My photographer and I alight from our taxi in the centre of Yanshi, a shabby township straddling the Luo River, our presence eliciting curious stares from the locals, many of whom are employed at a nearby power plant. The only visible distractions in this part of Luoyang, in Henan province, are a few massage parlours, a smattering of pokey noodle joints and an inconspicuous museum.

There’s some confusion about how to admit a foreigner and a Hongkonger, neither of whom have a Chinese ID card, into the Shang Museum. Evidently, they don’t get many visitors from distant lands. We are eventually granted access with a shrug, protocol presumably not worth the paperwork.

 

This may be small-town China but the relics housed within, sourced from archaeological digs in the surrounding countryside, are among the great treasures of the ancient world, and suggest that the Xia (2070-1600BC), China’s first dynasty, and the subsequent Shang (1600-1046BC) established major settlements in Luoyang and its neighbouring counties more than 1,000 years before Celtic Britons figured out how to forge iron.

Eight hours and 1,300km after leaving Hong Kong, I find myself thinking, “This is Zhongyuan,” as our high-speed train makes its final dash across the central plains, the Middle Kingdom’s middle, from where the word “Zhongguo” (“China”) is derived.

Henan’s reputation as a land exhausted by overcultivation and whose principal exports are low lifes and low-income workers, seems unfounded in the glorious blaze of springtime.

If the wheat fields dancing beneath cobalt skies suggest any­thing, it is that early civilisations were wise to sow their seeds here rather than in the craggy, typhoon-lashed southeast, where many of China’s economic hubs are situated today.

Between naps, pots of rehydrated noodles and toilet breaks, I swat up on all things Luoyang.

“No other place can offer such detailed evidence of man’s development as this North China plain, cradled, as if in the crook of an arm, by the great right-angle bend of the Yellow River,” wrote erstwhile BBC television presenter Bamber Gascoigne, in his 1973 book, The Treasures and Dynasties of China.

Many more ancient treasures have been unearthed since Gascoigne made such a bold endorsement of Luoyang and its environs. Then, Mao Zedong’s dysfunctional China was virtually inaccess­ible to the outside world; now, the country is more open and more stable, and archaeologists are free to dig again.

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The excavation of a 2,000-year-old palace in the village of Erlitou, Yanshi county – which has since been recovered as farmland – led to the site being identified as Zhengxun, the last capital of the Xia, by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. This sparked both excitement and scepticism throughout the academic world.

Intriguingly, the palace had a triple gate, as all Chinese royal cities thereafter would. And among the pottery and bronze articles discovered in the ruins was an ornate, dragon-shaped sceptre, suggesting that recognisable Chinese imagery reaches back further in time than was hitherto believed.

The debate over whether this is a late Xia or early Shang site continues to echo down university halls, but as a simple traveller, I am content to meditate on the passing scenery, gazing across the fields and wondering what else might lie beneath the yellow earth.

Downtown Luoyang does little to conjure any sense of antiquity. I am mentally prepared for this but can’t shake the disappointment, lingering like MSG-doused stinky tofu in the back of the throat.

The city on the sunny (yang) side of the Luo River was deemed the centre of the universe by the ancient Chinese but a seemingly inescapable cycle of death and rebirth has afflicted it since.

In the 14th-century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Luoyang is depicted as the mighty centre of authority, rather like today’s Beijing, populated by scheming officials. But when warlord Dong Zhou is forced to flee, he sets the city ablaze, symbolically bringing down the curtain on the Han dynasty (206BC-AD220). Luoyang would go up in flames several more times, most recently when the invading Japanese torched the city in 1944, during the Battle of Henan.

After reconstruction, the Cultural Revolution hit famine-prone Henan hard, and throughout the reform era, invest­ment has drifted downstream to new ports and away from the landlocked citadels of Old China.

A zestless urban scene is what’s left in the dusty wake of the recent past.

