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Henan Province, China: Anyang, Luoyang and Song Shan

On the second part of this Henan trip, I will go up north to Anyang from Kaifeng and then swing to the east towards Puyang, a city that seems to be historically important. Right after that, it's a long bus ride southwest to Luoyang where I plan to spend the longest stay of my Henan trip this time, a mere two nights. And on the way back to Zhengzhou, Song Shan lies on the way and this is where Shaolin Temple is.

2 October 2009: The bus from Kaifeng took close to 4 hours to make the 200km to Anyang. Having a GPS at the bus window showed why it took that long. We took the small road, went through small towns where the main activity is to dry corn kernels on the road and just about any bitumen or concrete surface that is available. People should be poor. And the toilet is everywhere, and it seems to be quite obvious even from the bus. All transports here has 3 wheels, motorcycles, cars and tractors. Every active shop has in front of it, again corn drying. Petrol station, the same story. Everywhere corn, and more corn. If you're not sick of corn, you will be after coming to Henan.

The bus arrived in Anyang at the long distance bus station next to the train station. Anyang looks much more modern and prosperous than Kaifeng by far. Less farm vehicles on the street, and things look a little more orderly. Not too much so, still a little messy as usual. Everything is so modern I don't expect to see too many ancient relics here.

1908hrs: Walked the back streets of old Anyang after visiting People's Square earlier on. Its a relatively long walk from the Train Station where I stay. Started off with a 2km walk to People's Square on Jiefang Dadao passing modern shops on both sides. Switched the film on my Leica M2 to Neopan1600 in anticipation of night shooting. There is just this sliver of sunset light remaining, so the Leica M6 loaded with Kodak Ektar 100 comes along as well. There are not too much on the street that is particularly specific to Anyang. Rather similar to other large cities in China. People's Square may also be called a park, perhaps it is called so. There are lakes, half moon bridges, etc.

On the way back, I spotted a parallel but smaller road back to the train station to Jiefang Dadao, so time to check out the hutong road while it starts to get dark. Time to check out the night life here. Dinner is by the roadside like the locals, having spotted a place that sells claypot stuffed with noodles, vegetables, tofu, oxtail, parsley, mushrooms. Its on the salty side but quite filling for 6RMB. My table neighbours are a bunch of loud labourers. They speak in a strange dialect and it sounds as though they're complaining about something. Took out my Sony PCM-D50 and recorded the conversation before my dish arrived piping hot. I'm thinking this would be a perfect dish for winter.

3 October 2009:

0817hrs: Early day today. Will be covering plenty of distance. Don't think there is a lot more to see in Anyang. There is a pagoda or two which I've seen from a distance, not willing to pay entrance fee to go everywhere. So the plan I decided in the morning is to catch a morning bus to Puyang and then in the evening to end my day in Luoyang.

While in the taxi to the East Bus Station to Puyang, negotiated 160RMB for a trip to Puyang in his taxi, but only if he drives fast. Road buses here stop along the way, plying the route like a public bus. So a 120km route, like my estimate from Anyang to Puyang may take up to 3 hours. Had some time to gain some information from the taxi driver along the way, including the wisdom: Anyang is small but densely populated, Puyang is big but sparsely populated. Sets the stage for my next town!

The road to Puyang goes straight to the east before doing a right angle right towards the south. The road is relatively modern and wide, enough for 4 total lanes, but the drivers here are crazy. Middle two lanes are for cars but not strictly so. Outer lanes are for electric bicycles, tractors and other farm vehicles and again, not strictly so. Thats because cars do swing to the far left, that would be pedestrian lane, at full speed when overtaking say a motorcycle, a lorry and a car at the same time. Among the strange wheeled contraption I saw along the way were 3 wheeled carts loaded to the brim with hay (I must say, I've seen them loaded to the brink of mechanical breakdown between Kaifeng and Anyang, so this is no longer surprising) and one special for geeks, its a tractor modified with a large rotating fan made with oversized twig-broom; yes for sweeping the road! Genius!

0915hrs: Arrived in Puyang. First order of business is to go pick up a bus ticket out of here. Strangely, the girl at the counter told me there are no time set on the ticket, and I can get on any bus and they leave roughly every 50 mins. Later I found out that also means they leave when the bus is full enough. Above the buses, as with other bus stops in Henan, there are signboards displaying the destination of the bus, including a pinyin translation.

