Outside Gongyi's Shikusi temple. Click for more photos

The ancient sites of Henan

Outside Gongyi's Shikusi temple.

  • Outside Gongyi's Shikusi temple.
  • Surviving the elements and looters.
  • An apsara at Shikusi temple.
  • An emperor on pilgrimage.
  • Empresses on pilgrimage.
  • Temple guards get a rub-down
  • Yinxu museum, a World Heritage site in search of a crowd.
  • An early form of the Chinese character, jiao, or to teach. It depicts a man holding a stick over a child learning mathematics.
  • Anyang's river bank could do with a clean-up campaign.

Put off by the crush of tourist hordes flooding China's famous historical sites like Beijing's Forbidden City or the Terracotta Warriors in Xi'an?

Don't be: the country offers a multitude of alternatives. China, after all, counted 557 emperors or empresses over three millennia, so the modern-day visitor can explore many a notable palace, tomb or temple relatively free from the masses.

On a recent trip to the Middle Kingdom, we chose to visit Henan province, southwest of Beijing, in our bid to stray from the usual tourist trail. Not that we expected much solitude: the province is home to some 95 million people, squeezed into an area smaller than Victoria.

Still, Henan hosts four of China's eight ancient capitals within relatively easy reach of Beijing, so we were confident of discovering some interesting history.

Two of those great centres, Luoyang and Kaifeng, are certainly worth a look. The former boasts the huge Longmen Buddhist statues, while the latter offers appealing Song dynasty palaces and lakes.

The highlight of our journey, though, was to a little-visited treasure between the two cities, the Shikusi, or Stone Grottoes Temple.

This relatively obscure destination is, in fact, just a short detour through cornfields off a major expressway near the city of Gongyi. On the day of our visit, we were virtually alone, save for friendly and knowledgeable guides (having a translator, though, is recommended).

The attraction includes beautiful Buddhist statues and friezes, carved out of the region's low hills during the short-lived Northern Wei dynasty. At the time, some 15 centuries ago, Buddhism was just dislodging Taoism as the court religion in China, achieving a status that it held more or less until 1911 (some might say Buddhism is elbowing Communism aside to reclaim its former dominance in today's China).

As we approached the first of the five main caves, our guides explained the cruder stonework on display where French and Japanese looters plundered some of the statues.

Fortunately, the remaining site has weathered the elements and political upheavals down the eons relatively well. The exquisite Buddhas and scenes of court life and pilgrimage luckily managed to survive the Communist ravages of the 1966-76 (anti-) Cultural Revolution mostly intact.

Inside the caves, eyes are naturally drawn upward to the calming features of the smiling Buddhas. We were just as impressed, though, by the flowing robes at the base of one statue - so lifelike and yet shaped from solid rock.

Our attention then settled on a pair of floating apsaras - celestial nymphs - of particular beauty. The two images now grace covers of Chinese art history books and are copied in textile designs - even neck-ties. Yet few Chinese have laid eyes on the originals.

The many elegant friezes are another stunning drawcard. Plump emperors and empresses, replete with full retinues of guards and servants, march in devout pilgrimage. Traces of the original paint can still be seen, hinting at the carvings' once vibrant colours.

Other caves feature thousands of miniature Buddhas, ornate ceilings and floors (especially in the fifth cave, normally closed to the public), and some unusual features, such as a "two-faced Buddha".

No wonder, then, that Shikusi served as a model for the super-sized Buddhas at Luoyang's world-famous (and more touristy) Longmen caves. (One Sydney-based connoisseur familiar with Shikusi favours it over Luoyang and other famous Buddhist statues at Datong.)

Before leaving Gongyi, visitors should ask to inspect the rows of statues guarding the tomb of a former Wei emperor's concubine - clearly a favourite, given the size and beauty of the stonework.

Gongyi's local museum is also worth a brief stop. The exhibits range from the Neolithic to the Tang and up to the Qing dynasty. At the time of our visit, the museum's top floor was devoted to contemporary rubbings of both the Shikusi grottoes and the concubine's 'guards.'

The rubbings themselves aren't difficult to produce - our nine year-old daughter got to try it – but the effect can still be arresting. The process turns out two-dimension renditions of finely worked three-dimensional carvings that can become an art form in their own right.

An'yang

Before leaving the region, we stopped off an An'yang, a city probably more famous today for its mammoth steelworks but once capital to China's first confirmed dynasty, the Shang.

Like Gongyi, An'yang probably won't make it on to many travellers' itineraries - also a pity, but for quite different reasons.

Anyang happens to be home to some of China's legendary construction binge. The rows of housing blocks and government edifices being thrown up at a frenetic pace also hint at the equally frantic recovery works by archaeologists, salvaging what they can before the reinforced concrete seals the relics for ever.

We were lucky to join a new form of Chinese tourism - connoisseurs who supplement archaeologists' meagre salaries by paying for private inspections of recently unearthed treasures.

We got to handle bronze and jade artefacts from the Shang, as well as some of the famous oracle bones used to divine the future almost 3000 years ago. We also wandered through storage rooms where ancient pottery shards await reconstruction and cataloguing.

An'yang is home to several grand museums, such as one devoted to Chinese characters. There you can experience, among other things, a "4-D" cinema that squirts water, puffs air, and rattles the seats to earn the extra dimension.

The World Heritage-listed Yinxu museum, though, is An'yang's must-see attraction even if the entry cost (about $15 an adult) left us almost solitary visitors on a recent week-day afternoon.

As part of a 30-square-kilometer area, Yinxu in fact marks the centre of China's largest archaeological site.

Among other achievements, the Shang became masters of bronze, giving them a military advantage. On display in the museum, for instance, are some gruesome rites inflicted by the Shang. Apparently they had it in for one Southern tribe and turned to them whenever human sacrifices were called for to appease the gods.

One less harsh Shang tradition has continued down to today - as one of the images shows. The original form of the Chinese character for teaching - jiao - is composed of a child doing mathematics while dad hovers, holding a big stick.

With that sobering discovery, we then boarded the inevitably overcrowded train - complete with an old lady crouched in the luggage rack - for a high-speed journey back to congested Beijing.

Henan's major cities, particularly the provincial capital Zhengzhou, are within easy reach by air from gateway cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. There's also a Zhengzhou-Beijing high-speed rail link.  Gongyi is about midway between Zhengzhou and Luoyang, and can be reached by rail, bus and car. High-speed rail travellers heading to back to Beijing from Zhengzhou can stop off at Anyang on the way.