“In China’s hierarchical political system, a lowly prefectural city lacks sufficient funds to curate its legacy,” says Hong Kong-based publisher and Chinese-literature translator Harvey Thomlinson, who has recently visited Luoyang. “But the truth is, beneath the dust of a typical modern Chinese city is a fascinating opportunity to discover the starting point of Chinese culture.”

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I just need to find that starting point. I scour what constitutes old Luoyang and, eventually, at the far end of the Tang-era West Street, standing in the half-light of dusk, I come upon a beautiful drum tower. Up until the early 20th century, the imperial curfew, the drawing of the city gates, would have been signalled from this tower, as was the rule in all strictly administered Chinese cities.

The following morning I brunch near Wangcheng Park on a local delicacy, tofu soup, then attempt to walk off the gooey broth in the public gardens, home to amusement-park rides, candyfloss stalls and even a small zoo. Weekenders potter about on pedal boats on the Jian River, which has carved out a gorge that bisects the park.

A plaque states that the park was constructed atop ruins of the Eastern Zhou capital, forged in 771BC. Some 200 years later, somewhere where peonies now grow, Emperor Xuandi praised Luoyang thus: “Dominated by heaven it is here yin and yang merge with each other. Governed by earth, it receives ample tributes with its convenient transport system.”

We know a great deal more about the Zhou dynasty (1046-255BC) than the fact-meets-fiction Xia and Shang that preceded it. And much of Zhou’s long drama played out on Luoyang’s stage.

 

Not far from Wangcheng Park is the Duke of Zhou Temple, which commemorates the presumed author of

The Rites of Zhou, a book of bureaucratic theory. The thread of his ideas can be traced through Chinese history to the present day, as anyone who has dealt with a Communist Party cadre can attest. Known simply as Dan, the duke is now credited with a list of impressive achievements, from musical compositions to the founding of the city of Luoyang itself.

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When the Zhou clan eventually fell into decline, the chaos of dynastic demise cultivated a culture of inquiry akin to that found in ancient Greece, producing some of China’s most enduring thinkers. According to legend, philosophical titans Lao Tzu, then a Zhou archivist, and Confucius, 20 years his junior and fascinated by The Rites of Zhou, met on Luoyang’s streets.

A failed-official-turned-wandering-sage from the neighbouring state of Lu, Confucius regarded the early Zhou as a model society, one defined by obedience and cohesion, and this informed his conservative credo regarding familial relations and, by extension, the harmony of the state. Back in the fourth-century BC, it seems, the Chinese were already looking to the past with a sense of nostalgia.

The bloody end to the dynasty is told with the character­istic understatement I am beginning to associate with humble Luoyang.

In 2003, in the middle of a roundabout, 12 chariots were unearthed. One of them was found with the skeletons of six horses alongside it, a sign that this was a royal interment. A roof was erected over the area and the artefacts are now on display in the unassuming Museum of Luoyang Eastern Zhou Royal Horse and Chariot Pits.

Bus No 77 gets me to the enormous Luoyang Museum, home to the largest collection of Luoyang wonders, including drinking vessels and cutting tools attributed to the Xia; Shang-era ritual cauldrons; axe heads and swords inscribed with the primitive precursors to Chinese characters; and Zhou-period chariot axles and pottery.

As the visitor straddles the centuries, from one exhibition room to the next, the age of ancestors gives way to that of trade. A door bracket from Rome, a Northern Wei Buddhist effigy, a Tang-era tricolour pottery camel are all evidence that China was now doing business with the outside world, along the Silk Road.

The genesis of the Silk Road was a Han-dynasty military cam­paign aimed at quelling foes to the west, notably the pesky Xiongnu, steppe nomads with an unhealthy appetite for raping and pillaging their way through the northern Chinese heartlands.

As historian Peter Frankopan explains in his 2015 book, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, “a concentrated effort was made to take control of the agriculturally rich western regions of Xiyu; the nomads were driven back as the Chinese took control of the Gansu corridor in a decade-long series of campaigns that ended in 119BC. To the west lay the Pamir mountains and, beyond them, a new world. China had opened a door leading to a transcontinental network; it was the moment of the birth of the Silk Roads.”

