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krisek Datong - A travel report by Krys
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Datong,  China - flag China -  Shanxi
14415 readers

krisek's travel reports

Former capital with tradition but underappreciated

  9 votes
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Datong in the Shanxi province, has over 2,300 years of great history. It had been the capital of the Northern Wei Dynasty and an important military centre of Qing & Ming dynasties. Yet, it does not sit very firmly among China's prime tourist destinations.

Hanging Monastery
Hanging Monastery
There are over 300 historical remains and sites of ancient relics, among which one has been listed by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage Site. They are the Yungang Grottoes, carved meticulously with Buddha images, dating back to 400s AD.

It is a city of dragon screens, as there are several of them, and the Nine-Dragon Screen is the earliest and largest dragon screen in China!

Datong is situated in the northern part of the Shanxi province, has 4 districts and 7 counties under its jurisdiction and a population of over 3 million. Located in the loess plateau, the city is about 1,060 meters above sea level, and has a continental monsoon climate of temperate zone, and therefore has clear division of the four yearly seasons.

I had to get up early to catch my Beijing - Datong 07:30 am flight. Fortunately, the airport was only 30 minutes by taxi, and it was easy to call one from the street. I was a bit concerned about weather, as it was very foggy (smoggy?) flights might have been delayed. But that was nit the case. My flight left on time, and I landed in Datong, basking in sunshine, at 08:30 am. I quickly caught the airport shuttle (¥10) was at the hotel reception by 09:15 am. After having relaxed and eaten late breakfast (beef noodle), I embarked on discovering Datong country.

The receptionist, who barely spoke about ten words in English, insisted that it was just too difficult to go anywhere by public transport. I did want to cover a lot in a day, true. But I ambitiously claimed I could do it by bus. Actually, it was too late for that, and I was glad the hotel manager came and negotiated a car with a driver for me for the entire day. For a distance of 260 kilometres, I paid ¥340 (34 euro). I think that it was not a bad deal at all. This way, I managed to cover more in a day than I originally planned. It was a good day!

Favourite spots:
Wooden Pagoda in Yingxian
Wooden Pagoda in Yingxian
Not in Datong, but 70 kilometres southwest, in Yingxian, was the Wooden Pagoda, aka Sakyamuni Pagoda, part of the Fogong Temple (entry: ¥60). It was built in 1056 during Liao dynasty and had a total height of 67 metres with the diameter at the base of 30 metres. It claimed the title of the largest surviving wooden tower building in the world. It was of an octagonal shape, and from the outside, it looked that it had 5 floors. In fact, there were 4 hidden levels inside, making the total 9 floors.

The pagoda was great indeed, but the entire town of Yingxian was exceptionally picturesque. For the first time on my entire trip, I really felt that I was in China! Traditional, very old houses with curved roofs lined all streets in the core of the town. Wherever I turned, I saw a temple-like buildings with shops, banks, restaurants, teahouses, households. This was the greatest surprise of this holiday. Yingxian appeared like a superb place to escape the world for a couple of days.

What's really great:
Yungang Grottoes
Yungang Grottoes
The Yungang Grottoes are the largest and earliest  group of Buddha statues preserved in China. They are located at the foot of Mount Wuzhou, about 15km west of the centre of Datong but within its suburbs. The group of 53 grottoes carved in solid rock stretch over 1km from east to west. The construction of the grottoes started at the time of the Northern Wei dynasty in 453 AD. They hold over 51,000 statues, the largest of which is more than 17 meters high, and the smallest is only 2 centimetres long. One could spend a couple of hours there, admiring the work. Entry: ¥60.

The site was visited mainly by Chinese travellers. I spotted only three other foreign-looking people, when I went. The public transport was rather difficult, and the easiest way to get there was by taxi that could be organised by any hotel, for a really good price. It should not cost more than ¥50, including waiting time.

The Drum Tower at night
The Drum Tower at night
The key sights within the city limits included: the Nine-Dragon Wall; the Drum Tower; the Zhao Wuling Emperor Mausoleum; and the Shanhua Temple; the Huayan Temples.

Just outside the city, there were obviously the grottoes, and some 70 kilometres away, the magnificent Beiyue Hengshan Hanging Monastery (Entry: ¥60). This monastery was the very reason why I travelled to Datong. It is located on the west cliff of the Gold Dragon Gorge at the Hengshan Mountain, 5km south of Hunyuan. It was first built in 491 entirely of wood, based on half-inserted crossbeams, skillfully supported by hidden rocks to form a combination of rock and beam and column up and down, and a fixed match of the corridor and parapet, according to physical mechanics and gravity. It is the only architecture on high cliff in China. And some freak twist of nature created rain at the temple. Everywhere else in the county there was plenty of sun! But right at the entry to the gorge, it just had to rain cats and dogs!

