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Introducing Longmen Caves

A Unesco World Heritage site, the ravaged grottoes at Lóngmén constitute one of China’s handful of surviving masterpieces of Buddhist rock carving. A Sutra in stone, the epic achievement of the Lóngmén Caves was first undertaken by chisellers from the Northern Wei dynasty, after the capital was relocated here from Dàtóng in AD 494. During the next 200 years or so, more than 100,000 images and statues of Buddha and his disciples emerged from over a kilometre of limestone cliff wall along the Yī River (Yī Hé).

A disheartening amount of decapitation disfigures the statuary. In the early 20th century, many effigies were beheaded by unscrupulous collectors or simply extracted whole, many ending up abroad in such institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Atkinson Museum in Kansas City and the Tokyo National Museum. A noticeboard at the site lists significant statues that are missing and their current whereabouts. Some effigies are returning and severed heads are gradually being restored to their bodies, but many statues have clearly just had their faces crudely bludgeoned off, vandalism that dates to the Cultural Revolution and earlier episodes of anti-Buddhist fervour. Weather has also played its part, wearing smooth the faces of many other statues.

The caves are scattered in a line on the west and east sides of the river. Most of the significant Buddhist carvings are on the west side, but a notable crop can also be admired after traversing the bridge to the east side. Admission also includes entry to a temple and garden on the east side. English captions are rudimentary despite the caves being a major tourist drawcard. The caves are numbered and illuminated at night (aficionados and those seeking a different experience can opt for night tickets). Whether you visit in the day or night, allow your eyes to adjust to the light inside the cave and details will start to pop out. We list some of the major caves below.

The Lóngmén Caves are 13km south of Luòyáng and can be reached by taxi (¥30) or bus 81 (¥1.50, 40 minutes) from the east side of Luòyáng’s train station. The last bus 81 returns to Luòyáng at 8.50pm. Buses 53 and 60 also run to the caves.

From the west side, you can take a boat (¥20 to ¥25) back to the main entrance to get a riverside view of the grottoes. Note that you can’t re-enter the west side once you leave. From the east side, there are electric carts (¥5 to ¥10) to take you back to the main entrance.