China 2019 – Once Again

               An inauspicious start.  Short form, I missed my flight.  Did I not get modern technology quite right, or do I need to slow down.

Thought I had scheduled a car pick up (Bless them, Uber) at 4:30 but no one came so scrambled and finally got a car at 5 AM.  Still time to get to the 6:24 flight, but alas, really damn, a major accident on 93 delayed me further.  At the airport check-in; less than one hour to departure they do not accept luggage.  Redirected to a later flight through LA and a connection on Saturday.  One day delay.  More on the implications of this redirect later.

               Modern technology at its best. Immediately on my cell phone contacting the hotel in Beijing that I was delayed a day and not to cancel the room and too reserve a room at LAX.

               Life full of plusses and minuses. 

Flight from Boston to LAX was on an Airbus A321S. Registration number N138AN and serial number 7009. It was delivered to American on April 1, 2016.

               Arrived at LAX fairly refreshed.  Exit into LA weather.  Warmth, a concept net yet arrived in April in Boston.  Fleece and jacket shed stored in luggage, warmth quite a relief.  Surprisingly short wait for Hilton at Airport bus and short ride to hotel. 

               Asked for a room with view of airport runway and got my wish.  Still fascinated by planes flying and coming in to land.  A few molecules of air different between top and bottom of the wing and it is absorbed upwards, more grace than birds, no flapping, seemingly effortless.  Descending, quite linearly, but then  wheels hit ground and a large puff of smoke, friction and it is a large truck screeching to a halt, brakes full on.

               Inside the tube you do not realize the brand design on the outside.  Cigarettes, cookies and airplanes have external designs and passengers, like cigarettes are packaged.  In the brief time, Qantas, how wonderfully colorful and intricate, Korean Air, less artistic but a nice blue, Alaskan Air with mages on the tail and US Carriers American and United with their logo. 

               Next morning, up early and off to LAX at 7:45 for 10 AM flight.  Not going to be late this time.

Stretch your body : Expand your mind


Luoyang and Longmen Grottoes 


Multiple niches in Luoyang
Multiple niches in Luoyang

               Longmen Grotto in Luoyang is one of the four major Grottoes in China.  We have visited two already, Mogao in Dunhuang and Maiji Shan near Tianshui.  Unfortunately, on this trip we will miss Yungang Grottoes in Datong.  Which gives us an excuse to visit again. 

Luoyang is different than the other sites, but it is possible that it is in the presentation of the caves.  Kumtura, Kizil, Bezeklik, Mogao and Western 1000 Buddha Caves focused on larger caves which could include many people even to the size of caves for larger assemblies of worshipers.  Luoyang, like Maiji Shan, were mostly niches, which housed small and very large statues.  Few of the “caves” in Luoyang appeared large enough to allow large assemblies of worshipers.  I would call most of the work at Luoyang, niches.  However, while we were allowed inside Mogao and others, Luoyang was only viewed from the outside,  and the majesty of the cave may be lost. 

What is most impressive about Luoyang is the quantity of sculptures.  Every available cliff space is occupied by some sculpture.  Between niches are marvelous miniature carvings.  The wonderment at the extent of the work is startling.  Your eyes roam away from a major figure and then is confronted with some marvelous miniature with exquisite detail. 

               Luoyang was an ancient capital of China in the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) when it moved east from Xi’An.  The earliest caves at Luoyang date from the Norther Wei Dynasty, the early sixth century.   The Longmen Cliffs are on the bank of the YI River.  The western cliffs have the greatest number of carvings including the largest, the Fenxian caves.  They claim over 2,000 caves and niches and over 100,000 statues. 

               It does seem that the earliest caves are in the Northern portion of the Longmen Grotto, closest to the city and newer caves were sculpted later.  There are three Binyang caves.  The central cave is the oldest, Northern Wei, about 523 AD.  The Buddha in this cave has facial features typical of Northern Wei, elongated face, slimmer body a quite a humorous smile, the robe covering both shoulders and flowing robes with many folds.    Buddha is flanked by his disciples, Kapsyapa and Ananda. 

               North Binyang cave, to the right of the central cave was begun in Northern Wei but finished in Tang Dynasty.  This cave has the Buddha’s right hand in the Kapitthaka mudra, two fingers pointing upward, “removing fear.  South Binyang Cave was also begun in the Northern Wei Dynasty but completed in the Tang. 

               The major sculpture are in the Fengxian cave which is about 30 m x 40 m (100 feet by 130 feet).  The central Buddha is 17 meters, about 56 feet tall.  The cave was commissioned by Empress Wu Zeitian and it is said that the Buddha resembles the empress.  She was the most powerful woman in China since her husband, the Emperor, Gaozong, has a stroke and was incapacitated.  Five figures are in this cave, two flanking on each side.  On the northern side, the side accessible from the city of Luoyang are two Guardians, Vajripani first with quite a fierce look and strong pose, and then Vaisravana who is holding the protective stupa and is poised standing upon a vanquished earth spirit.  On the right of Buddha are two disciples, Ananda and Kapsyapa, Kapsyapa quite destroyed and a Bodhisattva. 

