The city of Datong is situated high on the western loess plains of Shanxi province, hard on the border with Inner Mongolia. It has played a significant role in the ancient history of China, starting first with the very beginnings of human habitation in the valley of the Yellow River. From there it was the seat of government for the Northern Wei dynasty, an empire created by a Turkic people known as the Toba who were committed Buddhists and responsible for what has become the major draw to the area - the Yungang Grottoes. Today Datong is the chief supplier of coal and electricity to the northern part of the country and because of this it’s a dirty, dusty town and not on the itinerary of many tour companies. And due to its location and its lowly status as a travel destination, there is but one flight per day leaving Beijing at 7:25AM and arriving an hour later. This meant a night in what’s quickly becoming one of my favorite cities – I’m now known by name at my favorite hotel and I’ll take just about any excuse for a dinner at The Face Bar.
Flying in you can appreciate the nature of the loess plains, a geological construct formed by blowing silt from the river valley. The land is uniformly cocoa brown, dry and from the air appears to be bereft of anything distinguishable. But a closer look brings out the details – thousands of years of terracing to make the most of the lay of the land for what agriculture can be managed. And cutting across the work of man is an equally huge spider web of sharply cut arroyos, mini-canyons slicing deeply into the soft layers that comprise the plains. From up above it appears as an argument between the systematic and the chaotic and I suppose that the scene might just be the best metaphor for China as a whole.
We landed and once the plane came down to driving speed it made a quick u-turn and faced back down the runway. Such is the nature of travel at the out fringes of civilian aviation - land, clean, leave. Five brown-uniformed plane maids walked across the tarmac to greet us as we came down the stairs. It was a short hike to the arrival gate and I say “gate” because there was only one. The airport consisted of two terminals with a doorway each – one for the inbound and one for the outbound. I’d been warned about the scrum of taxi drivers looking to be hired for the day but the crush was minor – one soft spoken middle-aged gentleman asked me if I needed a ride and I agreed; fifty kuai to the hotel. Outside we threw our gear in the trunk and I started the negotiation for the rest of the day – two sites, three people, whatever it took in terms of time. I had the number of 100 kuai per person in my mind, it’s always best to have that decided and remarkably he said “300” for the three of us.
The air smelled faintly of dried urine, no doubt due to the sulfurous coal they were burning in the two enormous power stations that were off on opposite horizons. The sky was hazy and the sun a pale lemon yellow. You could tell that the air was bearing the brunt of whatever those plants were putting out but overall the day was pleasant enough. We passed through country pancake flat in all directions. Entering town it was clear some sort of major urban renewal was going on, a big new bridge over a dried river bed that was home to a big herd of black and white cows, many road detours and car-swallowing pot holes on the main street. We arrived at the hotel planning to check in and leave our stuff rather than trusting it to the trunk of a stranger. Hotels out here on the fringe generally have a staff with a bit of English and this one was no different. The head gal at the front desk told me, “You are very early and your rooms are very dirty so why don’t you go back outside.” No problem, I told her we had plans for the day.
I cleared the price for the day a second time explaining to the driver that my Chinese wasn’t all that great and that I wanted to make sure we had an understanding. It remained the same. We left town by the same route that we’d come in on eventually heading off on another road towards what appeared to be a small range of mountains just visible through the yellow haze. This area is also home to Heng Shan, one of the five holy Taoist mountains and at its foot was our first objective, Xuankong Si – “The Temple Suspended in the Void.”
The Hanging Temple in one form or another has been suspended above the bed of the Heng River for more than 1500 years although its present incarnation hails from more recent times. Until dammed, the river would routinely destroy it and the monks would move it up a few feet higher only to see it washed away again. Today it’s perched a few hundred feet above the valley floor, held in place by nothing more than big wooden beams that have been sunk deeply into the rock.