Puyang is bigger than I thought. There are highrise buildings, proper hotels, multilane city roads and lanes for motorcycles and cars. There is even a People's Square which tells me that there has to be at least half a million people living here. I chart a path to take, around 6 km in total with my gps and get on going. I bet the photos taken here would look like it's taken in any other place in China. Nothing super special about it. I don't even know if I will remember much about this place a year from now. But somehow I had to pass by this place or else my trip wouldn't be complete.

After an uneventful lunch, its time to load up on the drinks and start moving towards the bus station. The ticket seller did mention it leaves at 1230hrs, and I got there around noon. By the time the bus left it was at least 1330hrs and I had dozed off a couple of times listening to podcasts on Anthropology.

1831hrs: Now this is a long bus ride. 5 hours into it and GPS says 9 more km into Luoyang. Just crossed the Yellow river at a narrow point where it doesn't look as scary as I expected. No massive dikes or barriers here. The bridge does span a log longer distance than the width of the river itself, perhaps to accomodate future change in river path. Only annoyance is that we are using a small van today, a 20 seater with higher window than a full sized bus so I had to place my Garmin eTrex a little higher than usual. Had to reconfigure my Kinesis travel pack to increase the height which is necessary especially when I doze off once in a while.

Arrived in Luoyang after dark. The GPS coordinates of the hotel I booked in advanced was out by a km. But I'm starting to trust google maps more and more. Even in Luoyang, you can look up the hotel and get it to compute walking path from where you are to the hotel. The other two options are driving and public transit, which I tested in Kaifeng and is working as advertised. Makes life easier at the expense of paying for data.

And soon it is time to plan my next day. Had two possibilities. Could either do Longmen caves tomorrow and some Luoyang sights and Shaolin temple on Monday, or vice versa. Eventually I will decide tomorrow, but for now I feel that going to Longmen caves first may be a good idea as I don't expect to spend too much time at the commercialised Shaolin temple.

0700hrs: So it is decided. Longmen caves and Luoyang city first today. Packed 7 rolls of different film, not knowing what to expect along the way. Maybe colour film, maybe slide film, maybe black and white only: lucky film canisters are small so it is easy to pack them all.

On the way to the train station, started doing a little survey of the facilities available. 16RMB for a quick bus to Shaolin temple, which is for tomorrow and I got to be here at 730hrs. There are plenty of transport options at the train station for sure. Just have to ask and agree on the price. And never join the tours, unless you don't mind spending hours at a tourist shop at the end of the trip.

0847hrs: Arrived at the Longmen caves. This place has the aura of a tourist trap extraordinaire. Infrastructures are excellent, big carparks, its own bus station, new shops lined the avenue you are forced to walk towards the entrance to the grottoes. And yes, the word I'm looking for is a tourist enterprise. And I forgot today is a Sunday, which explains the hoard of local Chinese tourists descending on Longmen Caves. Entrance ticket cost 120 RMB, perhaps 90% of it is a UNESCO heritage site permium, or to put it more crudely, freaking tax.

0938hrs: At the first carving in the mountain side. Looks like the base is limestone. The Three Binyang cave is a domed cutting 30m into the rock, with 5 statues in a semi circle fashion. 10 deep in local tourists here. Still possible to find a deadspot with no tourist where I could blog. My ERA100 M2 managed to capture the statue at f2.8 and 1/8s with an Abrahamsson softie. Before long I would run out of film, next up Kodak Tri-X. I think the jagged rocks require a little grittiness in the film. Loaded the film while avoiding knocks from a flood of tourists.

Longmen Caves: Tourists filing to see the same attractions

1048hrs: At Wanfo Cave, loosely translated by on site to be ten thousand buddha cave. Heres a spoiler, there ten thousand because they are all size of peanuts. It is also ten thousand because there are so many it is almost impossible to count. In effect, perhaps ancient chinese numerals end at ten thousand so it means too many to count. What is for sure is that there are definitely ten thousand local tourists here jostling for position. Even them small girls trying to push me aside. Gave them a lesson in Newton's third law of motion.

