After surviving our first train journey, we left the train station and were immediately approached by a man working for CITS (China International Tour Services) who spoke really good English. We'd already booked some accommodation in Datong for the night, but he said we could look at the hotel they work from and to see if we're interested in any tours. We knew we only had one night and day in Datong as there's really only 2 things to go and see. The Hanging Monastery and the Yungang Grottoes (Caves). We'd already read in the Lonely Planet guide and also on the web about CITS, so we knew they were pretty kosha. We went to their hotel and ended up staying at they're place rather than the hostel we'd booked and also booked the day tour going to see the 2 main attractions. First feeling of Datong is that its not to different from Beijing. Not sure if its because we were staying around the train station, but the area seemed to be pretty much a dump and didn't seem to safe. We certainly didn't want to be walking around too far from the hotel at night. We got checked in and the room was filthy. We had our own bathroom and private room, which wasn't bad but the place seemed like it hadn't been cleaned in months...maybe even years!
After a night in the shabby hotel, we got up to go on the tour with CITS. There was me and Hilary, plus a French couple who had stayed in the same hostel as us in Beijing. 3 South American students, who were studying in Beijing and a random Chinese bird. We had an English speaking guide named Joy. We set off in a little mini bus on the way to the hanging monastery first. It was about and an hour and half away. We found out when we got there, that we go there first because it only gets some many hours of sun light a day. The hanging monastery is over 1500 years old. They're about 50m high now, but we're originally 90m...they've dropped almost 40m over the last 1500 years. When they were built, they wanted somewhere that would be high up so they were close to they're gods/Buddha but also somewhere that offered quiet and tranquillity so they could meditate without being disturbed. So they were built on the side of the mountain so the wind would not disturb them but they were still high up to worship and also in a valley so they were protected from the sun being on them for too long in the day.
They look really impressive though from the outside and its amazing that they're been up there for so long without much support from the naked eye. We got our tickets and went in. It was really peaceful even though there were a lot of tourists there as well. There are 3 connecting temples, each one representing different religions. Buddha, Laotzu and Confucious. They're connected by small bridges and ramps with statues and shrines in each one. Its pretty scary walking around them and between them as the ramps and bridges are obviously very high up, but the pathway is very narrow and the handrail doesn't even come up to your knees in some of the places. There are also lots of little winding stair cases to get through and take you to next levels. The statues of each of the gods were life size and they all seemed to be pretty fat. Think i've got the perfect figure to be a god!
We left they're after about an hour or so and headed onto Yungang Grottoes (Caves). This was about a 2 hour journey away. When we got there the entrance was huge and looked pretty new. It all looked new and reminded me of something out of a theme park. Then we were told by our guide that its only 2/3 years old and there used to be a village there. But the government thought the village was basically a dump and wasn't a good image for people coming to see the caves. So they flattened the village and built these massive impressive Chinese style buildings, statues and walkway's on top of it so it looked a lot better to the tourists. They moved all the villagers in to Datong though into new flats...well, that's what the Chinese government had told everyone! After walking through the new site, we got to the caves. There are about 40 caves and each one contains statues of Buddha's carved straight out of the side of the mountain. A lot of the caves contained 3 main Buddha's in a line. On the right was one representing the past with a hand gesture depicting to make people feel better. The one in the middle (which seemed to be the most replicated Buddha in the caves) represented the present with hand gesture to show content and meditation. The one on the left represented the future with hand gestures to say happy dreams come true. Some of them were amazing. There are over 50,000 statue Buddhist statues there. The biggest one was 17m tall, which seemed a lot bigger than that to us and the smallest Buddha being just 2cm's tall. In a lot of the caves there were over a 1000 Buddha's carved into the walls of the caves. One showed the story of Buddha and we learned that he was born out of his mothers arm pit! Don't know what that's about, but it didn't really tell you what Buddha had done which made him so great. Just his journey on becoming Buddha. Each Emperor over the years had built their own shrines in honour of Buddha and one was built showing regret and forgiveness as his grandfather (when he was Emperor) had gone around the country killing Buddhists as too many people in China were becoming Buddhist monks and no one was working any more so he was worried that it would affect China.
There was a massive thunder storm while we were walking around the caves, it had stopped by the time we had finished at the caves but when we went to leave the roads were total grid lock. It was mass panic everywhere as the roads had flooded. In China there are no rules when it comes to driving. It's a lot like queuing up at the train stations! People just blocked up both sides of the road and were even blocking up the pavements! Everyone was driving in any directions they wanted but no one got road rage. Our driver decided to take a detour and took us through the back roads. These roads were really flooded and full of pot holes...big pot holes. We were all bouncing around in the back of the van banging our heads on the roof of the van. It was quite funny really. But the back roads our driver took us through were absolutely dumps. All the villagers seemed to be loving it though. They were all out on the pavements watching the chaos of all the cars and buses trying to get through the craziness of it all. We eventually got back to Datong and we had a night train to catch so we left our bags in the hotel and went to get some food. With us having a night train we were careful with what we ate, so we saw a posh hotel with a restaurant in it. We thought we'd be safe going in there. When we walked in, it looked nice and the reception boy spoke ok English. We sat down and all the other guests and waitresses were giggling and smiling at the 2 westerners coming into their restaurant. We got the menu's which were also written in English and the first thing we saw on the menu was dog! Followed by donkey meat with skin, chicken feet and pig trotters. So we ended up getting just 4 salad dishes!
Next destination is Pingyao.
A few things we learned about Datong:
- Datong itself is hell on earth
- The sire howwcwe are impressive
- Ancient China was very skilled and had devoted people
- They are partial to dog and donkey meat with skin!
- Never forget your ear plugs
- Buddha was born out of his mothers arm pit