LUOYANG — 5 November 2012 — Today, I played hooky.
I was so exhausted this morning from three days of Kung Fu lessons, I had to play hooky to save my life. Truly!
How to play hooky from a Kung Fu monk:
1. Ask the front desk lady to call him. (She speaks more Chinese.)
2. Slump over and look dead.
3. Listen to her sympathetic pleas for your well-being.
4. And since she’s so good at it, have her also deliver the news that you’re leaving early.
5. Don’t get on the phone when she hands it to you and says your master wants to speak to you.
“Why aren’t you training this morning?” he asked.
“I’m tired to death,” I said.
“So you’re going to Luoyang?”
“Who are you going with?”
“I’m going by myself.”
Then he said a bunch of Chinese words, most of which I didn’t understand. Then I said a bunch of Chinese words back, most of which I didn’t understand either. That’s how my Chinese is, ever since I learned Mandarin. It’s very strange. But it works!
“See you tomorrow morning,” he said finally.
Then the front desk lady and I made a run for it. We dashed down the hill to catch a bus to take us into town. Without me around, she was giving herself the day off and going home to Dengfeng, the city six miles away, at the foot of the mountain.
But first, when we arrived at the bus station in Dengfeng, she helped me buy a ticket to Luoyang.
Then she warned me sternly, “Luoyang people are not like Dengfeng people. Don’t believe anything anyone says. Be very careful!”
Then she bought me a Dengfeng bieng to eat on the bus: It was steaming hot and SOOO good! It’s the typical Dengfeng breakfast. That’s shredded marinated tofu (a substitute for the typical meat). When you get past the tofu, there’s a surprise — a boiled egg between the bread. Mmmm! I was starved! I had been invited to eat breakfast with the monks every morning — at 5 a.m. — but never made it. Instead, I had been eating granola bars that I’d brought from home, until I ran out of granola bars a couple of days ago. And when you run out of granola bars, and you still have to fold origami pants on your legs and pull up your Kung Fu socks before dashing off to meet your master, that’s it for you. You starve. I took my Dengfeng breakfast on the bus and tried to make it last as long as I could.
And off we went!
I’d played hooky once a very long time ago — and suddenly all those same feelings of breaking the rules and having a fun adventure, came rushing back as I looked out the window at the beautiful day that was all mine: Aaaah, freedom!
Luoyang was a very important city in ancient China. It served as the capital of thirteen dynasties from 2200 BCE to 907 CE. Wow, that’s more than 3,000 years! It was also the eastern starting point of the Silk Road, which linked China to the Middle East and Europe. Buddhism was first introduced to China in this city, and many important people lived or spent time here, including Confucius, Laozi, Du Fu and Li Bai. It’s also the birthplace of Wu Daozi, China’s most famous painter, who is the subject of my next picture book, BRUSH OF THE GODS (Random House 2013) — I had to give it a plug! Luoyang is also the setting for many Chinese legends including Nuwa Patching the Sky, Dayu Controlling the Water, and Emperor Huangdi Establishing the Nation.
I wanted to see the Longmen Grottoes, which are more than 100,000 Buddhas carved into the mountainside.
Finding it was not too hard. The trip from Dengfeng took an hour-and-a-half. Then at the first corner in Luoyang, the bus driver pointed at me and said a bunch of words I didn’t understand. Then I got it — by watching his waving arms — he was telling me to get off, cross the street and catch another bus going in the opposite direction. Which bus? Where? And why wasn’t anyone else getting off? Everyone stared at me. So I got off.
Eventually I made it on the #53 bus with the help of many people at the stop — no one could understand my Chinese and I couldn’t understand theirs, at all! No clue!!! Finally someone pointed to a man and told me to follow him.
Where was he going? Was he going to Longmen Grottoes too?
I had no idea.
But everyone was making that waving motion with their hands, fingers pointing downward as if to brush me away. Go on, go on.
So I got on the bus. It was better than standing at the stop all day.
Here’s the guy they told me to follow:He was very talkative. For several miles I had no idea what he was saying. Then something happened — gradually, I could hear words that made sense. Was I actually understanding Henan hua??? I could hardly believe it!
How to Understand Just About Anyone in the World:
2. Listen as hard as you can.
3. Watch facial expressions and hand movements.
4. Repeat steps 1 to 3 until something clicks.
6. Say something back in the language you just understood!
And this is what I understood: he’s a Longmen ren (Longmen means Dragon Gate, and ren means person).
He was a Dragon Gate person? What does that mean? Did his ancestors carve the Buddhas? Or was he someone who lived in the neighborhood?
And when do I get off???