1112hrs: Fengxiansi Cave which is not really a cave, just a notch cut out of the cliff with 9 (Which I was able to count) 20m high statues arranged in a semi circle. Sure is noisy here, there is no way any devout buddhists could meditate here unless they put on a pair of noise cancelling headphones.

1129hrs: Guyang cave, according to the signboards, the oldest cave in the valley. It sure looks older. More noticeable, the crowds are thinning out here. Two hypotheses. Either its close to lunch and the morning group is finishing their trip, or they start to realize that once you have seen a buddha carving, the other ten thousand will look the same.

1217hrs: Done with the east hill complex after crossing Li River earlier. The number of caves are significantly less here, so are the tourists. Most of the sights are on the far side from the car park and this is where the commercialism kicks in. If you are too lazy to walk the half kilometer back to the main entrance, the authorities can recommend the 2RMB electric car ride. It is not expensive enough to be called a con but for measure, the public bus cost less than that for the 13km trip here from central Luoyang.

After a long walk to the carpark and bus stop, time to hop onto bus 60. I believe all buses here go on Longmen highway back to Luoyang. Buses here don't stop for too long even though it is the terminus. Next stop is Guangyin Miao, a temple a few km away. The bus will not stop in front of the temple, so a little hiking and GPS positioning will be required to make sure I stop at the right place.

Tickets to get in is 40 RMB, which is a bit steep me thinks. It doesn't have a UNESCO seal of approval, else it would have been more than 100RMB for sure. Perhaps the popularity of Guan Yu will get people in no matter the price.  Inside the ticket booth is a large square before entering the the temple itself. Inside it is a series of prayer halls, most with giant sized statues of the man/deity himself. At the end is a large burial mound like the ones emperors get. Along the way there will be attendants trying to get visitors to pray, and of course pay for the honour of doing so or to buy red ribbons with your name on it to tie onto some trees or stone carving.

Nothing much to report about, just another plot on my GPS as far as I'm concerned. And the ability to say I've been here. There are other burial temple complexs I've been to so this is not new.

After a little misadventure with the wrong bus, finally got onto bus number 58, which incidentally also passes by Guanlin temple but I seemed to have taken 15 instead when I left the place. Thats punishment for not checking Googlemaps before the trip. Next destination: Old Luoyang town.

Bus passes by a reconstructed west entrance. I saw Xi Men somewhere and Lijing Gate in other places. But it is new for sure. One of the pavillion just outside the gate played host to a group of at least 10 musicians with classical instruments and a lady was singing. For the next piece a whole gang of women and men came in to provide backup while one of the musician, clearly the ring leader of the lot comes up to conduct the mish-mash orchestra.

The old street is something I've seen before. On the main street shops with old style banner with signs in chinese and english tells what they are peddling. But this is not the interesting bit, turn right and you quickly get to the real old Luoyang, and with old people hanging out, some in solitude, others playing card games or mahjong. A little more than a kilometer eastwards, the old Drum tower stands in the middle of the road. A few meters after, in a small lane to the right, a map with a little English shows the map of the quarter. Not too far down is General Cao Cao's calvary command something. Then a few other significant something. And best of all, after a few right and left turns, Weng Feng pagoda. Now this is a strange one. I normally expect pagodas here to have elaborate sublevel roofs and coloured primarily in red and green and octogonal in shapem but this one is black, square and 9 sublevels tall with a pyramid at the top. Looks like a tower from the western world rather than Chinese.

On the way back, I encountered my first major rain. Thunder signalled the impending downpour and in less than a few minutes it did. Sought shelter in a shopping complex. I think it should be time for dinner once the rain dies down. Now it is 1656hrs.

5 October 2009: 0754hrs: Now this is confusing. The trip to Shaolin Temple is not as easy as I thought. There is a group of buses across the road from the train station but it includes a tour which I don't want. And they visit more than just the popular big temple, which I don't want. And they take a whole day to stop by many different places. And I guess the trip ends with a few hours at a shopping center for tourists. I was then told to take the straight bus from the bus station. Bought the tickets and was ushered across the road away from the bus station to take the bus. And it looks like the type of bus that will only move when full. And realising I'm back to square 1 with the tour buses. Plenty of these type of buses to tourist destinations in many cities. Now I just hope they go fast. Must be impossible for someone who don't speak chinese to get around.

