Well, my travel plans are all complete now. I am spending this week end in Datong and on Tuesday I fly to Kunming and take the afternoon bus to a place called Dali. From there I go on to Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge, then on the 1st September I fly to Lhasa and, after 4 days in Lhasa, I take the train back to Beijing in time to get the train for Moscow and home!!
On Thursday I hired a bike and spent part of the afternoon cycling around the lake and hutongs, (small lanes and alleyways in what is left of the old part of Beijing), in the north of Beijing. I even ventured in amongst the traffic, but only when absolutely necessary and then very briefly. For the first few days in Beijing we had bright sunshine and an almost cloudless blue sky, since then the pale brownish grey ceiling of smog has returned, it has become cooler and, I'm told, the summer is over! Certainly the intensity has gone out of the sun, making life a lot more pleasant.
On Friday I took the painfully slow train to the ugly, industrial city of Datong. You may wonder why. The lure is the Hanging Monastery and the 1500 year old Bhuddist statues carved inside caves in the side of a mountain. The last 'seat' on the train was a soft sleeper, so I was able to stretch out in comfort (except for the proximity of a very, very smelly loo) as we wended our way gradually through the Chinese countryside. Heaven help the rest of the world when the Chinese start to travel abroad! Waiting for the train to Datong, I went into the vast hall that serves as a waiting room (1 of 10) in the monolithic Beijing West Railway Station. There was barely standing room and evacuation, in the event of fire, would have been impossible. I might have mentioned this before, there is something in the Chinese psyche which says that if they are not first they will miss out and this survival instinct, maybe, makes it impossible for them to queue. There is always a stampede, even though we have numbered seats and the train is not due to leave for 40 minutes.
Datong is the pits (almost literally, there is a lot of coal mining around there). It's terribly run-down and looks as though it is in the process of being demolished - not a place you'd want to spend any time in. Added to that, it was pouring with rain when I got up yesterday morning and both raincoats were, as usual, sittiing in Beijing. Anyway, I took a bus and then a taxi and visited the caves. They were an amazing sight - 45 caves, all different shapes and sizes, some small niches in the wall, others containing huge statues of Buddah and his followers and beautifully decorated; the roofs and walls of the caves being covered in detailed carvings of flowers, fruits, human and animal figures and some still brightly coloured in their original paint. They all seem to have escaped desecration as well, other than that caused by the passage of time.
In the afternoon I took another bus the 40 miles to the Hanging or Suspended Monastery, so called because it looks as though it has been cut in half and glued to the side of the mountain. It appears to be propped up, with long poles underneath, and that it would just slide down the side of the mountain if the poles were removed! The rooms, passageways and corridors inside the monastery are, of necessity, small and extremely narrow, flatterned as they are against the mountainside, the buildings clinging to their perch in defiance of gravity. One wonders how and why anyone thought it possible to build monastery in that position. Another really amazing sight!
I was lucky enough to meet up with 2 Chinese girls who were also wanting to return to Datong, so we shared a taxi, which was relatively quick - the driver spent some time fruitlessly looking for a 4th passenger to make the journey worthwhile for him and squashed for us - and, as it turned out, with just 3 of us, pain free.
I return to Beijing in about 2 hours, on an UPPER hard sleeper this time - the worst of all worlds and one that will require acrobatic skills I'm pretty sure I don't posses! But train tickets are like gold dust and one has to take what one can get. So, I might have to spend most of the journey on the folding seat in the corridor.
(Later) A kind Chinese lady offered me sitting room on the end of her bottom bunk and I spent much of the journey chatting to her and (mainly) her daughter. It was a beautiful sunny day, such a contrast with the previous days' rain and drizzle.
The area around Datong is a huge flat plain, broken up by great, long, zig-zag ditches, probably 20-30 feet deep. They seem to be the remanents of ancient earthquakes. The plain is bordered by mountains and rolling hills and appears to be very fertile.
The train carriage is an interesting and sociable arrangement of separate cubicles, each with 6 berths (3 each side) and a corridor along the open end of the cubicles. The journey was, if anything, more protracted than going to Datong and took 7 hours.
I spent the next day (effectively my last day in Beijing) visiting the mansion of a certain Prince Gong, long since desceased. I think that I have had an overdose of Chinese houses and gardens because I was rather underwhelmed by Prince Gong's, although it is supposed to be the best preserved in Beijing, if not in China. I'm sure that if I'd seen it at a time when I was possibly less jaded I might have enjoyed it more because it was very beautiful. So, onwards and southwards...