Datong: Buddhism on a big scale

View the full set of Datong photos here

We were catching the train out of Beijing so said our goodbyes to Rich (although we were coming back in a couple of weeks – view the TripLine map to see our route) and headed to the supermarket to buy some snacks for the journey. I waited outside with the bags while Sarah went foraging. Rich zipped by on his bike and suggested we get a move on as we didn’t have all that much time to make it to the train station. And so it started. I waited another five minutes for Sarah then headed into the labyrinthine aisles full of noodles in search of her. I was spat out at the checkout where I found Sarah and let her know that we had to get a move on. A quick “wha!?” later and we were doing a fast walk down the pavement to the metro station. Unfortunately in our haste I took us around the circle line in the wrong direction but once we realised it was simpler to just stay on and go the long way around. We transferred to the other line quickly and leapt out at the other end to find, wonder of wonders, an available taxi ejecting the previous passenger. Taxis are as rare as hen’s teeth in Beijing so we captured this guys attention, Sarah miming a train, and hopped in where showing him the train tickets confirmed his charades guessing skills.

He got us to the base of the pedestrian bridge going over the highway to the Beijing West train station. There was construction work underway so we had to skirt on to the road briefly along with the other mass of people trying to get across. We barged our way up the stairs and across the pedestrian bridge, barged our way through the crowds at the security check, then jogged up to our waiting room. Jogging with a large backpack on is not easy but we made it just as the train started boarding, a few minutes late which is apparently quite rare. We drifted along with the crowd and shoved our way through the train, found our seats, heaved bags on to the overhead storage area and collapsed on the quite comfortable seats as we watched the chaos unfold around us. In short time though everyone was seated, or standing if they got cheap tickets, and the journey got underway smoothly.

Across from us sat a husband and wife. He looked as though he had been up all night drinking. He had a red face and could barely keep his eyes open. He spent most of the journey lolling against his long-suffering wife and I think when he tried to begin a conversation with Sarah it was one time she was glad that she couldn’t communicate with a local.  He looked like he was ready for a good, long, rambling conversation. He did give us some red date yoghurt which proved to be a taste sensation, tasting a little like a creamy christmas pudding. We gave him some biscuits in return which he half ate before abandoning and spreading out across his wife for a little nap. At one of the stops Sarah got another passenger popping next to her who kept on trying to talk to her in Chinese. He obviously spoke no English but seemed to have trouble grasping the fact that Sarah couldn’t understand him. Another passenger came along who spoke some English and translated that the man wanted to know where Sarah’s kindle was made. As far as we knew it was made it China – “like everything else” Sarah quipped. The man who had asked the question postulated that it would be a fine day when China came up with the inventions rather than just producing products for other countries. He then went on the make some racist comments about Japanese and English people which the fellow passengers found greatly amusing. Australians didn’t seem significant enough to warrant his hatred.

The train also had sumo baby on board. There must be a child raising theory in China that encourages baby porkers who then put the fat off when they hit their toddler years. There are a lot of pudgy babies but I think the one on the train to Datong took the cake, probably literally. They also have a fashion for young kids which is odd to Western eyes. Rather than using nappies all the kids just have the crutch cut out of the pants, while their bums, like a pair of pork buns, dangle freely. It intrigued Sarah who wanted to know how the parents know when the kid is going to let loose so that they can hold them at a safe distance. Apparently from an early age the parents whistle when the kid is doing a wee and eventually they just about piss on command. It’s great that they do it like this because the environmental impact of Chinese people starting to use nappies would be significant.

The reason for all this train action was to get to Datong which has two incredible sights – the Yungang Grottoes and the Hanging Temple. Before we got there we had to tackle the menu at our very nice hotel. The issue was not language but length, the menu being like a glossy Ikea catalogue for food with page after page of improbable sounding dishes involving shark’s fin, sea cucumber and abalone. We managed to find some dishes palatable to us and the food was excellent, such as the cute corn dumplings shaped like miniature cobs, followed by one of the most blissfully quiet and pleasant rooms we had in our travels. This gleaming hotel with a towering reception would not be our usual choice in these travels due to the cost but in China we got all this for $40 in a website deal.

The following morning we headed out to the Yungang Grottoes which has amazing Buddhist artefacts. In typical Chinese style the entrance to the caves has been over-developed with a huge visitors centre and a walk of a couple of kilometres through a reproduction temple landscape before you finally reach the real deal. The caves are filled with Buddhist statues of all sizes, from two centimetres to 17 metres. In the spare space without a statue there are colourful frescoes filling the walls. There are 53 caves in all, some of which are gob smacking in their majesty. The carvers kindly built holes for the Buddha statues at head level so that they can look out at the landscape.

The Hanging Temple is no less impressive. Located a good hours drive away we had a chance to take a look at China’s new roads up close. They are building a huge number of roads in rural areas but the traffic has not caught up yet. There are a lot of eerily quiet six lane highways with more roads being constructed all the time.

The Hanging Temple is improbably located halfway up a cliff in a site which could only be dictated by religious fervour. It’s great fun climbing up there and clattering all around the wooden structure which has a very sensible one way system and lots of signs warning against smoking or producing any other kind of flame around this building which has been baked dry through the centuries.

On the way home we had the driver drop us near our hotel at the nine dragon wall. Unlike the other attractions this is not AAAAA-rated. The cheaper entry price as a consequence was a blessing but after two of the most amazing places we had seen on the trip, the glazed dragon wall was a bit of a letdown. No matter, we wandered back to the hotel along the wide streets watching new buildings go up everywhere, very satisfied with our Datong excursion.

View the full set of Datong photos here

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