Expat Magazine

KungFu But No Panda: Welcome to Third Tier China

By Mint Mocha Musings @nicoledwebb

Travelling to Shaolin Temple

It was an extra long weekend in China; the centuries old, Dragon Boat Festival was in action. 

With barely a patch of water to be found up here in Xi’an, it does seem a little off the wall — still we’ll take it, thanks! Happy Holidays! 

Mind you, nothing’s for free. The government likes to make you work Sunday in return for giving you a day off! 

“You get what you get….and you don’t get upset!”  As I can be heard reciting to the Small Person on one too many occasions.

So, with a few days up our sleeves, we decide to go on an adventure.

My head is always in two places about these kind of “China adventures”

As much as I know I ‘clearly’ thrive on risky, unexpected experiences — they are also completely exhausting (mentally more often than physically)! 

Who am I kidding, just living in China is mentally exhausting.  😯 

high speed train China

Psyched for action, with a loose itinerary marked out, we hot-foot it to the train station to catch one of China’s high speed bullet trains! These babies are what’s not exhausting about China. Bloody brilliant really. No checking in, no customs, no long, drawn out x-ray machines, (times ten), no waiting for bags at the end…. it’s one x-ray machine — the one-in-all-in, throw your bag through kind, where you desperately hope the contents of your handbag aren’t splayed across the floor on the other side!

Line up at the correct train entrance and you’re off without so much as a jolt, despite flying through the countryside at 300-plus kilometres per hour. It’s smooth and comfortable. It takes us one and a half hours to reach Luoyang.


Having briefly done my research, I’ve discovered that Luoyang is in central China’s Henan Province; it’s one of China’s smaller cities with a population of around, oh… 6.5 million! Small, really. 

I know how Xi’an likes to boast it’s the “cradle of civilisation” so when I read Luoyang also wears this crown I’m surprisingly a little on the defensive…..”Can’t be so! This is Xi’an’s territory!” But it seems with such a vast history stretching back thousands of years, there are many cities in China that can lay claim to such rich titles.

A tier three city, initially, driving through it was almost disappointing. I had been hoping for a more remote, village-type atmosphere… but this is China, where urbanisation is snaking it’s way across the country in the form of 600-plus concrete jungles, at a rapid pace. The real rural parts of China are retreating further and further back into the hills.

And while admittedly, I’ve been one to harp on, that every city in China is glaringly unique, there’s a definite mirror image shining on many of these newish, urbanised China city-scapes. There’s concrete…lots of it, high-rises, rows and rows of them (many empty)….cranes careening across the sky and a maze of highways, thronging with cars in every shade and shape. Most of them new(ish) by the way….given in these cities, cars are a relatively ‘new’ fad. Ten to 15 years ago, the roads were all but empty of the 4-wheel variety. 

Luoyang City

Despite the definite modernisation taking place, there are as many, if not more bikes, trikes and Tuk Tuks chugging through the streets than Xi’an….along with an endearing ramshackle feel, I like to call the “real” China. 

At first sight, the city has less character, charm and possibly less sophistication than it’s 2nd-tier neighbour, Xi’an….but it doesn’t matter so much, because the city is not what tourists come to see. Unless, like our hotel guest relations manager proudly tells us, her chest puffed out, “You come for the Peonies!” Apparently, Louyang has them in spades…. only in April though, so if this is your thing, you need to plan accordingly.

Luoyang Peonies

Mostly though, it’s the famous Shaolin Temple and the Longmen Grottoes that claim many a traveller’s time. Naturally they made it on to our itinerary but unlike us, I would advise reading up on the two well before you get to the actual site and frantically try to Google their claim to fame.

An hour and a half drive from Luoyang to the Shaolin Temple, it’s by no means a quick trip.

To this day it’s the main temple for the Shaolin school of Buddhism and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Shaolin Monastery Monks

On arrival, as if on cue, we spot a rare monk, his long orange cloak flowing behind him as he walks purposely along the pathway, mountains in the distance, temples standing tall in the background. It’s a mystical moment.

These days, the site has become rather commercialised, so while it’s still a monastery, I’m told, finding monks that aren’t perched behind stalls selling trinkets or cold drinks is difficult.

Shaolin Temple Red Door

Despite the hoards of tourists now flocking to the sight though, high up in the Song Shan Mountains, the surroundings feel quite peaceful and enchanting. 

Getting around is less mystical and slightly more mystifying – if you don’t speak/read Chinese. 

We waste many a moment in the blazing hot sun looking at maps, perplexed and pained! You see the area is not just limited to a single temple…it’s spans a huge area (that you cannot get around quickly, especially with small person in tow) with everything from the Pagoda Forests to caves, kung fu displays and cable car rides.

Shaolin Temples

After eventually working out where the ticket office is and deciding we need to hop on a buggy to get “somewhere,” our first stop is unintentionally the Shaolin Temple. Built in 495AD it consists of seven platforms, each layer with what they call ‘halls’ in typical Chinese architecture. During its heyday, it housed more than 3,000 monks and today the monastery is still home to monks in training.

And then there’s these scary fellas, who guard the Hall of Heavenly Kings. They’re Buddhist warrior attendants.

Buddha Warriors Shaolin

And while my ego is utterly deflated when my attempts to speak Chinese fall completely flat, there are plenty of options to practice. Every few steps, a proud parent is shuffling little ‘Wang Xiao’ or ‘Zheng Cai’ into our personal space for some chit chat, hand holding and a photo. I decide talking to the kids is much easier. 