Hotel Datong****, Room no. 6638
Hotel Datong****, Room no. 6638
I checked into the Datong Hotel****, as I could not find a hostel that would have vacancy. I got room #6638 on the sixth floor. It was small-ish, but really clean, as one would expect from a four-star hotel. The price was very reasonable - ¥280, and included absolutely superb breakfast. The room had a double bed, a desk, sat TV, phone, free tea, a minibar. The bathroom, with a combined bathtub and shower was clean, and a range of toileteries were provided, such as razors, combs, toothbrushes, shower gels, shampoo, body lotions, sewing kit, shoe shine.

There were also small items for sale in the room, such as expensive teas (¥28), instant coffee (¥10) and good value spicy beef noodles (¥5). Kettle for boiling water, and obviously tea cups, were provided as standard.

The personnel did not speak much English so it was a bit of a challenge when asking for directions, or how to hire a car for a day. But it was overall a great value and relatively central. And easy for local transport.

Bar opposite the Nine-Dragons Wall
Bar opposite the Nine-Dragons Wall
Opposite the Nine Dragons Wall, there were a couple of busy bars, one of which was styled in a traditional Chinese architecture, and illuminated with red lights, it looked very welcoming.

However, nightlife in Datong appeared not to concentrate around and in bars. It was the provisional eateries that seemed to have shot up from undeground as soon as a mobile kitchen rolled into a spot on a bicycle or similar vehicle. Quickly these eateries filled up with customers, who happily played games, mainly cards, after they finished their meals.

Datong's main street at night
Datong's main street at night
The street running south of the old Drum Tower was full of cafes that were humming with locals having their drinks, usually tea. Some of them looked triendier than others, some a little run down, I guess. But one could find Datongers in all sorts of them. I had a peek in a couple of them in the evening, and was under the impression that they really took their time, chatting rather loudly about... actually, I had no idea what about.

I also liked an impromptu street night market, which developed right in front of my hotel. It did spawn a quick crowd, who came to check what was new and fashionable in the kitsch and cheap (and completely silly and useless) toy department. I saw no-one actually buying anything.

Datong was called the city of dragon walls, not just because of the unique Nine Dragon Wall. There were 4 One Dragon Walls; 1 Three Dragon Wall; 3 Five Dragon Walls; and one wall with circular 'dragon seals'. It was great to try to locate them all... Not an easy task but rewarding.

China Green Restaurant. From left: Sichuan peanut chicken, rice, chili prawns
China Green Restaurant. From left: Sichuan peanut chicken, rice, chili prawns
Maybe I was lazy, or perhaps staying at a four-star hotel, I just was tempted to try some better food. Splurge a little! I went to the Datong Hall China Green Restaurant, which specialised in local Shanxi dishes and served Sichuan and Cantonese dishes. I ordered a couple of local meat cakes (¥1 each), and a marvellous Sichuan chicken in delicious peanutty and spicy sauce (¥16) - first on the left on the picture opposite, a small bowl of boiled rice (¥2), and for the main course a massive Shanxi style prawns with hot chillies and pine (I think) green shoot kernels (¥116) - there must have been three portions there at least! - top of the same picture. Everything looked beautifully perfect and tasted twice as better! I was in Shanxi heaven! The main course was so big that it was getting lukewarm, as I got midway into it!

The service was swift and the army of waitresses attentive, despite the restaurant being very busy. I actually thought that the place would be much more expensive.

Other recommendations:
Yingxian, main street
Yingxian, main street
The prices were lower than in some 'street' restaurants in touristy or semi-touristy areas of all cities in China I had been before. If I did not go for the extravagant prawn, which I almost forced down due to its size (I could not bear a thought that even a tiny bit of it could go to waste!!), I would have paid ¥20 for dinner plus drinks! That's less than £2! The youth hostel in Beijing, where I was staying, charged £25 for Sichuan diced chicken with peanuts, for comparison... Uh, I just have to say, to be completely fair, that the order things came was a tiny bit annoying. The pre appetiser came last, rice arrived penultimate, after the chicken and prawns. However, again to be fair, this was rather typical in all places I ate in China. Perhaps a concept of an appetiser, first course, main course, etc does not exist in China?

Datong is huge, although easy to navigate. It takes considerable amount of time to go from one sight to another. Taxis are really cheap (¥10) and plentiful.

Published on Wednesday September 23th, 2009

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Thu, Sep 24 2009 - 11:17 AM rating by pesu

Great informative report - fine that you accidentally discovered nice places in China based on visiting the fantastic Hanging Monastery.

Thu, Sep 24 2009 - 02:10 AM rating by annagreg

Very good and complete information guide!

Thu, Sep 24 2009 - 02:08 AM rating by gloriajames

loved the pic of the hanging monastery.
do we get to see an album of Datong?

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