The scenery on the drive out was remarkable – the same brown terraced plains regularly slashed by deeply eroded chasms. Ancient watchtowers dotted the sides of the river, long abandoned but still standing as though waiting for an army of ghosts to re-appear. We passed through several small villages with architecture that could be found in any desert local from Mali to Mexico. Flat roofs, mud bricks, but in this case curious entryways – a large circle framed with pillars on both sides supporting a lintel above the door. The ancient tradition in this region is to live in caves. The loess is easy to work and the homes are simple, climate controlled dwellings that require none of the resources that the area lacks. Add a child, carve a new room. Slowly, the cave homes have been abandoned in favor of more conventional dwellings but they have carried forward the original look of the cave entrance into the current adobe construction.
The road was choked with more trucks than I’ve ever seen on even the busiest of Chinese roads. Our driver never let up in his attempt to advance our position, regularly passing into oncoming traffic which in every case yielded. It set me to thinking about how I would fare in this little car at this high rate of speed in a head on collision. I double checked my seatbelt and looked for photo ops out the window. As we entered the mountains the view was not substantially different than driving up the backside of Sandia Peak back home, minus the trees. A range of banded, tilted fault block mountains winding off into the distance.
It took us about 90 minutes to get there and he dropped us at the gate before heading down into the car park. We went in and took a look across the river at the tiny temple seemingly painted on the rock. Above an enormous shelf of rock, the same brown color that seemed to permeate everything. I stood and stared for a long time, took a few photos and then was struck by the fact that it really was not all that inspiring. It seemed dwarfed by its surroundings and while it was unlike anything I’d ever seen, it was not on the scale I was expecting. Clearly the travel books had managed to depict this relic in a way that was grander than its reality. But that changed as I got closer and stood below it – it became more of a marvel that was enlarged by its details and not the fact that it appeared to be suspended in air.
It was a bit of a climb up to it and even trickier once inside. They had a proscribed path through the temple buildings because the walkways were so narrow that there simply was no allowance for two way traffic. The stairs were like those on a boat – short treads and steep with a low overhand, the only difference being worn metal plates on the treads, decorated with tiny steel stars and flowers. In several places the path was cut into the rock itself and the only thing between me and the valley below was a short mound of plastered stones that had clearly been added in recent times. It made me think about the monks that once lived here, walking between buildings along the edge of the void deep in meditative thought. At the top structure the view was impressive, looking down on the tourists and out and across the brightly tiled and highly decorated roofs of the individual buildings. Off to the right was the giant concrete face of the dam that had dried out this valley and saved the temple from those continuing indignities of being washed away. A truly giant cavern off to the side of the dam was there for the purpose of releasing water from the reservoir behind it.
Each floor held at least one room with a Buddha and in one case, statues celebrating the three beliefs of China – Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. I walked along following the path and dodging tourists and worshipers although this place is not truly recognized as working temple today. Coming down I was glad that we had arrived early, because the crush was on – the main walkways now held unbroken lines of people. We found our driver and headed off across country to our next stop, Yungang.
There are three major Buddhist carving sites in China: Longmen in the south, Mogao in the west and Yungang here in Shanxi. Mogao is the oldest and the first known set of Buddhist temples in China dating from 366AD. It was a thriving stop on the Silk Road and so one of the entry points into the Chinese empires for religion, culture and art. Yungang is the second oldest and supposedly the best preserved dating from the mid-5th century. Longmen followed when the Wei moved their political capital to Luoyang in 492AD.
The road in to the area followed the course of a desert river, devoid of water but still green along the banks. There were even more ancient watchtowers along this stretch of road, some associated with the terminus of spurs of the Great Wall. On the far side was a giant coal mine, complete with its very own company town – depressingly sooty apartment blocks towering over the trees along the river. It reminded me of the Pittsburgh of my youth. We arrived and after an argument with a policeman over us using a dirt entrance that was apparently reserved for motorbikes, we hopped out. A nervous young man approached and using what little English he had tried to convince me to rent his minibus for a ride to the entrance. I told him we’d walk, he said we were crazy, it would take an hour. We took off and headed up a newly paved path, off to the left was a huge temple complex under construction, continuing the theme that seemed to dog us all day long. Clearly the regional government is looking past coal to the future, and that future is commercial tourism.
