Temples and Caves

Trip Start Mar 06, 2005
Trip End ??? ??, 2006

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Friday, April 1, 2005

April 1st
Arriving in Datong at 7:30 am we visited the CITS office (the government run tourist agency) and they were very helpful in finding us good and cheap accomodation and booking us on a trip to see the Hanging Temple and the Yungang caves...the main reasons that people visit Datong.

The difference between Datong and Beijing was evident as soon as we arrived. Datong is industrial and has a more 'rough and ready' atmosphere being no where near as developed as Beijing. It is primarily known for coal production and contributes 1/3 rd of all Chinas coal needs and until very recently it was known as the last place in the world to manufacture steam trains. The city is, and feels, quite polluted, it is covered with a liberal coating of dust and a general haze that hangs in the air.

One of the first things that struck us was the lack of 'Westeners' in fact until we went on our first organised trip we didn't see any others. This was made more apparent by the stares we recieved from the locals. Not quick glances in our direction but full on lingering direct STARING! they even nudged one another and shouted to their freinds to look at the foreigners. We visited a noodle restaurant for breakfast and the kitchen staff came out to look at us.( this behaviour was to become the norm ...more later).

One of the other features of China is the social habit of SPITTING this takes place everywhere. On the pavement, on the floor of restaurants and age or gender is no barrier to doing it. We saw both young and old, men and women spitting. The spitting is not done discreetly either, it usually takes the form of a Gutteral throat clearing or loud snorting followed by the powerful ejection of the resulting phlegm ball. The whole action tends to be done in an 'over the top', exaggerated almost theatrical fashion. The aspect of it which can grate on you after a while is the frequency with which the gutteral hawking sound can be heard ie, constantly everywhere you go. In fact we have noticed that they have to put up signs if they dont want people to spit otherwise almost any location will have phlegm on the floor.(It's not the nicest background noise when eating a meal in a restaurant..its just a shame for China that it won't be included as an event in the olympics...they'd be certain to take all the medals!).

After getting our bearings we decided to visit the Shanhuo Si temple in the southern end of the city. When we arrived they had to open up the temple complex as we were the only visitors...inside the main building where fantastic Buddist statues around three metres high. We were surprised that so few people visited here as the statues were very impressive..their faces and eyes really seemed to look back at you and you could swear they followed you round the room.

In the evening just as we got back to our hotel a vicious dust storm blew into the city, the whole sky went dark as it approached with dust and litter racing everywhere and the wind howled past our eighth floor room as objects bounced off our window. People were forced to take shelter wherever they could and push, rather than ride their bikes. We were glad to have made it back before it hit the centre of town.

April 2nd
On the CITS bus with us where an Australian, 2 Kiwi's,2 English girls, 8 Chinese and our interpreter who spoke high speed, fluent 'Chinglish' which was virtually incomprehensible. He insisted on us calling him by his adopted English name of 'Kangaroo!'. For much of the busride we had to stifle our giggles at his attempt at a running commentary.

The Yungang caves were our first stop, a very impressive collection of Buddhist carvings hewn out of the red sandstone cliff. Dating from the time of Christ the largest is 17 metres tall and in total there are over 1,000 of them. The original carvings have been coverd by later devotees efforts to enhance them by adding adobe and then painting them. Much of the original colour is still visible and the caves in which they stand are very atmospheric. We lost our guide and wandered around on our own until we left for the 1 hour drive to the Hanging Temple.

The Temple is precariously perched several hundred feet up, on the side of a sheer cliff supported by rickety wooden poles underneath large wooden platforms. The whole construction was gravity defying and insurance was offered as an extra if you wanted to climb up to the temple to walk around it. The railings on the outer walkways only came up to my knees which didn't fill me with confidence and Jane was definitely 'not happy' having to squeeze past people going in the opposite direction, with a precipitous drop directly behind her. The temple proved to be somewhat of a disappointment, mainly due to it's location which was not particularly scenic as it is next to a small dam in a 'quarry like' gorge with concrete steps leading up the cliff side. The photos used to attract visitors dont show this aspect. However, the drive up to the temple was quite scenic passing through a flat river plain then rising sharply up into a range of mountains, the winding road passing small villages with some 'cave homes' hewn out of the side of the mountains and the roads filled with large lorries slowly grinding their way up.

It was time to move on again and on our return to Datong we collected our tickets for the overnight train to Pingyao our next destination... the best preserved walled city in China. We paid for the 'soft sleeper' option (Four bunks in a compartment with clean bedding and air con). This saved us the price of a nights hotel accomodation and meant that we didn't waste a day sat on a train. The ticket cost 150 RMB each (10GBP).
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