Walking ten thousand miles is better than reading ten thousand scrolls. -Chinese proverb
A lot of tourists visiting China follow the beaten track of Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an with a Yangtze cruise tossed in. I decided to be a little more daring to add a few smaller historically significant towns in China between Beijing and Xi’an to my Chinese itinerary.
Armed with a Lonely Planet, a Mandarin phrasebook and a hazy idea about the destinations I was planning to cover and places to stay I was going to stay in, I set off on my Chinese adventure. Language is a great barrier in China but I was prepared for it and so took it as part of my adventure there. By the end I was quite the expert at sign language.
My first stop after Beijing was Datong. Known as the city of coal, this city has a bleak and Dickensian atmosphere characteristic of industrial cities. I did not have to spend much time in the city since the sights I was interested in were on the outskirts of the city. I took a CITS (the Chinese state-run tourist bureau) tour along with a group of French exchange students and a French couple to the Hanging Monastery and the Yungang Caves. I was informed by the official manning the CITS office that it was only the third time in his career that he was seeing an Indian in Datong. He made my day, I felt like a 21st century Indian avatar of Marco Polo, going where few Indians had gone before! The guide was talkative and was very curious about Indian culture and Buddhism in India. She and other Chinese I met were surprised to hear that Buddhism is not the most prevalent religion in India today. She also insisted that I write her name and the names of her family members in Hindi for her.
The interiors of the Hanging Monastery were not as spectacular as those of some of the other Chinese monasteries I saw, but it is nevertheless an architectural marvel. The monastery harmoniously blends elements of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. This 1400 year old wooden structure balances precariously on a sheer cliff face and giving the impression that it is defying gravity and actually hanging in mid-air. In certain parts the corridors are so narrow that unless you have petite Chinese proportions you are forced to walk sideways.
We had a traditional Shanxi lunch near the monastery at a local restaurant, which included the famous local delicacies of wedding cakes (rice cakes with some stuffing), glutinous rice and chicken sauteed with peanuts.
After stuffing ourselves with the lunch we proceeded to the Yungang Caves. Like the Ajanta and Ellora caves in India these are also not natural caves but are actually rock-cut temples. These caves hewn from sandstone hills during the
Northern Wei dynasty have been sculptured in a fusion of Indian, Central Asian and Chinese styles. Caves 1 to 5 are the most appealing. There are stunning gigantic statues of the Buddha and episodes from his life carved on the walls. The paint and colours on the sculptures look surprisingly fresh even after all these centuries and bring the sculptures to life. The largest statue of Buddha is in cave 20, which stands now exposed. This statue will be familiar to many as it appears in many postcards, ads and promotional material about China and in particular about Shanxi. Our guide aptly described the statue as the ‘Foreign Minister of China’.
My next stop was Pingyao which turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip. Stepping into the walled city of Pingyao felt like stepping out from a time machine into a flourishing town in medieval China. This walled city has a quaint olde world charm and the houses and courtyards appear to have not changed since the Ming dynasty when the town became a thriving banking centre. There are no high rises and no vehicles (apart from electric cars and cycles) within the walled city. Most of the shops and courtyards look like heritage buildings and have lanterns made of glass and wood adorned with delicate designs at the entrance. In many buildings one can still see the painted edges of the roofs.
The simplest way to explore this town is by foot or by cycle. A pass is available for 80 RMB which covers the entrance fees to most of the town’s significant historical sights. It is in Pingyao that the first Chinese banks were set up, known as tongs The Resheng Chang bank the first bank of Pingyao, is one of the famous sights of this town. The bank buildings now house interesting artefacts from the time the bank was functioning. The Armed Escort Agency’s building is also worth a visit. Armed escorts were essential in a financial centre such as Pingyao to guard the money while it was being transported. Behind the building is the area where the escorts practised wushu, a form of martial arts.
About 7 km outside the walled city is the Shuanglin Temple which is a must-see. The halls within the temple have an amazing collection of sculptures, many of which are kept behind thick iron bars, presumably for conservation purposes.
I took an overnight train to Luoyang from Pingyao. Luoyang in the province of Henan was the imperial capital of many dynasties of China. The most famous tourist sight of Luoyang is the Longmen Caves. Along with the Yungang Caves in Shanxi and the Mogao Caves in Xinjiang, the Longmen Caves are the most famous caves in China. These caves stretch for about a kilometre on both banks of the Yi river. The oldest caves were carved during the Wei dynasty but later dynasties continued to add to these.
Unfortunately these caves have witnessed a lot of vandalism and plunder beginning with an anti-Buddhist movement in the ninth century, plundering Europeans in the nineteenth century and the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution in the twentieth century. Fengxian Si, one of the most impressive caves here and is exposed and can be seen from afar as its roof has collapsed. A 56 foot statue of a serene Buddha is in the centre flanked by his disciples Kasyapa and Ananda and other Boddhisatvas. In many of the caves one will find little statues of Buddha carved in niches all over the walls of the caves.
The White Horse Temple in Luoyang is supposed to be the oldest Buddhist temple in China. Legend has it that an eastern Han emperor had a dream in which he saw a golden figure flying. His ministers informed him that the figure was Buddha. He dispatched a delegation to India to find out more about the figure in his dream. The delegation returned from present-day Afghanistan, carrying many Buddhist sutras on a white horse and accompanied by two eminent monks. The jubilant emperor built the White Horse Temple to celebrate their return.
As I was exploring the White Horse Temple a person who looked like Indian came up to me and asked if I was from India. I was stunned (and glad) to see a fellow countryman; as one is wont to when wandering around for many days within an ocean of foreign faces. He seemed equally thrilled to see me. He told me that he was part of a team that had been sent to construct a replica of the Sanchi Stupa next to the White Horse Temple (a gift from ex-Prime Minister Vajpayee to China) and had been in Louyang for the past fifteen years. He offered to show me around the Sanchi Stupa replica but it was nearing 6 pm and the temple was about to shut so I couldn’t see it. I bade farewell to him and went my way.
At the end of my trip I was glad to have seen so much of China but wished I could have seen more. Alas all good things must come to an end and I too had to leave the Land of Dragons and return to the mundane reality of my life in Bangalore.