I arrived to the hounding of the late night taxi crew. Waigouren are easy prey. After some negotiating we headed to the hostel. Travel tip: the hostel can tell you what price to expect for the taxi. The hostel featured a puppy, a pleasant surprise. That night Germany played Brazil. I woke up to watch the game at half time, took one look at the score and headed back to bed.
In the morning, I decided to break my fast with some authentic Luoyang cuisine. China has some of the most varied breakfast offerings, something for every pallet. Most days, I eat a different thing. My new favorite is a toasted bun that is slit and stuffed with sautéed pork and fresh green pepper; tea egg optional (rou jia mo).
When I hit Luoyang, the morning bustle had begun. The old were in the central square softening their weary muscles from a night’s rest on China’s famous brick mattresses. I asked around for the name of the popular breakfast dish. “Niuroutang (beef soup);” an easy name to remember but also rather ubiquitous, promising a less than unique local flavoring.
I inquired at every stand, and staggered towards the direction indicated. Encouragingly, they were all pointing in the same direction towards a grouping of breakfast joints at the far end of the park. I asked a rather large lady about the soup and she encouraged me to sit down with a curt nod. Having sat, the restaurateur yelled some directions at an underling and I was served an unappetizing portage gruel. The milky white molasses dripped from my spoon, I did not see the promised niurou. It seemed to me that the lady had pawned off the remnants of her breakfast stock on me. I had paid, but I reserved my stomach space as the quest continued for the now mythical dish.
Down the alleyway, a man, no mistake this time, pointed directly at a shanty restaurant positioned on a busy street corner. After deciphering my meaning, they served me a plastic bag rapped bowl of questionable looking liquid for a large cauldron positioned behind a grease stained wall. Euphoric with the cacophony of smells, the nose questioned the wisdom of the eyes. The brain, arbitrating like always, sided with the nose siting the extended journey to experience the local delicacy. Surely, the body could not turn away emptied stomached.
After receiving the soup, I stepped outside to collect my cleaver chopped unleveled bread that served as a strange noodle. I sat down reassured by the many locals chowing nearby. Yet, one does not know what their stomachs are capable of handling compared to one’s own. The beef was slim shavings of shoulder and kidney meat. The soup was hardy, and the stomach was pleased at first. I ate all the bread and drank half the liquid before alarm bells started ringing. Emergency on aisle two.
The hostel was ten minutes away, which felt like twenty. Shanghai, however, had prepared me for this. Do not eat gongbaojiding! I am happy to report that I made it, and felt an immense sense of relief after exiting the hostel’s WC.
After a short recovery in the common room, I left to buy a train ticket to Xi’an for the next afternoon. My plan had always been to drink in the knowledge of my fellow travelers. On hearing where I had come from, one of my roommates said, “O, you must be heading to Xi’an.” I asked if it was cool and liking what I heard, determined to go.
That afternoon, I followed the hostel’s recommendation to check out the Longmen Grottoes. The Grottoes are the largest collection of Buddhist cliff carvings in the country. Lining both sides of the Yi River, a subsidiary of the Yellow River, the grottoes are an impressive site. Stoned Buddhas are everywhere on display. A river path is available for the less able visitor, and more varied stone hewn stairway for the more adventurous.
The Chinese have a unique appreciation of cultural relics. They believe in reminding us of our connection with the ancients. Hence, they make sure that the security cameras, and louder speakers shoddy wiring is clearly visible among the archaic cliff carvings of long deceased monks. The contrast is a not so subtle reminder of what China was and what it has become.
However, the serenity was uninterruptable. From the bridge that took us pilgrims to the South side of the river, a solitary man could be seen in the distance fishing on a small islet. An islet so precariously placed that it must surely be swallowed by any minor swelling of the river. Perhaps the man was the Buddha reminding us that peace can be found in the whirlwind of China.
Where the north side was awe inspiring, the south side flowed with ebbs and whims of history. Luoyang had once served as the capital of China. On the south side of the river, an empress built a temple on top of the cliff face. Court was held here from time to time. After exploring the temple and more cliff carvings, I found what I am always looking for, a lonesome wandering path that led to no place in particular. I wandered and smiled. Sitting on a stump watching the sunlight paint through the mirage of flowing leaves, I felt at peace. The day light trickled away and I meandered back.
The next day, I got up early due to a fellow traveler playing with plastic bags like a kitten. Since I had time to kill, I went to Baima Si (white horse temple). The temple is supposedly the oldest government built Buddhist temple in all of China. The monastery hosts Buddhist temples in array of styles that reflect the varying sects of Buddhism. The congregation symbolizes friendship between the participating countries. The sky rained and the time was too early for most visitors so the atmosphere was tranquil. I spent some time alone being mindful as I walked about in the patterning rain. As I sat by the funeral mound of some famous monk, I meditated.
Two men from Southern Hunan had travelled by car to Luoyang. They struck up a conversation and gave me a cigarette; extremely friendly gesture that all travelers to China should be aware of. I use that trick when I go to restaurants. I will offer some laoshi (an older man) a cigarette. After he accepts, I entreat him to help me order since I “kan bu dong (cannot read).” Truly, saying kan bu dong is one the most embarrassing things.
After we smoked, they asked for a picture which I accepted as a fair trade for their random Chinese cigarette. The temples of Baima were not that impressive, but since the place was fairly empty it was a worthwhile journey. It was the better way to kill three hours rather than sitting around the hostel drinking coffee till I felt sick.
I headed back, collected my things, and departed to the high speed train station. I had to get off about ¾ the way there because Baidu (Chinese google) maps informed that my bus’s estimated arrival time corresponded exactly with my train’s departure. The good news is that my Chinese level had reached level four: allowing for the use of Baidu maps and other simple Chinese only services. Level five and I would unlock the mythical Taobao, the online market place for all known substances in the universe and then some.
I jumped off the bus and caught a taxi. And then we caught every red light. Every. Red. Light. Sweating and nervous, I arrived with fifteen minutes to spare. Rushing inside, I discovered that the train had been delayed by half an hour. Having nothing else to do, I bought a coffee and watched for my bus to arrive, if it had not already. I mean it is Baidu.
Next Stop (Xia Yi Zhan): Xi’an