On our 5th day in China, we woke at 4am and took a cab to the Beijing airport in order to catch a one hour flight to Datong, a city that was once China’s imperial capital but which is now a gritty metropolis of 3 million people struggling to redefine itself as a tourist destination. Datong’s main industry is coal mining (its nickname is “City of Coal”), but it is also in close proximity to the Hanging Temple and the Yungang Grottoes.
For a city of 3 million people, the Datong airport is unusually small, with only one terminal, which made it very easy to spot our guide, Judy, and our driver for this leg of our sightseeing trip. Our driver was friendly but spoke no English, so he was mostly silent over the course of the day. Judy, on the other hand, spoke fluent English. She had been an English teacher many years ago, but for the past thirteen years she has worked as a tour guide in the Datong area. We could not have had a better guide. She was friendly, informed, and enthusiastic.
Our first stop was to be the Hanging Monastery; a ninety minute drive from the airport. As I mentioned earlier, Datong is a mining town, so the roads are busy with huge coal-filled trucks that frequently slow to a crawl. When this occurs, cars attempt to pass them, driving on the wrong side of the two-lane blacktop into on-coming traffic, squeezing by one another by mere inches. Additionally, there are scores of scooters, mopeds and motorcycles heading the wrong way carrying un-helmeted passengers (sometimes more than one!) who perch precariously on the bikes’ frames and fenders. I expected to see at least one accident at some point during our drive, but luckily that didn’t happen.
The scenery along this first part of the route consisted of decrepit and decaying shops of one sort or another. I presume many were garages or machine shops, as outside, among the piles of dirt and bricks, there were lots of old cars and chunks of metal. Periodically pickup trucks sat stopped by the side of the road, loaded with watermelons for sale.
Eventually the scenery became more attractive with the appearance of thatches of trees and mountain ranges breaking up the horizon. Judy told us that there was a campaign in place to rejuvenate the countryside with lots of trees; and sure enough we saw multiple crews of men and women planting rows and rows of pines. The government had been disappointed by a previous planting campaign in which a large number of trees died because of poor care and so this time around companies were only being paid 30% of their fee up front, with the remainder to be paid over the following five years based on how many of the newly plated pines actually survive.
The Hanging Monastery is located near Mt. Heng, one of five Chinese mountains considered sacred to Taoists. As we pulled off of the winding road into the dirt parking lot, we joined hundreds of other tourists, purchasing tickets and then standing in an hour-long line before climbing up into the monastery itself.
The Hanging Monastery is unique in being dedicated to three different religions: Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. In fact, one of the main attractions within are three side-by-side statues dedicated to Lao Tzu, the Buddha and Confucius. The temple itself sits about 250 feet above the valley floor, suspended across a cliff face. Construction was started 1,400 years ago by one man: a monk named Liaoran. The last improvements and repairs were made in 1901. The far left structure sits atop a foundation of brick, but the right side of the monastery looks as if it has been glued to the rock wall. The only visible supports are long, wooden poles that appear to hold up the walkways; although Judy told us that they actually serve no real architectural function. They were just put in place to calm the fears of visitors who might think that the walkways were in danger of collapse! The real supports are hidden wooden beams embedded in the cliff face. Judy claimed that no one is really certain about how these hidden beams were originally attached to the cliff. This all made me recall that Time Magazine identified the Hanging Monastery as one of the ten most precarious tourist attractions in the world. I was beginning to question the wisdom of actually climbing up onto this structure.
But climb we did. Only 80 people are supposed to be allowed up at at time, and though I didn’t count how many tourists there actually were on the walkways, I do estimate that it was much more than officially allowed. The wooden walkways are very narrow, giving you ample opportunity to peek over the edge to see how far you would fall in case you slipped or were pushed over the edge by the crush of people behind you or were knocked out of the way by those trying get in front of you.
My heart was beating with anxiety the entire time we were up there, and as a result I didn’t really get a chance to look at many of the artifacts or relics housed in the rooms carved into the cliff walls. I was primarily concerned with circling my way along the wooden path back to the exit and planting my feet safely back on the ground below.
After leaving the Hanging Monastery we backtracked to Datong and had noodles in a restaurant before setting off to the Yungang Grottoes; a 30 minute drive from downtown.
The Yungang Grottoes is a Unesco World Heritage site and an obvious tourist attraction. The road was crowded with busses and taxies, and the entry desk was mobbed with people competing with one another in order to purchase tickets. Initially I stood in what I thought was a line, only to have throngs of people push in front of me. The girl behind the counter was obviously exasperated, and when she yelled something in Chinese, the unruly mob fell into order behind me and I was able to pay for our entrance.
