My Journey Route In China Over The Past 3 Weeks
Suggest a weekend of travelling to Datong and almost every Chinese man will screw up his face. Ye Dirty Olde Coal Town is officially China’s 4th most polluted city and is just down the road from the world’s most polluted, Linfen. But with a history spanning 22 centuries, including two as the capital of the Northern Wei Dynasty, there is much more to Shanxi Province’s City of Coal than soot-swathed buildings. There’s a 1,500 year-old temple that hangs from a cliff face, China’s oldest and tallest wooden structure and caves chock-full of tens of thousands of ancient Buddha statues – some rivalling even those on the banks of the River Nile for scale and awe.
Datong sprawls across a coal-rich basin surrounded on three sides by golden-coloured mountains. The settlement was founded around 200BC and grew as a thriving pit stop for camel caravans transporting their wares north to Mongolia. At its peak as the capital of the Northern Wei Dynasty from 366-494, Datong saw many labourers construct some of China’s most magnificent sites.
Datong railway station
Mighty powerful local made 3-wheeled truck carrying hays
Xuan Kong Si Hanging Temple
I’m not normally one to quiver at heights, but delicately treading along the Hanging Temple’s mid-air walkways, I felt a slight sensation of Acrophobia. It may’ve been the much-lower-than-usual handrails, but it was most likely the sheer 17-story drop to the meadow below.
Construction of the temple began in 490A.D. by a single monk – a very brave monk – called Liao Ran. In the years that followed, it was extended and repaired to what is now more than 40 rooms, linked with walkways, precariously perched 50 metres (164 feet) above the grass.
In addition to the 1,520 year-old engineering masterpiece, the complex has plenty of statues from different dynasties and religions including Confucian, Taoist and Buddhism. As a bonus, there’re a few tourists to provide entertainment (including Sherine and me), nervously clinging on to whatever they can while posing for photos.
Datong’s most polished and celebrated attraction is the magnificent Yungang Grottoes complex. 2,400 years ago devout Buddhists started chipping away at a sandstone cliff just outside of Datong, creating caves full of Buddha and Bodhisattva statutes. The art caught on and there are now 51,000 carved statues from 4cm (1 ½ inches) to 17 metres (56 feet) tall throughout the 53 caverns. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the three most famous sites in China for ancient Buddhist art.
The caves are carved along about a kilometre (0.6 miles) of cliff face and sit amongst massive landscaped grounds. Although pilgrims removed the odd statue, the Red Army beheaded a few Buddhas during the Cultural Revolution and the occasional traveller has left graffiti, the ancient cultural relics are in mint condition, having been thoughtfully restored with no expense spared. Wandering around the complex under clear blue skies, I was amazed how little I had heard about this genuinely world class site.
Datong’s appeal doesn’t end with its golden days of ancients times; one of its most loved attractions is much more recent. I’d put Datong high on the list of places to visit in China. As an easy 8-hour train ride from Tianjin, it’s not far off the well-trodden triangle of Shanghai – Xian – Beijing, but a little more personal.