1026hrs: Ok, nothing to be proud of. Got suckered into going for a chinese tour, but at least managed to break away and negotiate for ticket fee only. No pesky tour guide for me, I never follow them anyway. Most of the chinese tours come in regular waves. If you miss your tour group you can always tag along the next to come.

At Songyang Temple now. Not on my itinerary, so will do my own research later. This temple, not knowing the history of its raison d'etre, is swarmed with tourists. Other than the main halls of worship, there are shops and handicraft workshops whose aim seems to be to lure local tourists to buy items that will collect dust at home. I call this the dust collector. I'm sure the money goes somewhat into maintaining the temple, but there is no way one could medidate with the loud camera toting tourists in all nook and cranies. The only plus point is that this temple is situated on the foot of Song Shan. So in the old days, must be rather peaceful. Something that is lost in this modern age. Especially when it becomes a tourist attraction. Loaded with my first roll of Kodachrome ever, I look out for bright colours to shoot.

1150hrs: Fa Wang Temple. Another temple on Song Shan, further up the foot of the mountain. This time the temple is more or less a monastery as there are little monks walking about for their lunch. I think I saw a western monk as well. Other than the usual temple layout and architecture, right at the top, or the back of the temple is a pagoda made of bricks with a figure in a lotus position below it. I didn't pay attention to the prayer halls along the way but they all seem to be a different form of buddha. Just before the pagoda is a small housing complex with bunk beds and a small school. This has to be where the little monks stay, and most look less than 10 years old.

Ok so I'm still alive. Lets see what other temples they have in mind for me to tackle... I ran out of Kodachrome as it was a 24 roll here, so decided to switch to an old roll of Fuji Velvia. Looks like a fine velvia day and temples are rich in red and greens, two colours I think looks good in RVP50.

1356hrs: After a quick lunch stop at a restaurant packed with tourists, we are at Shaolin Temple. Another sentence on the restaurant please; it looks like one of those place where the bus guy makes money dropping bus loads of people there. Seems to be full of these type of activitity in China when joining a local tour group.

The temple entrance looks familiar. A large ticketing square doubling as the temple entrance. Looks less of a temple and more of a big tourist venue.

On the way to see a Kungfu dance, as the guide says it. It has to be a performance at 2pm. It seems that chinese tourists cannot be trusted to be back on the bus on time. Whatever it is, this is where I wave a virtual goodbye to the bunch of sightseeing drones. Will take the bus to Zhengzhou tonight.

Two hundred meters walk downhill and we get to a 1 storey high platform. Just a little after two a bunch of brightly clothed monks (more like martial art students) comes out and do their thing with flimsy weapons. It wobbles so much I guess it must be for safety so that no one gets pierced by it. There are quite a number of pseudo fights and skill showoffs while everyone sits in the sun on wooden benches. I let go a barrage of Velvia slide shots, knowing I will probably get crappy shots from quite far away and a 50mm lens.

Then it is a long kilometer walk to Shaolin Temple proper. I think I know the trick now, built the entrance far away and charge 10 RMB per person to transport them 1km. I'll walk thanks.

Shaolin temple is just that. Relatively indistinguishable from other temple monasteries except it is way richer, and because it is more, nay, a lot more famous, it gets plenty of stone stelaes with dedications from all over the world including a few in English. Next to the temple is a medicine building, where there are many drawers of medicines, but wondering if they are empty as the monks here are selling souvenirs instead. At the square, maybe my timing is good, there are a bunch of students learning their martial arts.

1607hrs: Branched off to the right on the way to the stone pagoda forest towards Wuru peak and Dharma cave. I'm sure I will never get there as the sign boards says 4000m away and I'm close to 5pm already. After a km or two, got to a temple at the midway point. According to the sign board, Chuzu Temple was one of the two reasons for the founding of Shaolin Temple on the foot of the mountain. Of course the first reason is Bodhi Dharma meditating in a cave close to Wuru peak. Right past the temple, I saw the way up the mountain. It is steep and will take an hour at least into the shadow of the mountain. No strength, no photo opportunity, no motivation. Time to go back.

