Discovering Datong

by Ted Utoft, China Daily, June 24, 2005

Datong, China -- At first glance, the Datong of today seems like any medium-sized Chinese city. One might even pass through without ever knowing the treasures the city is in fact home to. When stepping off the train the usual onslaught of taxis, buses and neon signs greet you in the coal-mining city, but lying just outside the city limits are some of China's most interesting and unusual sites.

<< 1,500-year-old Buddhist Grottoes in Datong, Shanxi Province, China

Getting to the sites is most accessible with help from the CITS agency and its tours leaving from the train station for 100 yuan (US$12) per person. Local buses and taxis are available but may take some language skills and bargaining that hardly seem worth the hassle. CITS has an office in the main area of the Datong train station and one at the Yungang Binguan hotel.

A little over an hour in a bus brings you to the Hanging Monastery. The precariously placed temple is truly a sight. One wonders why it was built in such a way and how it has survived the test of time. The more than 1,400-year-old temple perches gingerly above Jinlong Canyon and contains many bronze and stone statues in the alcoves of the cliff. Each shrine of the temple is connected by narrow bridges, pathways and boardwalks. On a busy day, the swarm of tourists almost makes it feel as if the temple will topple off its legs, but the fact that it has remained for so long, gives visitors a little piece of mind. Entrance to the temple costs 60 yuan (US$7.25) or 30 yuan (US$3.60) for students and seniors.

West of Datong, the Cloud Ridge Caves are Datong's most popular destination and one of China's most impressive sites. The caves are situated on the southern side of Wuzhou Mountain, not far from the passage to Inner Mongolian and within walking distance to a section of the Great Wall. Atop the mountain the crumbling remains of a Qing Dynasty wall can be seen from miles away. The more than 40 caves contain over 50,000 Buddhist statues. Some of the caves are truly cavernous and are home to enormous seated Buddhas that tower over visitors. Many of the caves have signs in English with a brief description of what they contain. Admission to the Cloud Ridge Caves is also 30 to 60 yuan (US$3.60 - 7.25).

South of Datong, the 11th-century wooden pagoda is one of the oldest wooden structures in the world. The 9-storey temple is said to have been constructed without the use of any nails. The age and construction of the temple has taken its toll, and a million-dollar renovation is nearly completed to restore the temple to its former glory.

Driving between the sites and the city, cave dwellings, some still in use, are sprinkled along the roadside. The rustic abodes are a combination of prehistory and the contemporary. The main structure of the homes is truly a cave, but often the front faade may include modern windows, doors and all the fittings.

Despite its seemingly average appearance, Datong is anything but, and offers the weekend tourist more than enough to do.

Getting there: A short overnight train leaves Beijing Station for Datong nightly at 11:30 pm, and arrives in Datong around 6:30 the next morning.