Tag Archives: Datong

Datong – Part one

There was so much to see and do here that I have split this into two posts as the photos and blurb was just too much for a single post.

We left Hohhot on what turned out to be a nightmare journey…for me at least. It started with a swelteringly hot, jam packed bus ride to the railway station, which was under renovation. This meant that every departing passenger was wedged into a single waiting room, which would normally handle 2 trains worth of people but was forced to constantly rotate 4 trains worth of people along with the early birds for the next 2-4 trains. All of this in high humidity and no air flow.


The trains are 5 seats wide with three on one side and two on the other. We had seats 14 and 15 which ended up on opposite sides of the train, facing in opposite directions. Jill got the side with 2 on the window while I got the side with three. The first thing that came to our attention was that once the seats were all full there was an additional 30-50 people standing in the aisles as the train had clearly been oversold.

As the ones on my side were friends they decided to share…turning our 3 seats into four and at one point five. Jill on the other hand…happily sat reading her book with herself and the very civilised little Chinese man next to her. The normal Chinese transit rules applied…with the yelling into the phone, smoking in the aisles of the no smoking train, staff selling crap to supplement their incomes (and the spruiking that goes with it), the constant Hrrrccht ptooi, however this trip had the discordant music and singing of a child old enough to be stopped…but wasn’t.

Jill had done her research and found that the hostel in Datong was charging more than the five star hotels…for no apparent reason… So we boycotted, paid half of what the “supposedly” cheap hostel was asking and stayed in a magnificent 4 star hotel (Garden Hotel) where excellent service was the aim and was delivered beautifully. This place was great, fruit platters each day, turndown service with chocolates, super clean, bathtub, full toiletries, and staff that could not be politer or more accommodating if they tried.

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Datong is a city under reconstruction that is walking the line between old, new, renovated and original in an interesting manner. It is in an area rich in coal and is morphing its primary industries from mining to tourism and commerce. In winter the temperatures here get to minus 30 and in summer it gets to about 35 ( which it was while we walked the city walls). It was originally 4 walled cities in close proximity (one for the people, one for business, one for government and one for the military) but the old town section is the one being renovated and the wall is currently 3/4 finished but in the new China way. Some of the streets are done (the outer grid) but the middle sections remain untouched.

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The main streets are wide, clean and lined with newly manufactured, old looking, Chinese buildings. The pedestrian street is identical but without the traffic…but the inner part of the grids are the original town that once was. There are ratty little hovels, narrow alleys dodgy food stalls and street vans and all the best bits that China has to offer. Alas this is being systematically replaced by the new China.

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That said…this town is doing the new China in a semi-authentic manner. They are looking at old photos and are rebuilding with at least a semblance of what once was. LiJiang was a town that had undergone this form of transformation and it was obscene in its newness and blatant commerciality of what was there. At the moment…Datong is walking the line relatively well. There are examples of crassness but overall they are trying to do things relatively authentically.

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The inclusion of imitation medieval weaponry such as trebuchets will do little to aid authenticity but by the same token they have included other things such as the sculpture museum within one of the open courtyards which seems like fun. On one of the walls was possibly the greatest sculpture I have ever seen. It was a 70-100 metre long dragon snaking its way along the wall. As you got closer you found that the entire sculpture was made from Chinese bowls, cups, plates and spoons. This was an amazing sight and quite frankly unexpected.

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IMG_2016 IMG_2013The sculpture museum was not open yet but as we turned the corner we could see down into one of the courtyards and see some of the likely additions to the museum. In reality…we both saw the same sculpture and laughed outright. Obviously this was done by a person with a sense of humour…but the sculpture of a 10 metre obese naked person clinging from the wall broke us both up. To get a sense of scale as to just how big this thing was… Jill headed to the other side of the wall and stood above the hands…if you blow it up and zoom you can get a fair idea of just what we were confronted with. I know that this comment will hurt me later but…Jill’s the one in the hat.

The city walls were originally made of mud/clay…and in parts, remnants of this still remain…but what has been built over the top of the original wall is a magnificent (if fake) city wall. It is fake…but it is also really impressive. The new wall is the width of a 3 lane road and is 14 metres tall with towers and pagodas dotted along is length. From atop the wall you get great views over the renovated and un-renovated sections of the inner city. You can look down on the temples and pagodas and the renovation that is well underway. We hiked this wall for about 2 hrs in an attempt to do a lap before we found that the final section was not complete and we had to backtrack about a kilometre to the closest gate and set of stairs down.

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Having hiked for about 2.5 hrs in 35 degree heat with no shade we found the first shop and inhaled about 1.5 litres of fluid each…before setting off on the next leg of the exploration. The journey to the next point of interest (the Huayan Monastery) saw us passing the local Chinese car yards which just needed to be photographed. One of these little beauties will set you back between $5-7,000. They even have the police pursuit version.

