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More Than Just Coal

Surrounded by coal mines, pockets of Datong form oases of history and calm, even when dangling from the side of a cliff

By NewsChina Updated Oct.1

Located in the north of China’s Shanxi province, close to the border of Inner Mongolia, the city of Datong is, for most people, synonymous with coal mining. This was probably what caused the surprise when, at the bus station in Beijing, we told the lady at the ticket counter where we wanted to go. “Datong?! Are you sure you mean Datong?” came the reply. A group of construction workers nearby chipped in with their strong Beijing accents: “What the hell are foreigners doing in Datong?” Undeterred, we boarded the bus for the six-hour journey, confident that there were more treasures to be found in Datong than mere coal reserves. Only a short trip out of the city, visitors can spend a day exploring the ancient Buddhist caves of Yungang, and the architectural miracle of the Hanging Monastery perched in the shadow of Mount Heng. 

As we headed out of Beijing, the mountains grew in height, and the Great Wall wound like a large serpent through the rocky hills. This landscape soon transformed into terraced fields, which in turn were replaced by rice paddies with stooped figures in bamboo hats laboring under the hot sun, with blue mountains lining the horizon beyond. Six hours and two smoking breaks later, our bus drew into Datong. The old town is, indeed, concealed within an exoskeleton of industrial wasteland, having served mainly as the country’s coal capital for decades. However, after a while spent haggling with a group of playful taxi drivers, we were taken into the “ancient” city centre, which contrasted sharply with the city’s rough exterior. After billions of yuan of government investment, this has become something comparable to a polished, Disneyland version of an ancient Chinese city. Most of the buildings, despite their style, had been completely renovated in the last five years. The center, however, was not the main reason for our visit, and thankfully there is nothing remotely synthetic about the neighboring Yungang Grottoes and Hanging Monastery, both of which date back to the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534 AD). 

After an early start fueled by a breakfast of sheep organ noodles, a local speciality proudly presented to us by our hotel hosts, we hired a driver to take us to the Yungang Grottoes, about 16km out of town. These were absolutely breath-taking, the fruit of years of toil borne out of devotion to Buddhism. This ancient religion arrived in the area via the Northern Silk Road, and as one of the three oldest sites of Buddhist sculptural art in China, the caves were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. 

There are around 45 major caves open to the public, and over 50,000 individual statues, ranging from an almost 20m tall Buddha in Cave Six to some just 2cm tall. Caves number 16 to 20 are a must-see, collectively known as the Tan Yao Caves and the oldest of all, built in 460-470 AD, and the essence of the entire site. Cave numbers 5, 6, 9 and 13 are also particularly impressive, and extraordinarily well preserved despite the region’s harsh dusty winds blowing in from the Gobi Desert. This is mostly due to large-scale maintenance work, which has achieved a wonderful balance between conserving a feeling of authenticity and protecting the original beauty of the caves. Moving from east to west, you can visit most of the grottoes, as well as an impressive Ming dynasty fort perched on top of the cliff housing them, in about half a day. This leaves time to carry on to the region’s famous Hanging Monastery.  

The monastery was built into a cliff to the west of the famous Mount Heng (Hengshan), an impressive 75 metres above the ground. It has been called an architectural wonder, appearing to defy gravity. The thin wooden support beams did not look convincing to me, although of course the main supporting structure is hidden inside the bedrock. Originally built in 491, it was rebuilt and maintained in the Ming and Qing dynasties, and more recently was closed for repairs for part of 2016 due to a perceived safety risk. (The risk still looked very much present to me.) Primarily impressive due to its curious location, it is also famous as the only monastery which combines Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism under the same roof. In fact, it is partly due to the Taoist importance placed on uninterrupted silence that the structure was built up a cliff, away from human or animal noise. Of course, there was also the practical reason that, up on the rock face, the temple was safe from floods and sheltered from the rain, snow and sunshine, a big contributing factor to its endurance over the last 1,500 years. I was extremely thankful that there weren’t many tourists on the day of our visit, as already the wooden structure seemed to sway as we walked gingerly along its narrow corridors and up its steep spiral staircases, peering into tiny bedrooms and shrines. It is certainly easy to see how, meditating on this wooden frame perched, seemingly, in mid-air, one might feel closer to heaven. Peering over the edge, I certainly felt like I might end up there any minute.  

For those looking for further spiritual enlightenment, the nearby Mount Heng is considered a sacred mountain, albeit the least visited and developed in China. The hike to the peak and back can be completed in about three hours, although on this occasion we arrived too late to buy tickets. Instead, we continued down the road to a natural park, known locally as the “soil forest” due to its protruding towers of loess and grit sediment resulting from wind and water erosion. As we walked, the huge orange sun setting over the horizon cast a golden glow over the miniature canyons and the green and blue layered mountains beyond, bringing our trip to a magical end.