Luoyang: A City from China’s Heartland


China was born here, in Henan.

The place is both unique and ubiquitous at the same time. As one of the 中国四大古都 (China’s Four Great Ancient Capitals), the city of Luoyang still embodies a part of China’s soul and history. The city was prominent as far back as 510 BCE as the capital of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. This dynasty existed on the very edge of ancient Chinese history, directly following the quasi-mythic Xia Dynasty (2070-1600 BCE) and China’s first archaeologically proven dynasty, the Shang Dynasty of 1600-1046 BCE.

The Zhou Dynasty, which existed between 1046 and 256 BCE, is itself divided into the Western and Eastern eras, the latter of which encompassed the Spring and Autumn period and the subsequent Warring States period when monarchical authority crumbled and various minor kingdoms rose and fell.

As such, Luoyang represents an era that later marked a critical turning point in Chinese history. With the fall of the Zhou Dynasty came the rise of the first dynasty of Imperial China, the Qin Dynasty, whose initial emperor unified six of the warring states. His accomplishments are forever commemorated by his massive mausoleum (still being excavated today) and the famous Terracotta Army in Xi’an.

Remnants of the past still persist in Henan. Luoyang’s 白马寺//bai1ma3si4 (White Horse Temple) is traditionally thought to be the “cradle of Chinese Buddhism,” as the first Buddhist temple in China. The temple’s historical roots stretch all the way back to 68 CE, when it was constructed under Emperor Ming after having a vision of the Buddha in gold.¹

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Astounding in their size and quality, the Longmen Grottoes on their own are worth the trip to Henan. The incredible grottoes feature Buddhist figures carved directly into the limestone hillside.

The site was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, with its 2,000+ caves, 100,000 statues, and over 60 pagodas.² Most of these are over 1,000 years old, dating back to the culturally and socially inspired Tang Dynasty before Emperor Wuzong’s xenophobic Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution that attempted (and, in some cases, succeeded) to purge nonnative religious influences.

However, Longmen’s enormous carvings survived until modern times for flocks of tourists to stand in awe and selfie.

Hohhot, Inner Mongolia in Parcels


I bought 8 pairs of chopsticks for like 3 bucks at the market kinda near the Temple and kinda far from the Mosque. Stored them loosely in my back pocket and thought for a second that, while I had my back turned when paying for my entrance ticket, the beggars would swipe them from me if I didn’t placate them with cash.

This thought was foolish, I admit. Here in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, the rules had changed on me, and I was taken off-guard. People spoke dialects that I didn’t understand, and Mongolian was on signs and in the streets. People consumed dairy products here?

In a land of jade, Inner Mongolia was crystallized amber.

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How Vientiane Is an Analog for the World


I complained about the weather, walked the backstreets, and ate cheap.

This time the bus was a large, cyan blue thing with leather sleeping berths and cotton blankets. Upbeat folk music and the neon lights mounted above every bed gave the whole thing a strange feeling — as if I had somehow fallen asleep in a gaudy Lao nightclub. But none of this is to say that the overnight journey to Vientiane was uncomfortable. It wasn’t. It was like sleeping on a very peculiar southbound cloud.

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The Two Rivers of Luang Prabang, Laos


Evening, approaching the Mekong/Nam Khan confluence.

Tucked in the far back corner of an outdated sleeper bus headed toward Luang Prabang, an impatient American passenger searched through the dirty window for a sign — any sign — that might suggest an end to his 27-hour journey from Kunming, China.

Bumpy, unpaved dirt roads had led him here: cramped and sweaty, peering into the darkening of North Laos. His bus, now hurtling at about 45mph on a thin, one and a half-lane highway in dusk, couldn’t arrive fast enough. A series of yellow-white lights off the left-hand side of the bus peeked through the blanket black night; the passenger blinked back at the shy lights. Air whistled through his opened window, damp like breath. Two left turns separated by a stretch of road resulted in a bus station where he alighted.

Shoving his shoulders back and stretching his arms into the sky, he stepped into the blacked-out indigo-blue of Luang Prabang.

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The Deserts of Dunhuang


The Gansu/Xinjiang border is the edge of the world.

Figuratively, of course. But when you’re there it feels plausible. Like when the sand and soil ends, the world ends too. Walk off and you’ll likely fall into infinity.

Although, the friendly owners of Dunhuang’s local guesthouse seem unfazed by the fact that they live so close to boundless space. They have kids and a dog and offered us dried red dates and coal-furnace hospitality in the middle of winter.

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Shanghai’s Jade Buddha Temple


Housed in its own worship chamber and sitting in pristine silence is the Jade Buddha statue after which this temple is named. Enormous and impressive, you’ll have to experience it in all its transience: photos aren’t allowed. However, they are allowed in the temple’s spectacular inner courtyard and grounds.

Here are a few I took while visiting this colorful place:

You can find out about the Jade Buddha, the temple’s century-long history, and more here and here (Chinese).

You’ve Never Seen a Buddhist Temple like This


A Heart Sutra in the heart of Shanghai.

Shanghai can be a bit rough around the edges sometimes. I fully acknowledge this. Most locals would say the same when asked about the traffic, crowds, air quality, and surprisingly cold winter. The Shanghainese themselves can sometimes also be a bit rough around the edges (in a lovable sort of way) to faint-hearted Westerners. Get between a Shangher and their food and they will assuredly cut you in line, order, and pay before you even notice.

But really, the city and its people have a soft side. Which happens to be the same side that loves glittering gilded gold pagodas, towering ornate statues of Buddha, high-vaulted worship halls, impressive and expensive art exhibits, intricately carved wooden screen doors, and, of course, an ever-present assortment of merchandise.

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