Chinese Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
I was a little conflicted when I got to Beijing three days before I left for the DPRK without much of an itinerary. Midterms were over on April 19th, so I spontaneously decided a few days before leaving for the Beijing that I wanted to visit a couple places in China.The Shaolin Temple, Longmen Grottoes and Tian’anmen Square topped my list of must-sees, but I had a whole lot of latitude when it came to a schedule. I wasn’t exactly sure once I was in the middle of China if it was a good idea to be unable to speak the local language and without a contingency plan if my transportation situation got muddied.
I made it to Beijing early the morning of the 20th. The plane was pretty far away from the terminal, so when I got off the ramp I had to wait for a bus that would trolley me to immigration. You always hear about how bad the pollution is in Beijing but you tend to underestimate it at the same time. As I was waiting for the bus I couldn’t help but notice billions of spores or cotton or something floating around (which looked like a heavy snow) and the heavy layer of smog in the distance. I guess you could consider it backpacking more or less but I only brought a large hiking bag with me for the three days I’d spend in China and the (almost) week in North Korea. Anyways, I decided to scrub it for several days by only bringing the clothes on my back and some essentials.It seemed like a good idea at the time, but horsing all of that gear around Asia for a week and a half was a colossal pain in the ass. Passports, visas, an extra pair of boots, a laptop, two cell phones, and ten days worth of clothes was just what I brought with me. Every day it became heavier – which got to be old shit in a hurry.
From the airport I took the railway express to Beijing West Railway Station. I had a three o’clock train to catch to Luoyang. It only cost about 90 RMB ($15) for a hard seat/standing room ticket from Beijing West. It was painful trying to get from down in the subway to the upper section outside where you can take a staircase up to the train platforms because no one thought it was a good idea to put up English directions for tourists. The station is enormous – as is Beijing – so it was a little awe-inspiring when I finally got the full picture view. There is an enormous plaza above the subway and below the platforms; probably a thousand people of all classes were waiting outside – farmers sitting on huge bags of rice, kids wrestling on the ground in cigarette ash and spit, old men playing weird board games and betting – they were all there.Everywhere I go in Asia it seems like there is always a table of old men gambling. I don’t keep saying that because it sounds funny even though it is. In a way it kind of reminds me of a barbershop in the states. I got there around 11:30am so I had plenty of time to walk around and find a bank. I found the Chinese Agricultural Bank next to the train station. I needed to exchange some USDs to RMB for the time I would spend in China and DPRK, because the DPRK accepts about 4 different currencies including: RMB, Euro, USD, and the local currency. While I was waiting at the bank with this monstrosity of a bag business types were rotating in and out. One guy literally deposited a briefcase full of RMB 100 denominated bills. Shaved head, skinny suit and no tie. He even had an escort with a curly earpiece. Not government in that part of town…must’ve been with the Triads.
I waited at the platform of the train station for about an hour. It was here that I realized Chinese people eat some really, really bizarre food. There was one vendor that had a case full of fried but still bleeding meat. Huge jars of pickled eggs were at the confectionary… I was a long way from home, I thought. I bartered with this little Chinese lady over the price of some mysterious alcohol for the train ride.That’s another thing; not to be insincere – but I swear – when Chinese women hit 60, they shrink a foot and their hair shrivels up into a wicked jerry curl. After a heated debate I ended up with a couple pints of this paint-strippingly-alcoholic booze called Er Guo Tou.
It’s apparently really popular among blue-collar types, which made plenty of sense, because the platform was laden with people crashed on top of each other passed out drunk on the floor. In hindsight, 8 RMB for two bottles of booze was a fair price (1 RMB = 0.15 USD). Although I was scheduled to leave early in the afternoon, the train had six stops along the way so I wasn’t supposed to get to Luoyang until well after 12:30am. There was absolutely no way in blue hell I was going to spend the entire ride awake, and having never ridden a train before , I felt like boozing with blue-collar types to the middle of communist China would lighten my mood. Paint stripper – or Er Guo Tou – would do right by me.
Beijing to Luoyang
The fatal flaw in my decision to take the train was not getting a sleeper cabin for twenty bucks more. I’ve got to be less of a tightwad.
They stuffed us into the last two train cars like cattle, locked the doors and threw away the key. See you in nine and a half hours, peasants! I woke up a few hours into the ride with one less bottle of Er Guo Tou and a splitting headache. Save for a few seats, it was essentially standing room only. You couldn’t open the windows and people were chain smoking cigarettes in every corner of the cabin. Vendors came through every hour or so with weird things to sell like bags of meat chunks floating in brown liquid, old fruit and more pickled eggs in buckets. People savagely waved around money, made bids and hastily snatched away their favorite “treats.”I was the only foreigner on the train, so naturally I was a celebrity and was subjected to taking lots of photos. The most memorable moment came about an hour before I got off. A vendor came through and I meekly offered him some cash and grabbed something random. It was a suspicious bag of meat on sticks, which should have been a tell (I paid 3 RMB, roughly 45 cents). I didn’t care though because I was wasting away and couldn’t handle the train for another minute. Halfway through the bag I started looking at the bag – I mean really looking at it – and to my shock and surprise, saw a smiling Mickey Mouse on the front.I sort of shook the comatose dude next to me and pointed to the picture of Mickey Mouse. He flashed a few remaining disclosed teeth and cackled evilly. So it turned out I ate Mickey Mouse…after that I couldn’t help but imagine what the factory was like. Would it be a stretch to say it didn’t taste half bad?
The train graciously came to a halt at about 12:30am in Luoyang. I originally planned to party heartily until sunrise since I couldn’t find a hotel to book online. Thankfully, right outside Luoyang station there was a hotel. I grabbed a room and crashed for a few hours.
