After two nights in Xi'an I headed to Luoyang (洛阳) for two nights to check out the Longmen Caves (龙门石窟), which are a UN World Heritage Site (like the Terracotta Warriors). The train ride was on a very hard seat, but the young couple sitting across from me were great. They bought me some noodles, and even gave me a little gift before helping me find my hostel (and avoiding all the touts at the station). I tried to get there as early as I could, since I knew it would be very busy and hot in the afternoon. Turns out that arriving at 8:30AM isn't early enough. As you can see from the photo taken on the opposite bank of the river, the place was literally flooded with tourists. The caves come in all sizes, from tiny to massive. The carving started around 494AD and continued for at least another 200 years.
The other side of the river contained more caves, a temple, and a garden with overpriced tea. It was really a beautiful site, despite the number of sculptures that have been robbed over the years.
After the caves I headed to another famous Buddhist site. The White Horse Temple (白马寺) is the location of the first Buddhist temple in China. It was founded during the Han Dynasty when court emissaries met two Indian monks in Afghanistan and brought sutras and sculptures back to China. Of course the original temple has been destroyed and rebuilt several times, but it's still interesting to see.
We weren't supposed to take photos inside the various temples. I spent some time talking with the two 70 year old ladies who were volunteering in one of the temples. We chatted for quite a while in my broken Mandarin. We were soon joined by one of the monks and then another. They said that I could take a photo or two if I waited until the tour group left (there's photos of us on my yahoo photo page). It was really amazing how much we were able to communicate. When I said I should get going for dinner, the two ladies and one of their friends came with me on the bus to their stop. They insisted that I try some of their delicious steamed buns (one bun became two, which became four and an apple). It's moments like that which make the trips incredibly memorable.