Foreigners in China

Our next stop, the Pagoda Forest… we have a little trouble finding our way here too — neither the hotelier or I are good with directions at the best of times, let alone when they’re in another language. (About now I’m strongly lamenting the fact that we don’t have a tour guide!

Pagodas Shaolin

Anyway, I have another go in Chinese and to my relief am understood. We make it to the forest, which is actually a cemetery made up of tall stone pagodas. Each Buddha was given his own Pagoda tomb – around 15 metres high; the layers and the shape depending on their status, attainment and prestige achieved during their lifetime. I’m trying to be impressed, but given my current status living opposite the pagoda of all pagodas, I’m struggling a little to appreciate their significance. Blame the heat!

Admittedly, the forest looks a lot more awe-inspiring from above!

Cable Car up SongShan Mountain

Feeling hot, thirsty and more than a little tired from so much foot work, in a heat-induced state of delirium, we find ourselves agreeing to take the cable car up the side of the mountain! Now in any country in the West, I would be a little timid about jumping on one of these at the best of times, but in China, when I know all too well how things are made, I’m aware I may have momentarily lost my mind. As we wait to get on….it’s literally a case of leaping into the steel-framed, open, rather rattly cable car, hoping for the best. Up we go, tugged up the mountain side. Doing my best not to be overtaken by sheer terror, I try to appreciate the serenity.

Ok, it is tranquil.  

Not so much on the other side…. a rare (in every way) platform overlooking the stunning mountains made for the perfect photo opportunity, except for the pesky man who keeps trying to tell us we can’t take our own photos. Instead he’s encouraging us to stand with a number of odd pieces, including a stuffed tiger with it’s teeth falling out and a double swing with live peacocks either side! That’ll be ten kuai thanks. It’s about now I think we just need to get off this, er ride….

An ice cream to quench our parched bodies and ease the heart palpitations, we jump back on the cable car for an ever so slightly less terrifying ride down. Everyone on the way up is cheerily yelling out “Hello” to the Waiguo ren as they pass us…a site no doubt…as rare as the peacocks to some, so we reciprocate with a bit of cheerful “Nihao” and I manage to relax enough for a selfie. 

Foreigners on cable car in China

Back down and we end up back where we started. We’ve missed the Kung fu show but are lucky to spy about 200 boys practicing Kung fu. We sneak in (as inconspicuously as the three foreigners can) and watch for a good ten minutes. It’s mesmerising and indicative of the discipline China’s children possess. 

Martial Arts Shaolin Monastery

Kung Fu Training Shaolin Temple

On the way to and from Luoyang city, we pass through the villages I’ve been keen to see… it’s nearing dusk and kids are out playing amongst the rubble, parents are winding up their stalls for the day, sweeping away mounds of rubbish; elderly members of the community are sitting on plastic chairs just content to watch the traffic roll by. 

Shaolin Villages

Rested and recharged, the next day, we gear up for a trip to the renowned Longmen Grottoes. It’s a 45 minute drive from the cities (but just FYI from the train station, just ten minutes)…. 

Caves at Longmen Grottoes

Again, our newly inherited travelling complacency doesn’t bode well in 35 degree heat, but after getting some Chinese out with ‘slightly’ more success, we find ourselves walking for at least 30 minutes to reach the grottoes on the other side of the river.

Stretched over a kilometre, there are more than 2000 caves and niches carved into the stone.

These amazing statues of Buddha and his disciples are carved into limestone rock on the side of the cliff and their sheer size and the detail make it impossible to be unimpressed.

Carved over centuries, the style of sculptures change significantly.

Buddhas Longmen Grottoes

Stone Carvings Longmen

Looking down Steep stairs Longmen
Just when it seems like the intensity of the sun will sap the last of our energy, curiosity and another ice block gives us the strength to climb these extremely steep steps! 

Tag teaming it up to see what all the fuss is about, at the top, it’s definitely worth the effort. (My Fitbit would agree if the battery hadn’t died.) 

Visiting Longmen Grottoes

At the end of the spectacle though, it’s with much relief that we can take a boat ride back to the start. 

Boats at Longmen Luoyang

Sightseeing almost over for these three Amigos, a 45 minute ride on the high speed rail later and we’re in Zhengzhou, our stop for the night – a city of 9 million! A gigantic concrete jungle, Zhengzhou is the capital of Henan Province. It’s one of the nation’s major industrial cities and has become known as a rail hub, you can travel virtually anywhere in China from. It’s also a huge coal mining area. Hello pollution!

Visiting Zhengzhou Henan Province

And of course, just to make sure we don’t forget we’re in China for a second, the ubiquitous rumbling of fireworks can be heard across the morning sky.

So, after an action-packed weekend of adventure — peering at buddhas, grottoes, kung fu and chaotic concrete jungles — it was time to travel at high speed back to Xi’an…our own pocket of madness in the Middle Kingdom, where the adventures just keep on coming.

This is China.  



Train Tickets

Xi’an to Louyang 174.50RMB

Luoyang to Zhengzhou 101.25RMB

Zhengzhou to Xi’an 239RMB 

Children half price

Entry Fees

Shaolin Temple 150RMB – shuttle buggy 25RMB

Cable car 50RMB

Longmen Grottoes 100RMB plus shuttle bus, if need to get into the site from the entry point.

Ice-blocks (Around 10RMB) 😉

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