               The view for the east side of the river has a good view of the magnitude of the effort in carving the Longmen Grotto.

From Turfan to Dunhuang

On to Dunhuang


               As usual for us we are leaving the TuHa Petroleum Hotel in Turfan early to catch the train to Dunhuang.  Even though we planned to leave at 9 AM for a 1040 train, leaving over an hour to get through security, we still had breakfast and caught a taxi at 8:50 and arrived at the station at 9:15.  As before, the line for security to gain access to the station was long and noisy.  In this case, more westerners that locals. 

               More disruptive than waiting was the demand by security to open suitcases.  It is not embarrassment, but the mess and confusion of digging in the clothes to find the items.  By this stage, the suitcase is not well packed and we struggle to zipper closed.  Double difficulty when the suitcase is on the floor of the station and everyone is rushing past.   They taped my Swiss army knife shut and told JoAnn her scissors were small enough not to worry.  The security guards were helpful and courteous in pushing my suitcase closed. 

               The bullet train was clean and comfortable.  Someone actually washes the floor after each train stop.  People around engaged us.  As if being a westerner was still unusual in China.  Well maybe in Western China, Xinjiang Province.

               Time was getting near for our stop, but no one was calling Dunhuang.  A moment of panic, but then remembered we were off at Liuyuan and that the car would take us to Dunhuang.  Lucy and the car were at the station and it was an hour or more to Dunhuang.

               Dunhuang is in the Gobi desert, which was quite different than the Taklimakan of Kuqa and Turfan.  It was flat.  Visibility was for miles.  No mountains as we had in Taklimakan.  Also, no dust.

               We saw cars parked on the side of the road, in the desert.  Amazing they were fishing in a small pond.  In the dessert.  There had been an unusual amount of rain.  The reservoir was filled and it was releasing water into the dessert streams.  I guess the fish are also up river and when the water is released so were fish.  Our guide, Lusy also mentioned that the level of vegetation in the dessert was quite unusual due to the recent heavy rains.  It was green, in the desert. 

               As we came closer to Dunhuang, vegetation increased.  Cultivation of crops and trees became prominent.  Dunhuang is a large oasis in the Gobi.  

               After settling in the hotel, JoAnn began her search for street food.  The shuttle to the Night Market and some wandering around satisfied her need.  One dish was stir fired intestines, not so good.   So much for ordering pointing at pictures.     :     Expand your mind.  Stretch your body.

Silk Road – Starting Out

Silk Road Trip Preliminaries:

Seven days until we leave for China’s part of the Silk Road. Quite an itinerary. “Thirty Caves in Thirty Days.” Actually 10 cities in 22 days and 9 cave sites with hundreds of caves at each site. Start from the far west, Urumqi, we’ll trek eastward to Luoyang. Plane, train, boat, car and camel plus some hiking and maybe a donkey. The big stuff is set. Hotels, trains, and planes are reserved. On site details will depend on conditions. We’ll be flexible.

The passion for this trip was lit when I visited Luoyang and the Longmen Caves. Over two thousand, actually 2345, caves and niches and tens of thousands of statues carved into the hillside above the river Yi. Many of these statues are reliefs, carved in place from the mountain. Astounding degree of religious passion. Buddhism was expanding and caves were the means of the wealthy to display zeal and purchase merit. Like cathedrals of Europe, these religious efforts extended over centuries. We then visited Xi’An, the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang and the famous Terra Cotta Warriors. We passed on visiting Xi’an on this trip, but the tombs and the  warriors are a breathtaking spectacle.

Our trip is to follow the Northern Portion of the Silk Road and visit the major Buddhist caves along the route. We start in the western Province of China called Xinjiang and pass into the Province of Gansu and the Hexi Corridor.  We finally end in Luoyang in Henan Province.

Urumqi – The Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Museum – A great starting point for an overview of the history of the region. I heard it has a great collection of mummies.

Kuqa (Kuche) – This city is south of Urumqi and not part of the Northern Silk Road, but was a major cultural hub in the 3rd or 4th century. Visiting Kizil and hopefully Kumtura Caves.

Turfan (Turpan) – Back to the Northern route. This is not far from Urumqi and the next major oasis. Visiting Bezeklik Caves and Astana Tombs.

Dunhuang – The major tourist site along the route. Well known for the Mogao Caves and Yulin Caves.

Jiayuguan – No caves here, but the western end of the Great Wall and then the Weijin Tombs.

Zhangye – The Mati Si caves.

Lanzhou and Xiahe – Travel to the Labrang Monastery in Xiahe and then the Bingling Si caves.

Tianshui – Visit Maji Shan Caves.

Luoyang – Longmen Caves.

I have also omitted Yungang Grottoes in Datong. They are closer to Beijing and I hope to visit them in a future trip.

The goal is to see the nine Buddhist cave sites in ten cities in twenty three days. Follow, us on as we travel the route.     :     Expand your mind.  Stretch your body.