You wouldn’t have known it the night before, but Luoyang is a pretty busy place. Located in Henan province, I’d guess there is at least a million people that live there. It was ironic that I had just read a case study about how well KFC has done in China the week before at school because I stumbled across one right outside the hotel that morning. There was a time that the company actually averaged one store opening per day because they had become so popular amongst the youth. If you think fried chicken is popular in the United States, boy you’d better believe that Asians take the whole “chicken and beer” thing to a new level. The menu obviously had some Kentucky-fried-favorites, but the China operators clearly took some personal liberty to modify the menu for the local palette. I got a bowl of this porridge concoction (which is all the rage in China) with mushrooms and some type of meat that was not chicken, but didn’t sweat it. I’m pretty adventurous…not too bad.
Other than booking the train to Luoyang, I was wildly unprepared. I just knew that Longmen Grottoes were somewhere near town; I figured it would all shake out. I grabbed a cab and pulled up a picture of a river and a stone statue of Buddha and the cabbie ooed and ahhed and flipped the switch. The meter was running!
It took about an hour to get there so I figured my fare would be astronomical, especially since I was riding in a brand new hybrid. I lucked out; the RMB actually goes pretty far in rural parts of China, if you consider a city of a million to be small with a large farming population. In a country with over a billion people – yeah- it’s all relative.
The ticketing office (along with restaurants and museum) is pretty far from the grottoes themselves. I bought a one-way ticket to take a battery powered car from through the village and across the river. A quick Bing or Google search will bring up this UNESCO world heritage site and show that the Yi River divides a 1-2 kilometer stretch of caves. The battery car took about 10 minutes to reach the famous Longmen Bridge where I got off. I was happy to find out that Luoyang was celebrating its world-famous annual Peony festival while I was there, so the flowers were in full bloom.
The way the grottoes are set up, you start from the Longmen Bridge and walk along the Yi River for about a kilometer or two before you can cross a smaller bridge at a narrower section of the river and follow the river back to the opposite side of Longmen bridge – with caves and elegant sculptures all along the way.
It’s truly remarkable how elegant many of the store carvings are. Longmen was the home of Buddhist monks who crafted these masterful sculptures, many of which are estimate to be at least 1500 years old. The grottoes became highly esteemed amongst the international community during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
When I got to the main grotto at Longmen – the money shot, so to speak – I hiked a wicked set of stairs and was met with an overwhelming response at the top. In my USA tee – I dwarfed the locals that met me with outstretched arms and cameras. Grabbing at my arms and shirt, they practically lined up to take my picture. I haven’t felt that popular since the second grade when I was allowed to take fourth grade level math as an incentive to stay out of trouble. When they ran out of storage space on their phones I was allowed to enjoy the caves.
The limestone statues are absolutely massive. You wouldn’t believe that most of them are well over a thousand years old. Three or four of the sculptures at the main grotto have got to be at least 10-12 meters tall. Regardless of size, the fact that peonies were in bloom all around the sculptures complimented their superior craftsmanship quite nicely.
There was a small tent at the base of the hill that sold postcards and flowers. A few designs were pretty neat so I bought the ones made out of wood and some others formed from a type of recycled paper. The inner hipster in me was bursting with glee.
On the west side of the river you have an amazing view of Xianshan Temple which sits almost at the top a a decent sized hill. You can also see Eastern-looking wooden ferry boats with yellow rooftops scurrying up and down the Yi River. It’s all quite picturesque.
I crossed the bridge to the other side and began my trek up the hill to Xiangshan temple. The steps are extremely steep and are made of dirt and split sections of railroad ties.
By the time I made it to the peak I was ultra-gassed, probably because I tried going two at a time the whole way up…I’m just stubborn, ok?
I met a guy from Shanghai who spoke English so he gave me the inside scoop on everything.
I decided to walk back to the village and then to the ticketing office after I had gauged the distance and was done being a tourist at the temple.
I stopped in a little village where I met an artist who did a piece for me. He painted a hundred yellow blossoms on an eight foot silk scroll, which turned out amazing.
While I waited for him to finish, I chatted up a couple of ladies at a tent who were making sugar (strand) wrapped dough-ball-things. For 1 RMB, the package of ten was fabulous.
I bumped into the guy from Shanghai once more, and he helped me find the right bus back to Luoyang. I told him I wanted to go see the Terracotta Army, and he laughed. I thought it was close, but apparently Xi’an is a long ways from Luoyang. He gave me a map of China as a gift (and a joke). Gift-giving seems to be big in Asian culture, so I gave him a couple $1 bills and a fistful of American change.
Waiting For A Train
Luoyang is a pretty simple place. Everything was really cheap, and even though it was busy, its proximity to the grottoes and other temples makes it actually really peaceful. Zhang (Shanghai-guy) had a train to catch at 7:00pm, so we grabbed a quick bite.
All of the restaurants are very open; a large metal overhead door is how they close up shop for the night. I kind of liked being the only foreigner in town, not because I stood out, but because I felt like I was truly off the grid. “Ethnic” is the douchey was of saying it, but it was completely different and it felt like the culture had been left hugely unpenetrated by the west.
“Uptown Funk” wasn’t playing from every store trying to grab your attention so they call sell you a shitty knock-off Louis V backpack (in Seoul, its still popular as hell- get a new song). Age 8-10 year old kids were running around without shoes by the tables and laughing. They wanted for nothing, because there, they have everything they need. Everyone was largely happy and it had a way of wearing off on me. Anyways, a woman was cooking a huge pot of vegetables and noodles over a fire pit. They were great!
After Zhang split I walked around, took some pictures, and spent some time finding mouse-free snacks for my train ride back to Beijing that night.
I waited at the train station for my ten o’clock train back to Beijing. It was going to be a long night.
Next Post: Beijing