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Imperial coffers soon swelled with the riches of distant Romans, whose appetite for made-in-China textiles plunged the Latin world into debt.

The Confucian habit of looking to history to know the future has contemporary China in a flurry of activity unseen since the build-up to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Every­one wants to be seen to be doing his or her part to realise the current repaving of the Silk Road, rebranded as the “Belt and Road Initiative”.

Local authorities are equally keen to carve off a succulent piece of the pie; after all, if you find yourself anywhere along the Silk Road, investment could be heading your way. Which raises some debate as to where the Silk Road – an abstract concept at best – actually began.

For many, Xian was the starting point. This is not an unreasonable supposition; Changan (as it was known until the Ming dynasty) dominated China in the first millennium AD. But the dragon throne moved about a great deal and Luoyang was often the seat of central authority. And as the place where the Grand Canal meets the Yellow River, Luoyang is more than justified in staking its claim as a pivotal Silk Road player.

Religion is a strong indicator of old-world cultural exchange. Islam expanded into China from the seventh to the 10th centuries, bringing with it Central Asian foods and traditions. Huimin Jie, Luoyang’s Muslim quarter, where barbecued halal mutton served with naan bread is easy to come by, is testament to Islam’s incursion during the cosmopolitan Tang dynasty (AD618-907), the capital of which alternated between Changan and Luoyang.

Today, however, the so-called ethnic Hui – who are spread across China and whose only kinship with one another is their faith in Islam – often appear ghettoised. Islam survives but feels more tolerated than integral to the culture at large.

Before the words of the Prophet were heard in Luoyang, the teachings of another foreigner had crept down the Silk Road, an Indian prince who would capture the hearts and the minds of the Chinese like no other. The story of how the Chinese became so enchanted with Buddhism is told in various sites in and around Luoyang.

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A few kilometres out of town and beyond a crowded bazaar are the sacred gates of the White Horse Temple, which was established in AD68, when Luoyang was the capital of the Eastern Han dynasty, although the existing temple is mostly of Ming-dynasty (1368-1644) provenance. What the masses brandishing selfie sticks seem to miss as they pose before the Hall of the Heavenly Kings are the inconspicuous graves of two Indians. Here lie Kasyapa Matanga and Dharmarata, and with them rests the key to Chinese Buddhist history.

Legend tells of Emperor Ming’s dream of a foreign wise man that led to an early Han expedition down the Silk Road. The entourage reached what is now Afghanistan and returned with two Indian monks, who endeavoured to transcribe Buddhist sutras for the rest of their days. They rode white horses and were buried here, in this temple.

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We are soon in another taxi, heading deep into the country­­side in search of one of China’s great heroes, whose endea­vours still inspire everything from computer games to cartoons.

Journey to the West, China’s best-known fairly tale, is a Ming dynasty fantasy based on monk Xuanzang’s epic 17-year journey to India, from where he returned with Buddhist scriptures, which he translated in Xian, then the capital of Tang China. But Xuanzang was a son of Luoyang and his family residence can still be visited.

It’s a half-forgotten place, remote and overgrown, which makes it all the more enchanting. Past mud-brick villages standing amid vineyards – another Silk Road import – and wutong trees, the visitor finds a leafy courtyard house fronted by two lions. Upstairs, past a sign half covered by ivy and weeds stating that the site was last refurbished in 1993, are two rooms, one to the west, “Xuanzang’s bedroom”, and one to the east, his study. Visitors drink from the family well for good luck.

The words “Dust Knows” are carved into a wall by the gate, an apt reflection on the endeavours of a self-professed “nobody” who did so much to inspire faith and fiction in the Middle Kingdom. Down the road, and in stark contrast, stands a new, big, brash Xuanzang memorial hall.

