My next stop after Beijing (北京 – běijīng) was Datong (大同 – dàtōng), where refreshing 33-35 degrees were waiting for me. The high speed train takes around 2.5 hours and the person sitting next to me stroke up a conversation with me. He explained the scenery we were passing by and gave me some recommendations for Datong. The tree top sights of Datong are Yungang grottoes (云冈石窟 – yúngāng shíkū), hanging temple (悬空寺 – xuánkōngsì) and Heng shan (恒山 – héngshān).
Seeing the Yungang grottoes was my main reason for coming to Datong. When I arrived at the hotel, they said I’d still have enough time to visit them in the afternoon. I decided to go for it and then do the hanging temple the next day. I did manage to see both sights, but the staff’s time planning was in my opinion a bit optimistic. Three hours at the grottoes are at the lower limit to see it all (maybe I take too many photos …). The hanging temple took much longer to reach than anticipated. Luckily, I had split the itinerary spontaneously, otherwise this would have never worked out.
Heng shan is one of the five great mountains of China. However, as I was already planning on visiting Huashan (华山 ) – huáshān), which is also one of the five great mountains, I was fine with leaving this for another time.
So, why are the Yungang grottoes so famous? They are one of the three most famous sites of ancient Buddhist sculptures in China. They have been created in the 5th and 6th centuries, consisting of 254 caves and niches with more than 51’000 statues. In many grottoes you are not allowed to take pictures inside. However, if you visit the official website and click your way through the page, you will find photos showing the interior of the different caves you can visit (caves 1-5, caves 6-10, caves 11-15 and caves 16-20). Even though there were a lot of people, it was very impressive to see grottoes. I especially liked also one of the temples at the top, where they had a wonderful painting of a dragon.
Datong was the capital of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534) and the hanging temple was also built during that time. It’s the only monastery in China which enshrines all three religions (Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism). Getting there was a bit of a hassle, as the bus took much longer than it should have. Once of the bus, you negotiate the price of a ride to the temple with one of the cab drivers. Luckily, I was able to share a ride with a Chinese couple (the young lady was really good at negotiating the price!). The wooden pillars holding up the temple were originally not there and have only been added later for preservation and safety.
I was happy to have left Beijing and to see Datong. Here there were less people and everything felt a bit more relaxed. The Chinese people I met in Datong were very kind and friendly. They helped me to find the bus station and get off at the right stop (sometimes you have to tell the bus driver where you want to get off, which I did not know). Two university students invited me to join their table during lunch when they saw that I was eating by myself. The staff at the hotel was very patient with my Mandarin and did not switch to English (I’m sure their English was better than my Mandarin). I get a bit more starring in Datong than in Beijing, and am also asked for many more photos. I don’t mind taking pictures with strangers, as long as I’m asked beforehand. Some people ask me to hold / take a photo with their babies, which I find rather strange.
Besides the sights outside the city, the “old city” is also nice to see – well, at least parts of it. The current state of the city is a controversial topic, as much of the ancient parts have been completely demolished and rebuilt from scratch. Most locals no longer live there and the architecture of the new buildings are of a different style (Ming- and Qing-era) than the original ones (Northern Wei). The urban makeover has been going on since over a decade and is still not complete. I did see quite a couple of construction sites when I was walking around. However, looking beyond the negative impacts, the newly built part is very nice. I especially liked the area with art galleries. The rebuilding project aims at moving Datong’s economy away from the coal industry and growing its tourism. Datong is also known as “coal capital”, as it is one of the major coal providers in China (or at least used to be).
Off I go, as I have to take the train!