When visiting Luoyang in China, which in itself is not a common destination for the western tourist and is mainly only Chinese tourist, we opted for an alternative to the ‘International Youth Hostel’. The hostel we chose (as there was only a choice of two on Hostelworld anyway) was run by a man and his teenage son letting out rooms in their 3 bedroom apartment on the top floor of an apartment block on the edge of the city, accessible only by dirt tracks. It is most definitely more like staying at someone’s house as a guest than in a hostel or hotel.
This has definitely been the best, and deepest, insight I’ve had into Chinese culture so far; into everyday life for the normal person and the effects of propaganda on the public, which, of course, we don’t talk about. There were a few occasions when the owner had some friends over as he treated us to a home cooked meal and through their conversation I managed to pick up a regularly used word, which it resulted translated to ‘Rebel’, there is definitely some unease amongst the people but it is all kept behind closed doors and even friends will stop each other when their conversation is becoming too controversial. This is a side to the people you will never be able to see from a hostel.
The people in the lesser trodden area are much friendlier and after being in big cities we had our defences up and found ourselves instantly hiding ourselves from anybody shouting ‘Hello’ on the street assuming they’re trying to either scam us or sell us something. This is of course a very negative attitude, especially when applied to the greeting of a small child. We learnt to say hello back instead of assuming the worst, much of the time they just wanted to greet someone who will otherwise feel a stranger. Also when buying things away from large tourist areas we were more likely to receive the local price rather than the ‘white person’ price. Making the experience much more positive.
The toughest part of being away from other tourists is to navigate your way around the city when everything is unrecognisable and you need to change busses and nobody speaks English. Our decision was to just go for it, if everything goes wrong you will have managed to see some scenery and only wasted maybe 20p on the transport. Luckily we got where we intended and found ourselves at the White Horse Temple, which, even on a Saturday was devoid of the hussle and crowds of the other tourist attractions we’d seen so far. I can’t quite imagine going to a Buddhist temple and having to push my way through to see inside the buildings. Because it’s not such a big city the sights aren’t very centralised and you can expect the bus to take an hour and a half a standard or a walk to the local noodle bar to be a spontaneous two mile walk without hesitation.
The other tourist attraction we visited in Luoyang was the Longmen Grottoes. These were very impressive, and the only place I saw another western face on my entire week in the city. The entry price is 120RMB but for this you can expect most of your day to be taken up looking around the complex. The caves themselves were fascinating with perhaps 50,000 buddhas carved throughout, 20,000 alone in the one room. One negative was the lack of written information explaining the age and reasoning as to how the carvings came to exist, but the visual effect alone was enough to wow. The natural areas around the grottoes was also quite spectacular as the straddle a river with picturesque mountainsides.
I think that when visiting a smaller, more diverse area it is important to spend a little more time there, if only to familiarise yourself with the area and the streets otherwise you run the risk of running from one attraction to the next without seeing the attraction of everyday life.