Fifteen minutes down the path we came to a broad square ringed with retail shops. A couple of camels stood by waiting to be hired by tourist for stroll. We bought our tickets and passing through the entry gate we faced a long vertical wall of blonde sandstone holding hundreds and hundreds of caves of all sizes. We started at one end a strolled from one cave to another, each different and completely amazing. Thousands and thousands of carvings of all sizes covered every square inch of the inside of each cave. Buddha, Bodhisattvas, fairies, animals – you name it, all entwined and decorating every surface. The first three caves were fronted by some Ming Dynasty wooden structures with carved demons at the intersection of every horizontal and vertical beam. Inside were colossal Buddhas, still bearing their bright blue and gold polychrome paint. Forty to fifty feet tall, serenely looking down on us below.
At the center of the complex the caves were highly detailed and very baroque with carvings layered on carvings and painted in bright reds, yellows and blues. As we moved towards the sides, the paintings ended and the carvings became less layered. Two very large Buddha stood in their caves with windows for them to look out across the valley. At the end, one large seated statue of Sakyamuni stood smiling attended by a slightly smaller Bodhisattva. Swirling about their heads were thousands of spirits and fairies.
I had noticed that many of the larger carvings had dozens of small, neatly spaced round holes in their surfaces. We theorized about this for a bit before asking one of the young women working at an official shop and she tried her best to explain it. Mustering my very best Chinese I started to home in on the answer, ultimately aided by a young man with a bit of English and some decent Pinyin. The holes were for dowels that held carved stone that had faced the statues, now lost to time, erosion and vandalism. I have to say I came away from that conversation feeling pretty good about my Chinese investigative skills.
The evening of our first day was spent trying to find a restaurant which was surprisingly difficult given that every street in every Chinese city normally has dozens. We finally settled on a place in the middle of a mini-restaurant-row that had no English menu but pretty good food and a host of diners who spent more time staring at us than eating their food.
Day two started out rainy, never the ideal weather for wandering around on foot. We left the hotel around 9:30 and stopped first at the Nine Dragon Screen, one of the best preserved polychrome tile screens in all of China. These were built to protect palaces from invading evil spirits and since the spirits were limited to straight, forward motion, building a screen in front of your door prevented their entry. Here, 9 giant dragons set against a blue background did the guard work for the palace of a prince as announced by the presence of 4 claws on each foot. Only the Emperor had dragons with 5.
We spent the next few hours wandering around the ancient city. It was muddy, dirty and smelled of sewage but it was grand – endless alleys and streets, countless gray brick hovels housing who knows how many families. Each block had 3 or 4 communal latrines – coffin shaped doorways and no running water. Sometimes the squats were nothing more than a stone closet facing the street. I had the opportunity to chat with a lot of people as we wandered around – Datong is a friendly place and I doubt that westerners are regularly seen wandering these lanes. We eventually came out and beheld the second major construction project – a complete rebuilding of the city walls, making this place look like the next incarnation of Xi’an. The guidebook talked about the walls and you can still find them around the center of the city but all that remains is the rammed earth core – the gray brick cladding was long ago stripped away to build this warren of homes. I put two and two together on this fact when I stumbled on one last little section of wall that was still bricked. It stood next to a newly renovated section, back-filled with red brick and faced once again in dull gray.
I had a plan to find one of the guide book restaurants so we took off across town in search using the map that I’d picked up from the hotel. Part of the time we wandered through old city and part of the time on modern streets. Eventually we found our way to the district where the restaurant was located (having survived a section of old city that was populated by nasty dogs) but the street signs made no sense – the names were different than those on the map. Taking stock at one intersection and using a pattern of streets, parks and dead-ends I saw a place on the opposite side of the street and asked two young women at the front door if this was the place. It was - a Muslim run Shanxi hot pot restaurant.
Once again no menu but the waitress took me back to the prep stations and started showing me what was available. I had told her that one of my friends did not eat meat and that we would be dining only on vegetables today. So naturally the first thing I was offered was a big plate of raw fish, because you see in China, fish is not meat. I politely declined that and the bowl of bacon, settling on mushrooms, spinach and some other unidentified vegetables. It was an excellent meal made better by the challenge of finding and ordering it.
