There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Datong, the Yungang Grottoes and the Hanging Temple: Part 12 of Beijing, North Korea and Shanxi

"Nothing but Delight that over there"
                                                                                                             slogan seen on a tee-shirt, Beijing

15/09 - A Day of Rest

After getting off the train from Pyongyang, Sunday was a day of leisure in Beijing; there was nothing we had to see and nobody to organise it. Lunch in Mr Lee’s Noodle Shop may not have been haute cuisine, but I enjoyed it.

Lunch in Mr Lee's Noodle Shop
16/09 - Off to Shanxi
We were heading south west to Shanxi Province

After a leisurely breakfast we made the short walk to the station to fight with the crowds and the sometimes baffling Chinese rail system. It was a pleasant change to be reliant on ourselves rather than have a guide doing everything for us.
From Beijing to Datong
Our train to Datong left on time and, after seven hours of gently rambling through the countryside at an average speed of some 60 kph, it arrived on time.

Eating one of Alex's flapjacks on the train to Datong
 We were met by Maggi, our guide for the next two days, and drove past the walled ‘Old City’ (of which more later) to our hotel in the new centre, a not particularly interesting street of large hotels and even larger banks.

Shanxi Province - wind farms as well as coal mines
 Before leaving, Maggi gave us directions to an area where life was on a more human scale. Walking there in the evening we found a small restaurant that provided us with rice, chicken with chillies and Sichuan pepper and a dish of gently spiced spinach with garlic and nuts.


Breakfast at the Datong Hotel was a large Chinese buffet. In one section bowls were being ladled out from a vat labelled ‘haggis’. It looked like noodle soup but, intrigued, we took a bowl each. There were the usual Chinese condiments, coriander, chopped shallots and chilli sauce, which we would not normally associate with haggis. I took some chilli sauce - I like a slug of chilli in the morning.
Shanxi Province

On closer inspection pieces of tripe and kidney were swimming among the noodles. Oats are grown locally and although I cannot be absolutely sure the bowl contained any, there was a definite haggis-y flavour that went beyond the offal. It was excellent, my compliments to the clan McWei.
Datong's newly rebuilt city wall (with the new town in the background)
Despite having two entries in the Rough Guide’s 'top 35 things to see in China', Datong does not see hordes of foreign tourists. We had spotted the city’s downside as we arrived and encountered it again as soon as we stepped outside the hotel in the morning. Northern Shanxi produces two thirds of China's coal; Datong has several pits and two huge coal-fired power stations, one supplying the electricity for Beijing, the other serving Shanxi province's 36 million inhabitants. Black dust hangs in the air, which has a distinctive coaly smell. An atmosphere that should be sliced rather than breathed is a powerful deterrent from spending long in Datong.

Maggi arrived with her driver and we set off on the 16km journey to the Yungang Grottoes. We headed west, leaving the city of 1.7 million people, and travelling through reasonably pleasant greenish countryside, albeit with a sprinkling of coal mines.

At Yungang the authorities have built a long, elaborate walkway from the car park to the grottoes. Chatting with Maggi as we walked it became clear that her English was exceptionally good. Few Chinese guides have travelled outside China so have been unable to develop their listening skills, but Maggi had spent three years living in Bury in Greater Manchester which is, she informed me, Datong's twin town. I must admit I have never been to Bury, but I know that it is famous for its black pudding – which we particularly enjoy fried with slices of sweet apple as a light lunch. I asked her if she had encountered Bury black pudding. 'I tried it, ' she said, 'but it wasn't very nice, I wasn't sure if I should have cooked it or not.' 'It's fine either way, ' I told her. She looked unconvinced.

Maggi and I discuss black pudding on the approach to the Yungang Grottoes
 The Yungang Grottoes are a series of 252 caves containing over 51,000 Buddha statues. Once the caves stretched along 15km of hillside, today about 1km of it is open to visitors.

Lynne at the Yungang Grottoes
After the collapse of the Han dynasty in 220AD China fragmented into three (sometimes more) kingdoms before being reunited by the Sui dynasty in 589. The Three Kingdoms period was one of protracted and complicated warfare as Wei, Wu and Shu fought for supremacy. Datong became the capital of the Buddhist Northern Wei, who built the Yungang Grottoes in three separate bursts of activity between 453AD and 525. We first encountered the Northern Wei in Jiayuguan, 1000km to the west, where we visited their tombs and experienced a total eclipse.

Yungang Grottoes
Yungang is the oldest and arguably the grandest of China's three major Buddhist grottoes. We saw the slightly younger Mogao Caves at Dunhuang in the Gobi desert in 2008, the Longmen caves are a treat in store.

Yungang Grottoes
The statues vary in size from the colossal to the tiny, the largest being carved from the sandstone caves in which they sit.

Some small and some badly eroded Buddha statues, Yungang Grottoes
In some caves even the painting survives but in others the soft sandstone has suffered severe weathering. There have been several attempts to protect them including the 11th century construction of the ‘ten temples of Yungang’ shielding the main caves. They were destroyed by fire 50 years later and the only extant protective temple was built in 1621 in the early Qing Dynasty.
Some surviving painting, Yungang Grottoes

A programme of forestation is intended to lessen the effects of sandstorms, while there are currently major works in the central section. Worryingly, the Chinese generally, and the Datong authorities in particular, have a record of turning conservation and repair into restoration, rebuilding and even downright fakery. I ought to object to the Qing portico for the same reason, but it has been sanctified by age and that makes it is easier to forgive. I offer no rational justification for my inconsistency.