The Pagoda Forest is a few hundred meters more from the branch off to Wuru peak. This is an interesting sight. Apparently this is where they interr the ashes of prominent abbots etc. So in a way it is a graveyard of sorts. Or whatever you call ash depositories. But no peace here with touts, souvenir sellers, tourists and beggars mingling among the pagodas. Towards the middle the pagodas are rather dense and they are all in Chinese, obviously. So it is not possible to make out what it says.

Just after the Pagoda Forest is the aforementioned 10 RMB bus ride back to the entrance. I'd rather get an exercise like any textbook scrooge would.

1731hrs: Onboard bus to Zhengzhou. Ticker price is 30RMB, I guess includes all sort of commission for everyone down the chain, including the local greeter' looking for passengers at the main exit of the temple, down to the ticket lady who scribbles some bean sprouts on the back of a book of receipts and gives you a stub. Just walk to the entrance and if anyone asks if you wanted to go to Luoyang, ask them about Zhengzhou.

The bus stops at the train station, taking close to 2 hours for the whole trip, and I estimate we spent more than 30 minutes for the last 8 km into the city due to traffic. Just after the drop, I noticed at the Zhengzhou Hotel a booth selling tickets to the airport. I checked, first bus at 0630hrs, which is what I need.

There are many hotels around the train station and most of the 3 Starred ones wanted 400RMB a night. Not willing to spend so much for a short sleep. I will need to get up early tomorrow morning. I downgrade to a binguan, loosely translated by me to be an inn. Now this is strange, they asked if I wanted a room with a bed or sleeping on a wooden platform? First time I had the reception ask if I wanted a room with a bed or without. Wanted to try out the bedless room, but logic got the best of me finally. Settled on the bedded room for double the price, but still cheaper than the other proper hotels. But of course in an inn, your phone will ring all night long asking if you wanted massage or girls.

6 October 2009: 0545hrs: Taking the 0630hrs bus to the airport from the train station, so naturally I stayed around the station. Even at 5am the square in front of the station is full of people walking around, the underpasses full of people sleeping in the streets. The hotels are relatively fully booked, but this is not a matter of hotels being available, but that hotels are normally a few hundred reminbi and above. Some brave souls sleep on the street where temperature hovers around 15C this morning. Touts and scalpers are hardy creatures. They are already out at work now. The chain restaurants around the central square are opened 24 hours, so an early morning noodles and soup is a perfect way to start the morning before getting on the flight back to Shanghai. Ticket cost around 16RMB. Not too sure as the change includes big notes, small notes and some cents in paper form, which you don't get to see too often in bigger cities.

As the sun rises, I start to think about my 5 day express through the 4 remaining ancient Chinese capitals. Thus on top of Beijing, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Xian... Adding Kaifeng, Anyang, Luoyang and finally Zhengzhou, completing one of my check lists. There is not too much left of the old history of these cities, unlike Beijing and perhaps Xian as well. I blame it on the shifting path of the Yellow river as it is known to switch its course through the centuries. Of course human destruction is surely partly to be blamed. Progress sometimes take centerstage compared to preserving history. Unfortunately, apart from being in the same physical location as the ancient capital itself, the cities as they exist today, it is very difficult to feel the aura that it should have. Is there a solution? Kaifeng comes close, with its remaining Drum Tower and backlanes with caches. The other cities are hewn out of the same chinese city planning template as 500 other cities. I will see later but I am sure I will not be able to tell the picture apart from one taken from a city in Zhejiang province.

The other two satellite cities I made the effort to stop by, Puyang and Zhoukou falls victim to the same urban sameness as their bigger and more important cities. But the purpose of visiting those cities are a little different for me. They are GPS waypoints required as I look for the birthplace of chinese surnames. One could argue, based on what was seen, that these two towns are farming towns. Roads are choked with a corn drying industry. Lets hope I still remember all these places in the years to come.

Some interesting numbers on this trip... GPS Moving time: 32hrs 30 mins GPS Odometer: 1241.38km GPS Moving Average: 38.2kmph GPS Maximum Speed: 119kmph B&W film used: 4 rolls Tri-X, 4 rolls ERA100, 2 rolls Neopan 1600 Colour film used: 1 roll Portra 160NC, 1 roll Kodak Ektar 100, 1 roll Kodachrome, 1 roll Fuji Velvia RVP50. 96kHz/24bit Audio Recording: 1hr 29mins

*the end*

Read the previous Part 1 post on Henan...