Came to Luoyang in Henan province on the Yellow River by train yesterday morning, passing factories and quarries, fertile fields and homes cut into hillsides like hobbit homes. We were booked into the Yaxiang Jinling hotel, a high-rise in Luoyang’s vast new area of airily spaced skyscrapers outside the old town. Such developments surround all major Chinese cities these days and give a strange impression, as if Manhattan had been stretched out to cover all of New York State, the intervals filled with car parks, lawns and expressways. The hotel has 23 floors, all decorated in a space-themed style. The hallways and elevators are straight out of Star Trek, and our room was classic Kubrick.
The bar is named the Apollo, and NASA colour photographs from the 60s and 70s adorn every wall. I wonder if the decorator realises that what s/he has achieved is retro-futurism, far from most current ideas about what the future will look like. And looking at the details I got an eerie feeling that it was all a stage set: laminated chipboard, primitive plumbing and unconnected electrical wires dangling behind fake bulkheads. Ten years from now the place will be a shabby dive unless a continued economic boom allows the management to re-decorate. My son reported that his gameboy couldn’t find a single wireless access point in the whole spacy edifice. But we slept, showered and breakfasted in excellent comfort.
On to Baima, the Temple of the White Horse, founded in AD 68, birth place of Chinese Buddhism. Here two Indian monks translated the sutras and taught local disciples under the patronage of a Han emperor. The oldest stuff visible today is a few post bases of a Tang cult hall, an exquisite Song pagoda and some Yuan religious sculpture, that is, nothing older than the 7th century.
Seeing the breakneck development of Chinese cities I have often winced at the thought of the archaeology that must be obliterated every day. But I was heartened to learn that a vast Sui and Tang cemetery in the new developments had been spared construction and laid out as parkland because of the cost to excavate all the graves. So at least they’re digging their cemeteries. One of our hosts, an eminent Umea biochemist, proudly told me that his family was once reknowned antique dealers and that they had found some of the most famous inscriptions known from the area. I refrained from asking by which methods they had found these stones, what else they had found and whether perchance they had kept any records of the find contexts…
Today to the Longmen Buddhist sculpture site, Dragon Gate, a stretch of the River Yi where it has carved itself a wide channel through limestone. For about a millennium from the 5th century AD on, the cliff walls here received thousands upon thousands of carved niches, all harbouring images of Buddha, many of which were themselves carved from the living rock. Today, most of the niches are empty and those Buddhas that remain often lack heads or faces. This is not only due to 20th century looting, but largely also to three episodes of Imperially sanctioned anti-Buddhist iconoclasm either side of AD 1000. I was wowed and delighted by the serene majesty of a HUGE and well-preserved Tang Buddha. And I kept thinking of the generations of stone carvers that laboured here for so long, and the painters, and how different the sculptures must have looked in their original garish colours.
As for Luoyang city itself, it is largely charmless busy grimy post-war 7-floor housing, but the area along the old main street has been preserved with lower buildings and alleyways, and the town gates and preserved wall section are most impressive. Our hosts seemed to labour under the misapprehension that at least someone in our group might be or know a venture capitalist, and so we were encouraged to place orders for heavy machinery and ball bearings and given price quotations for up-scale apartments. The latter cost 2000 yuan per square meter, that is, peanuts.