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Buddhism came as close to being a state religion as any faith has in China, although during the later Tang, a Taoist revival in Luoyang saw its relegation to a “pillar” of society. As Frankopan notes, “By the 460s, Buddhist thought, practices, art and imagery had become part of the mainstream in China.”

Soon, competing forces would carry the banner of the Buddha, the logic being that if you placated your enemy, it was because God was on your side. This was as true of non-Han expansion as it was for the ethnic Han dynasties, such as the pious Sui (AD581-618), who would make their capital in Luoyang towards the end of their time.

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The Northern Wei, who preceded the Sui, ruling northern China from AD386 to 535, underlined their legitimacy by erecting effigies of the Buddha at various sites, including Longmen, just outside Luoyang.

This is now the main draw to the area, a Unesco heritage site of breathtaking scale and artistry. The artisanship of a thousand nameless craftsmen adorns the grottoes that stretch along the west bank of the Yi River. The cluster of massive Tang effigies known as the Fengxian Temple is the centrepiece of this medieval marvel and Buddha here is apparently modelled on China’s sole empress, Wu Zetian, who had perceived herself as the Buddha of the future.

It’s hard to see why Luoyang is so underrated when com­pared with other great capitals of China. April is peak season and the Luoyang Peony Festival, which com­memorates Wu, is in full bloom, yet we never feel over­whelmed by crowds – something, of course, to be grateful for. We’ve seen only two foreign tourists throughout our trip, and one of those seemed solely interested in propping up the hotel bar.

Perhaps it is because the cityscape is so underwhelming. The tawdry reconstructed city walls and the reimagining of Wu’s palace above the ruins of the Sui-Tang city are not befitting of the empress, who moved her capital to Luoyang, briefly re-established the Zhou dynasty and sponsored great Buddhist art. Other Disneyfied attractions loom large. A billboard near Xuanzang’s ancestral home promises a shop­ping mall and theme-park attractions, although the enter­prise appears to have stalled.

But perhaps Luoyang’s woes are as much logistical as misguided. Many tour buses leave Xian for Longmen, then head onto Shaolin and its famous monastery, the other heritage sites omitted from tourist itineraries altogether.

We’ve been blessed with fine weather throughout our tour but, as we approach Luoyang’s Guanlin Temple in a motorised rickshaw, a wind whips up and the sky turns the colour of coal dust. We briefly consider turning back, but we have one last key site to visit.

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We rush through the Enlightened Sage Hall, past the cypress trees and the Hall of the God of Wealth and make our way to the earthen mound at the rear of the temple complex. Here, it is said, rests Guan Yu’s head.

The legendary general was decapitated in AD220 after Sun Quan, founder of the state of Eastern Wu, betrayed him, according to the historical text Records of the Three Kingdoms. However, Cao Cao, an adversary who nonetheless admired him, had Guan’s body carved in eaglewood and gave it an honourable burial here in Luoyang. The temple was built in the Ming dynasty to commemorate the Shu general whose reputation for valour has elevated him to Taoist sainthood. He is also worshipped as the god of wealth and his statue can often be found in Chinese stores and restaurants around the world.

Reverent visitors wait in line to drop a coin into a hole in the earthen mound that Guan is said to be buried in and wish for prosperity. As always, myth and reality blend in China, while the past ever informs the future.


Seat of power

As far as can be ascertained, the various dynasties that made Luoyang their capital included:

The Eastern Zhou dynasty – 771-314BC
The Eastern Han dynasty – AD25-190 and then briefly in AD196
The state of Cao Wei (AD220-265) – during the Three Kingdoms period
The Western Jin dynasty – AD265-311
The Northern Wei dynasty – AD493-534
The Sui dynasty – AD605-618
The Zhou dynasty – AD690-705
The later Tang dynasty during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period – AD923-936 and AD907-913


How to get there

High-speed trains depart Shenzhen North for Luoyang Longmen three times a day

Thomas Bird and Harvey Thomlinson will be talking about Luoyang at a Royal Geographical Society – Hong Kong event on July 27, at 7.30pm, in Pacific Place, Admiralty.