Early Qing additions, Yungang Grottoes
Many of the larger statues were once covered in plaster and painted. The small holes visible on many statues originally held pegs which supported the plaster, but being even softer than the sandstone it is long gone.

Buddha statue, Yungang Grottoes
As Yungang is more-or-less outdoors, photography is permitted, which it is not at Mogao. Yungang’s statues have suffered weather damage rather than the (sometimes well meaning) vandalism at Mogao, but I am not convinced they have the same air of mystery.

Lynne and a Buddha statue, Yungang Grottoes
The site is being developed for bigger and better tourism, with stalls and restaurants appearing in an adjoining area. When Chinese tourists arrive, they come by the busload and cultural sites can quickly become theme parks. I hope that won't happen here, but given the activity in the rest of Datong, I am not optimistic.
Making sweets - the theme park is all set to go
Yungang Grottoes, Datong 

We left Yungang and set off for Hunyuan, some 75km south east of Datong. The drive was through truly dismal country, passing one of the power stations that freely distribute their atmospheric blessings over fields and houses. A stream of lorries flooded past carrying coal from the pits to the power station. The road was lined with grimy little workshops and the air was full of smog. I found it difficult to swallow and started to cough, as I would until some days after we had left Datong.
Setting off towards Hunyuan
Eventually we made it into open country. Scruffy pasture sat on top of soft rocks through which streams had cut deep, narrow gorges. This relief was short lived as we soon arrived in the small town of Hunyuan. It is alleged that when Queen Victoria’s train passed through the Black Country, the blinds were drawn so she did not have to look on Tividale and Tipton. God knows what she would have made of Hunyuan.

We lunched in a private room in the town’s one hotel. Maggi ordered and provided us with the same chicken dish as we had eaten the previous evening (though minus the Sichuan peppers) and some sliced pork nestling among big mushroomy sheets of black fungus. Our request for something ‘typically local’ produced two outsized jiaozis one of which Lynne is struggling to lift with her chopsticks in the photo. The thick oaty pastry enclosed a heap of shredded unseasoned potato. I can only assume it was Maggi's revenge for Bury Black Pudding.

Lynne with that jiaozi - Maggi's revenge for the black pudding?
The Hanging Temple, also called the Xuankong Temple, just outside Hunyuan, is Datong's other entry in the Rough Guide's top 35.

It was built over 1600 years ago singlehandedly by a monk called Liao Ran. You may believe that if you wish and there has certainly been a monastery here for over a thousand years, just not this monastery. Successive monasteries have been destroyed by flooding and it has been rebuilt higher and higher up the rock wall until it is now 75m above the valley floor.

The Hanging Temple, Hunyuan
A dam now protects the valley, so presumably it has reached its high water mark.
The dam, Hanging Temple, Hunyuan
The temple is often crowded but we seemed to hit it at a quiet moment and were able to look round unjostled and at our leisure.
The Hanging Temple, Hunyuan
It is an airy height, but the monastery is better anchored in the rock wall than it looks from below and sits on a substantial shelf. The long poles apparently supporting it are just for show, some do not even reach the temple platform and you can lean over the rail and give them a good waggle.

Lynne enjoys the airy heights of the Hanging Temple, Hunyuan
 Xuankong Temple is unique in that serves three religions, or at least philosophies, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism; a harmonious coming together which would provide a good lesson for some other religions - if they were the least bit interested in learning it.

Buddha is here, but so are Confucius and the Taoist gods
We returned to Datong on a road that, though busy, was more scenic than the road we had arrived on - not that that was difficult.

We drove beside the 'old' city wall and entered through a gatehouse built to the traditional and ubiquitous Ming design, but erected very recently.

Newly built city gate, Datong
We didn't travel far along the wide streets before turning into the car park for the Nine Dragon Screen. 45m long and 8 high it was built around 1400 to screen the palace of the thirteenth son of Zhu Yuanzhang, the first Ming emperor.
The Nine Dragon Screen, Datong

I had been annoyed with myself for missing the Nine Dragon Screen in Beihai Park when we were in Beijing ten days ago, but Datong's screen is much older and three times bigger, so that made me feel better. For 500 years it has sat alone in a courtyard, after the palace it was built to screen was burnt down by rioters.

One of the dragons
Nine Dragon Screen, Datong
Observing that the dragons have four claws (because only the emperor’s dragons have five) should be all there is to say, but it is not. The current municipal authorities are desperate to make Datong a major tourist attraction, so they are busy rebuilding the original palace. My advice would be, do not build fakes, concentrate on the genuine old attractions you already have and clean up the air. Not that they have asked for my advice.

Behind this fence a brand new 'Ming' palace is taking shape.
Later, outside our hotel, we found an elderly man in the courtyard with two, metre long, mop-headed sticks, one in each hand, like outsized Chinese writing brushes. He was dipping them in the hotel's fountain and writing Chinese characters on the paving stones. We watched for a while and he smiled and handed me one of the brushes. I followed him carefully as he wrote the characters. His writing could be called ‘calligraphy’; mine would best be described as 'childish'. Some of the characters were so complex that I turned them into small pools of water, though my teacher had no such problem. I thanked him for the experience, but I was happy to watch my incompetence evaporate into the night air.

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