast majority of those who approach us daily to speak in English!!
We got settled into our hard sleepers on the overnight train and Dan embarked on a new adventure. To improve our sleep, we had decided to try to upgrade one of the boy's tickets to a sleeper, giving us a total of 3 for the family (the boys do quite nicely together in one). Dan headed off in search of the conductor and participated in a frenzied scrum with others trying to do the same thing; it was a raucous affair and he returned well-bruised. About an hour later, after having "talked" with the conductor, Dan returned to us completely bewildered. He had no idea what the outcome of his "conversation" with the conductor was -- he had not been able to understand what had been said back to him - but was quite sure the answer was something akin to "Piss off!". Discouraged, we all headed off to the dining car for something to eat before bed. Amazingly enough, the conductor tracked us down in the dining car to tell us that Dan had indeed managed to upgrade to a sleeper so happily we all slept a little better despite all the same lovely noises and smells, and toilets that horror movies could be made about ("Night of the Living Toilet" or something like that!). Dan's experience with the conductor was his daily cultural lesson; this time, that you often can't tell someone's intent by their tone of voice!
Luoyang was a musty backwater of a "town" of some 6 million people. We had come for two reasons: to visit the Dragon Gate Grottoes and Shaolin Si, headquarters of Kung Fu.
Carved into the cliffside on the banks of the Yi He river in suburban Luoyang are more than 100,000 Buddha images and statues in the Dragon Gate Grottoes. The date back to the 4th to 6th centure AD. Many of the statues are damaged due to erosion, souvenier hunters of the 19th and 20th centuries, and fanatics from the Cultural Revolution. Apparently many of the heads grace private and museum collections around the world. Despite the damage, the scope and size of the site is amazing. The images and statues are found in small caves and niches up the entire cliffside so steps and ladders have been constructed for better viewing. A wide walkway meanders between the cliff face and the river, lined with weeping willows. We visited on a cool, misty day and the wind swaying in the willows made for a very beautiful, very "Chinese-looking" and rather melancholy setting.
Our other interesting visit was to Shaolin Si, the site of the monastery where the martial art Kung Fu was developed. Our journey to Shaolin Si, the monastery where the martial art of Kung Fu was developed, involved the rather tiresome use of the inter-city bus. Here's how they work. Each bus has a driver and a salesman who's a tout. The driver sits and does zero. The tout drums up business by haranguing and bellering at every passerby to get on his bus. The tout tells prospective passengers that the bus is leaving any minute. In reality, the bus does not leave until it is full or nearly full, no matter how long it takes. If the bus is not full, the tout will hang out the window bellering at everyone on the sidewalk and responding to those who flag the bus down, at which point the driver stops on a dime regardless of the consequences. Seat availability is irrelevant; if there are no seats, everyone either squishes together, stands, or sits on luggage.
Anyway, back to Shaolin Si. Located on another mountain, Shaolin Si was established in the 5th c. AD by an Indian monk who preached Zen Buddhism. In response to the need to defend themselves and to provide aid during the wars throughout China's history, the martial art of Kung Fu was developed. Apparently, the disciples of the founding monk imitated the natural motions of birds and animals, developing these exercises over the centuries into a form of unarmed combat. Today, the area is home to a huge martial arts academy where around 2000 students study. We must have seen at least half that many parading through the streets in their track suit uniforms carrying exercise mats and other exercise paraphanalia. The area is something of a shrine to martial arts enthusiasts and we watched videos of students performing their moves and monks doing incredible feats through will power. Unfortunately we weren't able to see a live demonstration by the students themselves.
Our last day in Luoyang we happened upon a mostly-deserted amusement park in the middle of town beside a sad and decrepit zoo. It was a blustery Sept day and most of the ride operators were huddled together playing mahjongg or knitting endless sweaters. A few opened their rides for us and the boys soared overhead in Soviet-looking rocket ships and bounced on the trampoline. There is something so depressing about an amusement park after the summer is over but the boys had a very fun time. I was even persuaded to take the gondola ride (a glorified ski lift) over a lovely wind-swept river and over some of the zoo enclosures which housed beautiful tigers and lions in incredibly small areas; Dan and Adrian had an interesting exchange on the consequences of falling out of the gondolas over these areas! We went in search of a western dinner as Robin's stomach had been a bit unhappy and ended up at the big tour operator hotel in town, the Peony Hotel, where we enjoyed hamburgers and grilled ham and cheese sandwiches.
We were crushed to find that Luoyang did not have any English language TV service and so were forced to buy an inexpensive short wave radio so as to keep up with the world news. It has become a great source of comfort to us; at least we feel like we are getting the straight goods on what is going on now. Beyond the superficial China Daily, we are unable to get any other print media; we haven't even found the International Herald Tribune or Time magazine which are usually everywhere.
We're still amazed at how few tourists there are here in China.....period. The ones we see tend to be Europeans in tour groups. We see VERY few independent travellers and we are novel beyond words for travelling with our kids.
The boys are a never-ending source of interest, and amazement to the Chinese. I can't begin to estimate how many photos they have been in. Sometimes they get treated a bit roughly as people grab them and hoist them into their arms or haul them off to the proper setting for a photo. Robin seems to get the brunt of it, but both boys are pretty good sports about it. We call them our rock stars!
Thanks for all the emails.....we love getting them.
Bye for now!
Faye, Dan, and the rock stars -- Adrian and Robin