I had no idea.
The wheels on the bus went round and round.
The people on the bus got off and off.
The seats on the bus got empty and emptier.
But we were still on the bus.
At the very last stop, he said we were there. I kinda understood it, but not really. I mean, we had to get off. And where exactly were we???
As soon as I stepped off the bus, men rushed over from every direction asking if I needed a car. The man from the bus fended them off. “Get away you scoundrels,” he scolded in the language I now understood. “You all know it’s walking distance. She’s going to WALK.”
“Walk directly ahead,” he said. “Don’t talk to anyone offering you a ride. It’s a very short distance.”
I thanked him profusely. Then he and his wife gladly let me take their picture before saying goodbye: It’s a great way to keep new friends with you so that you can remember them forever. Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Longmen ren!!!
After that, I found my way to the entrance:And after taking a picture of the beautiful Yi River, I turned and found this:and this:There were little Buddhas in little niches:and medium Buddhas in medium niches And bigger Buddhas in bigger niches: Wanfo Cave: Many of them had been defaced during the Cultural Revolution. But officials decided not to restore them as a reminder of what should NOT be done to cultural relics. The sculptures and caves were carved out from 493 to 1127.
The entire mountainside was covered with them:These scary stairs:led to the biggest Buddha of all: This is the Vairocana Buddha. She is fifty-seven feet tall, sitting. Her head alone is thirteen feet long. She was finished during the T’ang Dynasty.
Hey, Kung Fu comes in handy when you need a little space!
I was saying “thank you” in Chinese Sign Language to my photographer who was deaf. How do I know CSL? Read my book, RUBY LU, EMPRESS OF EVERYTHING, and find out!
After that, I crossed the Yi River and poked around the other side. And lo and behold, I walked right into Sun Yat Sen’s old house!I never knew he lived in Luoyang. He was the first president of the Republic of China. He was from Guangzhou and had lived in the United States, Shanghai and Beijing. The Chinese love him.
The story of his life was displayed for all to see:After that I wandered over to the temple next door that took quite a steep climb, and you were warned only after the point of no return: It was beautiful.
And there was a gorgeous view of Luoyang:The day was warm. The air was clear. The sky was a vibrant blue. It was the perfect day! Until these dudes started following me from the temple:The one on the right said that he was a Chinese doctor, and that his friend on the left was a western doctor. They had a car. They’d love to show me around Luoyang and take me out to dinner. Henan dishes are wonderful, he said. He started to tell me about all the delicious Henan specialties that awaited me in the city if only I would get in their car with them.
Hey. Do I look like I don’t know what happens when you get into a stranger’s car and they kill you and dump your body in the woods to rot and your picture appears on a sqillion posters everywhere and you look terrible?
Do I look like I could be lured by food?
Well, actually, come to think of it, I ate half of my Dengfeng bieng on the bus and the other half I saved and ate under a tree next to the Yi River after exploring the caves. I had a feeling I’d starve otherwise, and I was right. There weren’t any food vendors anywhere. All the food shops were outside the gates. And I was –gulp — so hungry, I could eat a tree!
Never mind, don’t answer that question.
But crossing the street in Luoyang was a game of chicken:No one stops for pedestrians, and pedestrians stop for no one. Worse, the walk signals are actually run signs — the little figure in light box RUNS for his life! So I ran for mine.
Once across the street, I was at the Luoyang bus station where I had to wait in line and show my passport to buy a ticket back to Dengfeng: The ticket agent had no idea where I wanted to go. My Mandarin was perfectly clear. Dengfeng is not hard to say. It sounds just like it’s spelled. DENGFENG, I said again. She stared back blankly. Then she said a bunch of angry Chinese words I didn’t understand. It was the Twilight Zone. Had I stepped out of a dream? Or a time machine? Was I really hanging out with the monks at Shaolin Temple just yesterday?
Will I ever find it again???
Finally, the 300-year-old man behind me shouted at the agent. His Dengfeng sounded exactly like my Dengfeng, but he said it like this: AREYOUDEAFORSOMETHING?SHEWANTSTOGOTODENGFENGNOWSELLHERATICKETORYOU’LLBEFIRED!
She sold me a ticket.
It was the only bus to Dengfeng that day. I was an hour-and-a-half early. But I knew something about taking buses and trains in China now. So I headed straight back into the parking lot immediately to find my bus. Passengers were already in their seats. So I got on too and waited. The driver was pacing, checking his watch, and pacing. Back and forth. Back and forth. He didn’t make it. Ten minutes before our scheduled departure, our bus roared out of the station.Boy, was I glad I hadn’t gone looking for dinner.