WALKING along the banks of the Yihe River toward Longmen Grottoes on a drizzly morning, I watched the mighty river wind slowly through the "gateway" formed by mountains on either side.
Surveying the scene, it was easy to understand why this valley between the Longmen and Xiangshan mountains was once known as "Yique" - literally "the gate of the Yihe River."
The Longmen Grottoes lie in the south of Luoyang, in central China's Henan Province.
The city was capital of 13 ancient Chinese dynasties and is considered the origin of the central plains Heluo Culture.
Some 1,400 years ago, when Suiyang Emperor Yang Guang (AD 569-618) climbed Mangshan Mountain in north Luoyang and saw Yique to the south, he was awed by the sight, describing it as "a supernatural valley awaiting the arrival of the Son of Heaven."
So impressed was the emperor, that his palace design was influenced by the valley.
"When building the royal palace, Yang Guang ordered that the front gate directly faces Yique Valley. From that time, people called the valley 'Longmen' - the gate of the dragon," explained my tour guide Zhu, pointing to a forceful inscription of "Yique" halfway up Longmen Mountain.
The world-renowned Longmen Grottoes, carved into the mountains on both sides of the river, date back to AD 493 when Emperor Xiaowen (AD 467-499) relocated the capital of the Northern Wei (AD 386-557) to Luoyang city from today's Datong in neighboring Shanxi Province.
Stretching around a kilometer, Longmen boasts 23,000 grottoes and more than 100,000 Buddha images - up to two-thirds dating from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).
Travelling from India, west to China, Buddhism was the state religion in Northern Wei, Sui (AD 589-618) and Tang dynasties, and grotto building reached a peak at Longmen.
Sophisticated large-scale statues, stone carvings and inscriptions are nestled in grottoes dotting Longmen Mountain. Its formations offered thicker, more solid strata than on Xiangshan Mountain opposite.
Like many other grottoes in China, Longmen exhibits a kaleidoscope of politics, economics, religion, culture and art, and encompasses eight dynasties over 400 years.
But what makes it stand out is its dramatic transition in its art - more localized and human than styles in other complexes.
"Unlike the dignified and masculine Buddha images in the Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi Province, the works created during the Northern Wei Dynasty in Longmen are more slim, gentle and delicate," Zhu said, as she led me into Longmen's Binyang caves.
'Oh Yeah' Buddha
I noticed a group of tourists gathered outside the north cave, striking a familiar "Oh Yeah!" V-for-victory pose while getting their photographs taken. Walking up to the group I saw that they were posing beside a statue and I burst out laughing.
Although the left arm was missing and half of his face weathered away, here was a cross-legged Buddha sitting peacefully - holding aloft his right arm with his fore and middle fingers extended. And yes, there was indeed an uncanny resemblance to the V-for-victory photographic pose.
"The Buddha can't be that trendy, can it?" I asked.
"No. It's a Buddhist 'mudra' gesture to calm pilgrims and give them courage in the face of danger," Zhu smiled.
Still, many tourists fondly call it the "Oh Yeah" Buddha and flock to pose for photographs.
Three Binyang caves
The three Binyang caves were created during the reign of Emperor Xuanwu (AD 483-515) to honor his parents. It took 24 years just to complete the middle one, carved to commemorate Xuanwu's father, Emperor Xiaowen (AD 467-499).
The main statue has big eyes and a high nose bridge, features associated with the Xianbei nomads of Northern China, the emperor's tribe. A smile that seems to reach the eyes makes the statue more amiable-looking than the grand but austere Northern Wei statues in Yungang.
Loose-fitting robes with waistbands start to appear in Longmen's Northern Wei grottoes and prevail in Tang-period ones.
The south cave was intended to honor Emperor Xuanwu's mother, but work was halted due to war.
Then in AD 641, Li Tai, fourth son of Li Shiming, Emperor Taizong (AD 599-649) of the Tang Dynasty, resumed work in the south cave to pray for blessings for his mother, and find favor while fighting his brothers to determine who would eventually succeed their father.
And it worked. Li Tai emerged victorious and Emperor Taizong came to visit the cave in person when work was completed.
Li Tai's success over his siblings is recorded in inscriptions carved on the cliff in between the south and middle caves.
Written by acclaimed Tang politician and calligrapher Chu Suiliang, it is widely admired by calligraphy lovers.
Today, the original is shielded behind a reproduction, protecting it from tourists, erosion and treasure hunters.
Sadly, some priceless inscriptions have been lost to calligraphy vandals.
Zhu pointed to the blank spaces between the lines on the reproduction. "These are missing words destroyed by collectors to ensure rubbings they took are unique."
Another favorite of calligraphy lovers in Longmen is Guyang Cave. The earliest cave in Longmen, Guyang houses more than 1,000 inscriptions that embody the essence of Weibei style - or Northern Wei monumental writing style.
Of the 20 finest Weibei-style inscriptions in Longmen, 19 adorn Guyang Cave.
Longmen can boast many unique attractions among its treasures. For while it seems that every grotto complex in China has a Wanfo Cave - Ten-Thousand Buddha Cave - Longmen has the only one designed by female officials.
These women held high status in court during the reign of Empress Wu Zetian (AD 690-705).
