The Mogao Caves have been described as one of the greatest repositories of Buddhist art in the world. However they’re located a butt-numbing 2500 kilometers from Beijing. As I have mentioned before I am coming to grips with the fact that I can’t see everything on this trip. However, while we crossed Mogao Caves off our list for this trip we did research on what other ancient caves are worth seeing that aren’t several days travel from civilization. We found the Longmen Caves in Luoyang and the Yungang Caves in Datong.
Both Luoyang and Datong are an overnight train ride from Beijing, so distance is not a deciding factor on which to visit. Both cities offer budget accommodations and modern amenities. While Datong is less developed than Luoyang, which features a well-preserved old town with an active night market, Datong’s renovation of the old city walls makes me think it will catch up very soon. In addition a high-speed train line will soon serve Datong from Beijing, cutting down travel time by several hours. Both caves have big Buddhas and are UNESCO World Heritage sights, and from our research prior to visit both deserved our time.
The atmospheric streets of Luoyang’s old town make it a great place to spend time before or after visiting the Longmen Caves
Without the emergence of a clear front-runner between the two cave sites we decided to visit both. However, I know that not everyone has three months to spend in China. That being said I can tell you the decision between the two is a no-brainer. While I don’t regret visiting both, the Yungang Caves far outshine the Longmen Caves. The Yungang Caves description in Lonely Planet reads “…these 5th century caves containing 51,000 ancient statues, blow away every neighboring temple, pagoda and courtyard. Prepare to be gobsmacked.” We were to say the least awe-inspired.
The vibrant colors and well-preserved paintings at the Yunggang Caves are nothing short of stunning! Each cave features hundreds of stone Buddha images and ornate paintings in bright colors to accent the images. The 53 grottoes in Yungang Caves comprise over 1,000 niches with more than 51,000 statues a masterpiece that combines traditional Chinese art forms with foreign influences from the Greeks and Indians. Sculptures here are amazing for their life-like features and rich variety, ranging from the smallest, only 2 centimeters high, to the tallest Buddha towering over you at 17-meters high.
The caves were carved during the Northern Wei Dynasty under the watchful eye of a Buddhist monk named Tan Yao. They took 50 years to complete and some 40,000 people, including the Buddhists from what is presently Sri Lanka, contributed to the huge project. The grottoes stretch one kilometer from east to west, so you don’t have to worry about getting your money’s worth. The ticket may be a little pricey compared to other attractions in China, but the grounds are pristine and the caves are well preserved.
If you are planning on visiting both cave sites, you’ll want to visit the Longmen Caves first to avoid disappointment, as the Yunggang Caves are far superior. The Longmen caves consist of as many as 100,000 statues throughout the 1,400 caves. The Buddha images range in size from 25 mm to 17 meters, about the same spread as in Datong. The area also contains nearly 2,500 stelae and inscriptions and over sixty Buddhist pagodas. Situated in a scenic natural environment, the caves were dug from a one kilometer stretch of cliff running along both banks of the Yi River.
However, with all the dimension similarities the Lognmen caves are not nearly as spectacular, with no beautiful color accents and many damaged Buddhas. Several caves feature a large Buddha with no face or even no head. Below is a glimpse of the best Buddha in all of Longmen, located in the ancestor worshiping cave. If you have the time, Longmen is a great trip, but if you are on a schedule conserve your time, money and finances for just one trip to Datong and the Yunggang Grottoes.
The Longmen Caves finest specimen is the giant Buddha in the Ancestor Worshiping Cave, he has two meter long ears.
WHEN YOU GO:
Bring a Drivers License, flashing a driver’s license or any other “official” form of ID that has your picture on it will get you a student discount at both cave sites. This will save you at least half the entrance fee, which is well worth your effort.
Bring a tripod, if you want to get good pictures, or any pictures at all you’re going to need a tripod as many of these caves are far too dark to hand hold your camera.