Datong is not as well known as other tourist hotspots like the Great Wall or the Terracotta Army, and this is strange, as around this relatively small industrial city, there are two stunning sites that are equally impressive.
I reached one of them, the Hanging Temple, in under two hours by local bus. Its Chinese name, Xuangkong Si, literally meaning “Temple Suspended in the Void", does it justice. Surrounded by cliff walls, it is built halfway up on a steep cliff face and it seems to defy gravity. Long wooden beams anchor the structure to the cliff, and there are wooden stilts supporting it. Narrow stairs and walkways (not something for those suffering from vertigo) connect the various halls, with, uniquely, shrines for China’s three main religions: Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. There are small monks’ quarters, the beds have charcoal stoves underneath for heating in the cold winters. There has been a temple on this site since the Northern Wei dynasty, late 5th century. Over the centuries, the temple was destroyed several times due to floodings of the Heng River and each time, the structure was rebuilt higher up. Now, the temple is mostly Qing-dynasty (second half of the 17th century), and the river below has dried up after the construction of a nearby dam.
The next morning, I went to the Yungang caves, half an hour west of Datong. There are over 50 grottoes carved into the side of a sandstone cliff, dating back to the 5th century. Some of the caves have wooden facades as entrances. Stepping into some of the grottoes is a humbling experience, finding yourself suddenly at the feet of an enormous Buddha statue, the curved walls surrounding it filled with reliefs in extraordinary detail, carvings of Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, images depicting the life of the Buddha, and on the ceiling, flying apsaras. Some grottoes are more stunning and elaborate than others; all are quite intruiging. What is striking is the foreign influence in the carvings. Apart from Hindu deities, there are Persian symbols and figures and even Greek motifs. Sadly, due to the presence of two large coalmines nearby, everything is covered in a fine layer of coal dust. Shanxi province is famous for coalmining, it makes Datong one of China’s most polluted cities.
The following day, I went on another train journey further south. Something you will find on all trains in China is either thermoses with boiled water, or water boilers in every carriage, with Chinese continuously topping up their flasks of tea, or adding boiled water to their instant noodles. The boilers on this train, perhaps because of the easy availability of it in this province, were charcoal heated, with little piles of the stuff next to them. The scenery along the way was again quite pretty. We would pass small villages where the houses had mud walls, or at times consisted of rocks piled on top of eachother. The train stopped at the smallest of stations. Next to a tiny house, with the name of the village in large characters above it, would stand an ancient looking attendant, holding up a red flag, while one or two passengers got on. Usually, there would be a huge pile of coal near the station, ready for transport by one of the many freight trains with their hundreds of containers.
Eventually, I reached the small town of Pingyao, just south of Shanxi’s provincial capital of Taiyuan. I arrived around midnight, and an electric powered taxi cart took me through the narrow, deserted streets in the old city, and dropped me off at one of the many hostels. After waking up the owner, I was led into the courtyard of a typical Qing-era house, and checked into a small room with thick walls, mahogany window screens, and a bed raised up on a wooden platform. Tired from the journey but excited to be in this lovely town, I went to sleep.
The following morning, I explored the town, walked on the Ming Town Wall which surrounds the old city, went through little alleys with very old houses and visited many museums and temples. Pingyao is the site of China’s first bank, the Rishengchang, established in 1824, and it’s one of the first in the world where cheques were used. Many of the museums are beautiful in terms of their architecture, the houses in elegant Qing-architecture, the rooms with authentic furniture, small courtyards outside featuring small gardens and statues. But in terms of content, the museums tend to get a bit boring after a while, because of the lack of English commentary. Although you have to give them credit for trying, the commentary in English that at times is provided, is usually fraught with a large number of errors. In fact, you will find this everywhere in China (not to mention other South East Asian countries), even on government brochures and on large billboards next to highways. In menus, it can be a little worrying, like “sheet iron pig meat", and near displays in museums, quite mystifying and unintendedly funny, like this commentary, spotted in a museum in Pingyao:
“The song Dynesty.For dead people.Hope
they have food in tomb and a good accond
life vevy beewtrfuul And big peale for
food .rice wh ich is vevy rice in the wo
In the evenings, Pingyao becomes even more atmospheric, the throngs of tourists gone, the streets and alleys tranquil. Red lanterns are lit over the entrances of restaurants and quaint houses, a single bulb over a foodstall at the side of the road, where a young man is cooking rice for locals, huddled together on plastic chairs. From the distance comes the charactaristic sound of the erhu, the Chinese violin.
After a couple of days, I went again by train, leaving Shanxi province and entering Shaanxi province, arriving in the early morning in the city of Xi’an. Here, I visited the site of the bingma yong, or the famous Terracotta Warriors. Housed in vaults built of earth with wooden supports and roofs, they were never intended to be seen, instead serving to eternally guard the tomb of emperor Qin Shi Huang, who ordered their construction in the second century BC. Discovered by peasants digging a well in 1974, it is now one of China’s most famous sites, and excavation is still going on. Vault One is the largest, with many rows with over a thousand figures out of an estimated eight thousand, a small number of horses in their midst. Each soldier has different features, expressions and rank, said to have been modelled after each member of Qin Shi Huang’s Imperial Guard. The layout is that of a modern army, with well guarded flanks, and even including a modular setup, with archers and cavalry units. In the nearby museum, some of the metal weapons found at the site are on display, made from sophisticated alloys, still sharp when discovered, and the arrowheads contained lead to make them poisonous. Also on display are two bronze chariots, each with four horses and a driver. The attention to detail with which these chariots were made is stunning, with even the driver’s knuckles, nails and fingerprints shown. Visiting the Terracotta Warriors was a very intruiging experience, but it is also an enormous tourist circus, with vendors yelling out “Hello! Water!", or shouting at you to visit their souvenir stalls, all selling the same items.
Soon however, I would leave Xi’an, and head yet further south, to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province.