As we walked into the attraction, there was a wide open area of newly constructed temples in the style of other, older complexes that we had seen in places like the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and at the Llama Temple in Beijing. Here, the buildings were populated with chanting monks who burned incense and yelled at the tourists! A walkway leads along an artificial lakeshore decorated with Buddhist sculptures and then over a bridge that takes you to another walkway running next to a stretch of limestone cliffs less than a mile long. This is where the ancient sculptures are found.
Altogether there are about 53 caves that have been carved into these cliffs, with the oldest one dating back about 2,000 years. Because of the porousness of the stone, many of the carvings have been eroded by seeping water over the centuries. Currently there is a repair process going on to restore the most badly damaged specimens.
The first carvings that we encountered were modest and relatively small in size, but as we continued along the path the carvings became increasingly monumental, consisting of huge caves, some housing central pagodas or enormous Buddha figures chipped into the rock. The construction of the larger carvings began from the top, as the artisans would open apertures high up on the cliff and then work their way inward and downward. Once the carving was completed, they would create an opening at the bottom as an entryway.
Over time, modifications were made to many of the sculptures, with mud facades placed over the rock, which were then painted with bright colors. In some areas this remains, and so in the most well preserved specimens you can still see vivid blues and reds. In others, the paint and mud have fallen away, revealing the round holes that supported wooden dowels used to make mud adhere to the statues.
The walls surrounding the central figures in the caves are covered with carvings of thousands of smaller buddhas and other figures and decorations. Some of the figures look very much like the angels that you would see depicted in Catholic Churches.
Five of the largest buddhas represent Chinese kings. Other buddhas represent the past, present and future: always grouped in threes. The last of the large buddhas is the best preserved. Apparently the cave it originally was within collapsed, thus protecting it from the elements over hundreds of years.
The Yungang Grottoes reinforced my impression of China as a land of sublime wonders. Despite the tourist trappings, these buddha carvings filled me with a sense of awe; like I was in the presence of something holy. The oldest artifacts here were constructed before the birth of Christ, encouraging reflection on the vastness of time. Additionally, there is the awesome impression of vast size and of the immense effort required to carve these enormous figures. The largest carving took 60 years to complete, so there is also an awe inspiring sense of dedication on the part of the sculptors. The fact that when walking into these caves you become engulfed by the darkness also encourages an awareness of your own puniness, while the huge figures, shrouded in shadows, radiate an aura of mystery. In such confined spaces it is impossible to actually see all parts of the sculptures. Many details you can’t see at all, since they lie hidden and beyond any possible line of sight. All of this contributes to the mystery and sublime sense of overwhelming magnitude while in the presence of the largest figures.
By the time we were done at the Yungang Grottoes, it was starting to get dark and time for us to check into our hotel in the walled, central portion of Datong. The original city walls are largely gone, but currently there is a renovation project underway to restore them and to make the city more attractive to tourists. This project is not without controversy, as it involves the destruction of old, crumbling residences and the relocation of people to new apartments elsewhere. In fact, there is an entirely new side of the city that looks as if it has been artificially transported from another place. This sparkling clean and modern section of Datong stands in sharp contrast to the old, crumbling section that stands just across the Sanggan River. The controversy and the idealism associated with this project of urban renewal is documented in the film The Chinese Mayor (AKA Datong).
Our hotel was showing its age, and our window looked out onto a run down alleyway filled with rubble and garbage, but we were tired, ready for dinner and a good night’s sleep, so we weren’t too concerned about those things. Judy had told us that the streets of Datong were very safe, but that never-the-less we should not be out past 9pm. I’m not sure why that is, but we took her advise and ended up having dinner in the hotel restaurant after a short stroll around town. The restaurant seemed to be very popular with both young and old locals alike. It was crowded and loud, with a nice view of the main square below. The menu, like in most places that we went in China, consisted of photos of the food, making it easy to point and order what you want. This menu, however, was the size of a phone book, and as we started to leaf through the pages, I witnessed a progressively horrified look spread across my wife Juneko’s face. In addition to sea cucumber and shark fin soup, at this place you could order poached deer fetus, bull penis, whole roasted pigeon, boiled goat head and even monkey meat! Juneko said that she wished she was adventurous enough to try something exotic, but she could not overcome her disgust. I was the same. We definitely are no Anthony Bourdains! We ended up having a very meager dinner consisting of vegetable buns, a weird fried noodle dish sprinkled with sugar, some gross tasting pickled radishes and walnut cakes. Juneko liked the last item. I did not.
The next morning out flight was delayed, so we waited for a couple of hours at the airport. After getting back to Beijing, we dropped our gear back at the hotel and then went to the local Pizza Hut Bistro for pizza and broccoli before resting up in preparation for more Chinese adventures.