We’ve returned after our trip to Luoyang and – I never thought I’d say this – we are happy to be back in Baoding.
We arrived in Luoyang on Friday with high expectations after a four-hour bullet train ride only to have them crushed pretty much as soon as we stepped off the train. First, there was no hostel ride at the train station to take us to the hostel (a free service advertised on their website and on Hostelworld and despite two emails requesting a pick-up) and so with both of our phones with dying batteries, no clue on how to say or write the hostel’s name or address in Chinese (we discovered there’s very little English in Luoyang), and relying on the bus information we read online (we didn’t know whether it would be correct or not), we found the bus stop and waited in the pushing crowds. Then, to make things worse, while we were waiting in line to get on the bus we thought was correct, an old lady (it’s always them!) repeatedly hit Duncan’s bag, tried to push him out of the way, and called us “stupid white ghosts” (which is a really terrible cuss word in Chinese meant to be as derogatory as possible towards white foreigners). So within the first fifteen minutes of our time in Luoyang we had discovered that we were in a completely different world than anything we had expected.
Turns out we did get on the right bus and we were dropped off right in front of our hostel after only a fifteen minute bus ride (thought it was a bus ride that was either in pedal-to the floor acceleration or foot on the floor braking). The hostel, clean and certainly suitable, was the most “Chinese” hostel we’ve stayed in. Though advertised as an international youth hostel, it’s clearly a place most frequently visited by Chinese tourists and not laowai. The girls behind the desk didn’t speak the greatest English which, though normally wouldn’t be an issue for us at all, was frustrating when she let us know that they had over-booked our room and we weren’t going to have the double room we paid for. After a bit of linguistic charades, we finally made it to our new room (a very comfortable double twin bed room) and decided to get some dinner in the hostel. We spent the rest of the evening adjusting our expectations and hanging out in the common loft area and figured out our plans for Saturday.
Saturday morning we woke up, had a good (American) breakfast and hopped on a bus to get to the famous Longmen Grottoes. We knew we needed bus 81 (which stopped right outside our hostel door) but since I assumed that the hostel people saying “cross the street” meant cross the bike lane rather than the actual street, we ended up on bus 81 going the opposite direction from the Longmen Grottoes. After taking it to its terminal station on one end of town, we realized “hey, this isn’t the grottoes! This is a train station!” and hopped on the correct bus and took it to the other terminal station. This ended up being just fine though because we got to see the city (not a city conducive for exploring by foot like we’re used to) and the weather was absolutely beautiful with blue skies, no smog, and a refreshing breeze.
We did make it to the Grottoes after not too long and instantly loved it. The Longmen Grottoes is a UNESCO World Heritage site where there are more than 100,000 stone carvings of the Buddha and his disciples within 1400 caves dating back as early as 493 A.D. Many of the statues were decapitated or otherwise destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in an attempt to get “rid of Old China” but they are still stunning nonetheless. Almost all of the bigger statues (some up to 57 feet high) are in good condition and provided an amazing example of ancient Chinese history, art, and culture. Probably one of my favorite parts of the Grottoes, however, was the thousands of teeny tiny buddhas covering entire walls and doorways. The most fascinating thing to me, though, was probably the fact that you can still see traces of some of the original paint. Just like the Greek and Roman historical sites (I’m thinking of the Parthenon, in particular) it’s hard to imagine statues we are accustomed to seeing in 50 shades of beige instead in reds and yellows as they were originally painted.
While we were there, it was confirmed, once again, that Luoyang is not used to foreigners and so Duncan and I were asked pretty much every 100 meters if we could take a picture with someone (as usual, boys wanted pictures with Duncan and girls wanted pictures with me). At one point, there was a group of eleven girls queued up to take a picture with me and I just gathered them round for a group picture and had Duncan act as the photographer so that we could get the process over with faster. People asking for pictures has happened all over the place in China but never with as much concentration as we experienced at the Longmen Grottoes.
Though certainly very strange and something that takes a bit of getting used to at first, if people ask we typically don’t mind (though I do wonder what they are going to do with the picture of me later). But the friendliness and excitement of meeting a foreigner didn’t last long as people started trying to “sneak” pictures. This included standing right next to me (regardless of whether I was looking in the direction of the camera or not), taking pictures of us with the camera shutter noise and flash on (as if we don’t notice), and, for one girl, literally running in front of us turning and taking a picture of us as we walked and frowned at her and then running back behind us to where her friend was giggling (I considered chucking her phone in the river at that point since we would have obliged had she just asked).
After wandering the grottoes (and finding ice cream cones), we headed back to the hostel for some relaxing (by that point we wished we were invisible because the picture taking had gotten in the way of our site seeing and we’d experienced some blatantly racist reactions). But even at the hostel there was no escape. A college student from Xi’an, even after talking to me in English for a while, decided she was going to start “sneaking” pictures of me and when I held my hand in front of my face and shook my head she said “oh, but you’re so beautiful” (as if that’s an excuse for not asking) and I just said “please don’t” and we went upstairs to our room for a while. Later, once we decided it was safe to return downstairs again (and we were wanting the internet), we were sitting on the couch when another lady with a giant fancy camera lens came in and was just staring us down across the room. Even after we both shook our heads no and tried to wave her off, she kept staring at us and taking dozens of pictures. Finally, I yelled at her to stop (much like punishing a misbehaving dog) even though we were in the middle of the common room and made a motion to get up towards her. She waved at us and left soon after that (of course after pretending it was the wall she really wanted a picture of). It may sound harmless enough, but after repeatedly dealing with the rudeness of people I just want to scream “I AM NOT AN ADORABLE ANIMAL OR PLAYTHING!” If people want a picture with me I will comply if they ask, but the sneaking, giggling, and blatant treatment as if I am sub-human because I am not Han Chinese is exhausting and infuriating. Once again I am reminded that it would be awful to be a celebrity and to have no escape from paparazzi or crazy people invading your personal privacy.
Overall, our trip to the Longmen Grottoes (our purpose for visiting Luoyang) was good and I’m glad we did it even despite the frustrations of Luoyang people. Now that we’re back in Baoding and the weather is clearly becoming spring, we have been reminded that we do appreciate and enjoy this place we’ve been calling home for the past six months even if it is filled with trash and smog. We’re looking forward to the rest of our time here even more now that winter is finally coming to a close.
The next trip we make will probably be in a couple of weeks to the Yungang Grottoes in Datong, Shanxi Province. This week I hope to buy our train tickets to Hong Kong for our final big adventure before we leave the country and to get caught up on pictures and other housekeeping (online and in-home). We have a normal week of teaching ahead of us (except I don’t teach Tuesday this week) and I’m planning on reviewing this semester’s lessons before beginning more new material.
Thank you for reading and until next time,