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The Huayan Monastery was original but had recently been given a “facelift”. While not entirely authentic it has been the subject of a really nice renovation and is a beautiful place to kick back. The other key highlight in town was the Nine Dragon Screen which is a 600-year-old screen made of glazed tiles showing nine dragons which is apparently the oldest glazed screen in China. The town actually has a 3 and 5 dragon screens too.

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Datong – Part Two

Now we get to the real reason that we came to Datong…many years ago we saw a documentary which showed Xuánkōng Sì (the Hanging Temple/Monastery) which is built into the side of a cliff face near Mount Heng which is about 60 km outside Datong. My darling bride… immediately upon seeing this…and long before we thought of such a trip..decided this was a bucket list item for her… and therefore a must do for us. The guide told us that the temple dates back to about the 4th century which quite frankly is astounding when you see this rickety building dangling off a sheer rock face.

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The Hanging monastery is shaped to resemble a dragon with an open mouth and has about 40 rooms linked by mid-air walkways. The monastery has been adopted now by 3 religions (Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism). It appears to be perched on skinny stilts but they assured us that the beams buried deep into the cliff were bearing the load. So much so that the tour guide suggested that we shake the (seemingly) supporting pillars…we did not try this.

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Having seen some of the modern building techniques in China…I would not get into a modern Chinese building that is attached to a cliff face. Needless to say I was reasonably reticent to trust one that had been stuck up there 1600 years ago. The hand rails were at a bit over knee height and the paths were about one and a half persons wide. So if you wanted to try an overtaking manoeuvre one of you was hanging over the side looking at the sheer drop. Not sure exactly how high up you are when you do the climb to the temple, but you are certainly high enough to die if you fell off and those with vertigo should not even think of trying this. I am not particularly afraid of heights but there were times up the mountain when I was a little concerned for my future longevity.

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After the hanging monastery we headed to the Yungang Grottoes which are a series of over 250 caves 16 km west of Datong. Wiki tells me that there “are over 50,000 carved images and statues of Buddhas and bodhisattvas within these grottoes, ranging from 4 centimeters to 7 meters tall”. The guide was telling us that the biggest Buddha was about 17 metres and that there were a few others around the 13-15 metre mark…so I think wiki has some typos. The entrance to the caves has been China-fied and the kilometre walk to the first cave is filled with brand new buildings, statues, pagodas and a bronze tree.

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The region is rich in coal and until recently had a town at the base of the caves and a coal mine about 500 metres away on the other side of a small lake/pond thing. Interestingly the government thought that the town folk were causing too much dirt and were destroying the caves…so they moved the whole town away and built temples and the new China exhibitions that you see everywhere else. A year after displacing an entire town…they found that the dirt continued so they shut down the coal mine…go figure.

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The Yúngāng Grottoes are a UNESCO World heritage listed site and date back around 1500 years. Unlike the Dunhuang grottoes (apart from the tourist entrance route) the place has not undergone a trashy renovation attempt and are quite original. This is of course with the exception of caves five and six. The entrances to which have had wooden temple structures built. The caves 9-14 were blocked off as they too had such structures being built in front of them. From here high atop the mountain you could see sections of the great wall. Once again as you head west the wall is really more of a mud pile than a major defensive platform…but each section was built using the local materials available.

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Cave 20 is the iconic image which is seen everywhere…it had the front of the cave knocked away by either the weight of the rock or an earthquake and the Buddha is clearly visible from all around. The caves are not as awesome as the Ellora and Ajunta caves in India but they are far better than the ones in Dunhuang. Either way they are an excellent attraction and well worth a visit.

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The final thing that needs to be mentioned in Datong is the finest restaurant that we have hit since landing in China. This is a VERY big call as we have had some absolutely spectacular meals along the way but this place was a cut above. It is written up on Tripadvisor as Feeling Restaurant but we are not really sure what this is in Chinese. It was a five star restaurant with five star food, service, ambience and décor but at a 2 star price. We went for dinner after the caves and hanging temple and basically went back for every other meal until we left…it was that good.

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It was essentially a dumpling house…and the dumplings were good…very good. But it had a wider menu and over the period we had sampled about 10 different dishes and they were all superb. The place is made of wood and stone and has intricate carvings in every nook and cranny in every room. The rooms are themed and the first night we ate in the Dragon Room and the next day it was the Phoenix Room. This theming relates to the carvings and sculptures that adorn the room…fantastic.

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As for the food…the dumplings pictured above were rolled to the thickness of tissue paper on the top and were filled with all the normal dumpling things like pork and prawns etc. But the thinness of the outer layer without any loss of structural integrity was impressive. The standout dish for us was the abalone mushrooms (right hand side)…these were sliced thin and marinated…wow..so simple but amazing. As I mentioned we sampled about 10 different dishes and they were all of highest quality as was the service. We ate 3 meals here having between 3-4 dishes plus 3 beers and not one of the bills reached $20.