The cave features 150,000 small Buddha relief sculptures adorning two adjoining side walls. A sculpted blossoming lotus surrounded by eight flying deities adorns the cave ceiling, while a round-faced Buddha statue with a serene smile sits against a flame-patterned mural. Above the mural are carved 52 Bodhisattva statues, each sitting on a lotus. All are said to have individual gestures and facial expressions.
'Venus de Milo'
On the south wall outside the cave is Longmen's very own "Venus de Milo" - a partly-destroyed relief sculpture of Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy.
Her graceful, casual pose, carrying a narrow-mouthed vase in her left hand and swinging a horsehair ceremonial whisk over the right shoulder, has led to the statue being dubbed the most enchanting Buddha in Longmen.
"Some visitors joke that the Goddess of Mercy looks like she's just come off duty," Zhu said.
She added that the statue inspired Peking opera master Mei Lanfang to create his signature gait when performing renowned opera "The Drunken Beauty." This tells the story of Tang concubine Yang Yuhuan (AD 719-756), one of the four beauties of ancient China, who was said to look even more exquisite after she'd had a drink or two.
Part of Guan Yin's face has been hacked off by bandits, with only her full lips offering a tantalizing hint of how she would have looked. Trying to imagine her features and expression is a frustrating task, and I feel I'm no nearer to evoking her likeness.
"No matter what you think, it just seems not right," Zhu agreed with me. "It's like trying to imagine the arms of 'Venus de Milo.'"
Amidst all this beauty, regret kept haunting me while visiting Longmen Grottoes.
Carved out of limestone, Longmen is less vulnerable to the elements than other grottoes. But a number of sculptures and inscriptions were defaced and destroyed when Buddhism was persecuted during the Tang Dynasty and the so-called "cultural revolution" (1966-76).
Other factors have taken their toll too. Many Buddha heads and other works are hacked off and looted by bandits over the years.
And in 1932, caves and shrines on Longmen Mountain were destroyed to make way for road construction when then government relocated the capital from Nanjing to Luoyang.
Yet somehow, these traumatic events and the evident scars miraculously lend beauty and mystery to the grottoes.
Repeatedly, I saw visitors reach out to touch and run their hands along Buddha statues along the zigzagging mountain path, even though this is forbidden.
The highlight of a Longmen tour comes at the Fengxian Temple, a huge open-air temple carved directly into the mountain.
More than 30 meters wide and nearly 40 meters deep, Fengxian Temple has 11 giant statues of Buddha and warriors - the largest has an earlobe as high as American basketball star Jeremy Lin. (That's 1.91 meters.)
The tricky thing is, due to the huge scale of the temple, there's no way to get a panorama view unless you climb several dozens stones stairs leading to a worship platform.
As we heaved and puffed our way up, Zhu urged me on. "Come on. There's a price to pay if you want to see the masterpiece," she cajoled.
And it was worth it. Reaching the top I was welcomed by the benign smile of the Vairocana Buddha, the main image worshipped in Fengxian Temple.
With a height of 17 meters, the plump, round-faced Buddha has peaceful, penetrating eyes, as if she can see through and understand all the hardships you may have faced.
"She has a smile just like Leonardo da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa,'" Zhu said.
"Wherever you stand, she's always looking at you with a soothing smile."
Skeptical, I moved to another spot; her gaze followed. I moved again; her gaze followed. Maybe my subconsciousness was playing a trick on me. Or maybe not.
Carved as a middle-aged female, the Vairocana Buddha is said to resemble China's only empress, Wu Zetian, who ordered the construction. The whole project only took two years and was entirely funded by the empress herself, a testimony to the kingdom's wealth and power.
Normally, I find murals with bold colors and imaginative patterns more captivating than sculptures. But Fengxian Temple is an exception. What it lacks in visual impact, it makes up with exquisite craftsmanship.
Other interesting sites in Longmen Grottoes include the Yaofang Cave (Prescription Cave), a Northern Wei cave home to 147 traditional Chinese medicine prescriptions for 30 diseases; Lianhua Cave (Lotus Cave) which houses a fantastic relief sculpture of blossoming lotus on the ceiling and an array of intricate relief sculptures and figurines; and Kanjing Cave (Cave for Reading Sutras) that features 29 delicate relief sculptures returned by Canada in 2001.
When night fell, the grottoes are illuminated - making Longmen Mountain resemble a glitzy engraved Easter egg - for the only grotto night tour in China.
Next month, these night tours will resume after winter break, featuring upgraded LED lights that bathe statues in Fengxian Temple in their original colors, long weathered away.
Seeing these vivid tones creates a link back to the people who created these beautiful works so many years ago and reminds us that despite all the hardships faced, Longmen Grottoes have endured.
If you go
How to get there:
Domestic airlines operate direct flights from Shanghai to Luoyang. The high-speed railway line from Henan's capital Zhenzhou to Longmen Grottoes and Luoyang takes about 45 minutes.
The city boasts a swift public transport system. Bus Nos. 53, 60, 81 all stops at Longmen Grottoes. A taxi ride from downtown to the site costs around 40 yuan (US$6.4).
The Longmen Grottoes site includes grottoes on the western Longmen Mountain, eastern Xiangshan Mountain, Xiangshan Temple and Baiyuan Garden - the resting place of Tang poet Bai Juyi (AD 772-846).
Opening hours: 8am-6:30pm; 120 yuan (US$19) per person.
Night tours of part of the site run from next month from 7pm, for 120 yuan per person.