As we left I asked the two young women to pose for me and they graciously did. The guy in charge of parking the cars at the restaurant next door came over and asked about my camera and grabbing my arm suggested that I take a picture of the girl out in front of his restaurant. I did so and showed it to him and he was grateful and amazed.
We had two more stops for the day Huayan and Shanhua Si, two ancient temples. We took off in search, stopping once on a muddy street under heavy construction to chat with some Emo boy hairdressers who wanted to cut my hair. My conversation with them eventually led to us being surrounded by 20 or more onlookers, smiling and laughing at what we were talking about. One guy on a bike was not satisfied that I said we were from America, he wanted to know what state I lived in. I told the crowd New Mexico and in unison they repeated “Mexico” which I then had to correct. The guy who asked nodded solemnly.
Huayan Si was closed due to a huge, you guessed it, construction project that appeared to be celebrating Datong’s role as a Silk Road city and in the diffusion of religions into China. A brand new mosque with twin minarets topped by silver crescent moons anchored the east side. The center was home to what I am guessing will be a big retail complex surrounding a tall, columnar fountain decorated with black birds. Huayan is the overall attraction and a Nestorian Christian church was sitting off to its left. We took a walk down a muddy lane to see if there was any way in but there wasn’t. A guy supervising two other men digging a ditch struck up a conversation with me. A very strange older man – strongly mixed Caucasian and Chinese features but with a completely Caucasian skin tone stood off to one side watching and smoking. The Ditch Supervisor asked me this and that and eventually came to the point – he wanted me to give him some money, demonstrating that fact by taking a wad of bills out of his pocket and rubbing them between his fingers. I laughed and told him in Chinese that I don’t give money to my friends and that since he was my good friend, I wasn’t giving him anything. The old guy watching looked at me and in perfect English said, “Your Chinese is very good.”
The second temple, Shanhua Si is a Ming restoration of a Tang temple. It turned out to be quite beautiful not only because of the construction but because it was almost completely empty. You could feel the peace in the absence of the crowds. I wandered to the back of the complex and saw that the main doors to the biggest structure were padlocked. As I approached a little old woman sitting on a box stood up and beckoned me over. Taking keys from her pocket, she unlocked a tiny door to the right of the main entrance and waved me in. Inside was great hall with three seated Buddha protected on both sides by twenty fierce guardian Buddhas, ten or so feet tall and carved from wood. She opened the big doors to give me some light. Being alone in this place was wonderful moment for me, I strolled back and forth taking the time to appreciate each statue. I left for a bit and wandered around but wanted to have a second look so I went back and this time the place had a few more people, young Chinese with flashlights that they were shining on the darkened walls. There in the pale darkness were beautiful painted frescoes, completely invisible without the extra illumination.
The day ended at Better One Pizza, figuring what better way to have a meal after a day of wandering through the streets. We had a booth by a window, but across the room the booths along the wall all had video screens playing cartoons – Pingu the Penguin. Sort of a Chuck E. Cheese for the Chinese children.
We left the next morning via the one gate we’d not yet used at the airport. There was a problem with the computer failed during my check-in - I asked the agent if it was me or him. He laughed and claimed responsibility. As we waited an older man came up and struck up a conversation. He said he’d been a professor at Harvard and had lived in the US for 17 years. He told us how they were rebuilding the city for domestic tourism and that everyone who lived in the ancient hutongs was being moved out to new high rises by the airport. A “new city” if you will. The old parts of town would then be razed and replaced with new imitations of the old for wealthy people to buy - a district of cafes, galleries and shops, just like Xi’an that hugged the newly clad city walls. Datong of 500 years ago, re-done.
This little jaunt was fun in many ways, seeing some wonderful history as well as the past rebuilt for the future. Probably the most important thing I came away with was the friendliness of the Datong people. China always seems to be a cold place – crowded with unfriendly people who ignore you to the point of making you feel invisible. That has been my continuing experience in the cities. But when you find yourself standing in ankle deep mud at the intersection of a couple of streets under construction, chatting with young Chinese men with earrings in their lips and poufy blonde hair, you begin to realize that everywhere is not unfriendly. That on the edges of the empire, people are still interested and want to talk. And those moments redeem living in a place like this.