Travelling in China can be very tricky, simply because the country is so huge and there are so much to see and do. So you really have to do your research, nail down a travel route that you can fit in as much as possible within your travel timeframe. For our first trip to China, we decided to focus on the northern part of China. After our first stop in Beijing where we climbed the Great Wall and devoured countless Peking Duck, we hopped on a plane and headed west to Datong city in the northern Shanxi province.
As soon as we landed in Datong, first thing we noticed was something we fear would happen to the whole country in future, if not already. There are new public housing blocks erected everywhere on the outskirts of the city to accommodate the booming population of over 3.3 million whereas the old towns are slowly being torn down.
Datong itself is a little bit off beaten track, we hardly spotted any tourists when we were there and the city itself was definitely a lot quieter compared to Beijing. We spent two nights here and just enough to visit all the tourist spots we had in mind. Firstly, let’s explore the city itself.
Huayan Monastery & Datong City Wall
Right in the middle of the city is Huayan Monastery of Datong. It is the largest and most perfectly preserved temple of the Liao (916-1125) and Jin (1115-1234) dynasties in China. The monastery is divided into two parts, Upper Monastery and Lower Monastery. Uniquely its architecture, sculptures, murals are rare forms of art known to China’s Liao Dynasty.
Then, another Datong’s highlight is the city wall that encloses the old city. Eight years ago, Datong’s newly appointed mayor, Geng Yanbo, set out to restore its glorious history – to resurrect the old city of Datong. He launched an ambitious plan to reconstruct the lost walls, watchtowers, turning the “old city” into a tourist. But sadly, many of Datong’s history will be lost by rebuilding historic monuments as the locals calling the city wall “a fake relic”. What could be more ridiculous is that in Feb 2013, Geng left to take up a mayorship in Taiyuan, leaving behind a Datong unfinished construction site – a gap on the western side of the wall is still waiting to be completed.
The next day, we hired a driver for the day who took us to all the major tourist attractions in the area. The first stop was the Yungang Grottoes. The site is located at the base of Wuzhou Shan mountains, about 16km west of Datong city. The Yungang Grottoes are ancient Chinese Buddhist temple grottoes from the 5th and 6th centuries.
There is an entrance fee to visit the site and once we were inside, we had to take a long stroll through temples, lake and tranquil garden before reaching the archaeological site at the far end.
All together, the site is composed of 252 grottoes with more than 51,000 Buddha statues and statuettes inside. In 2001, the Yungang Grottoes were made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, when Geng was the mayor of Datong, he authorised building work around the Yungang Grottoes, before even gaining approval from Unesco, risking damage to the statues. I have to admit that when I saw the statues in the grottoes, they seem to have been plastered again and looked a little “new” and too smooth on the surface for its age. Nevertheless, the towering statues were impressive and monumental, at least 8 storeys high.
There were also impressive wooden buildings constructed entirely without using a single nail but the unique structural element of interlocking wooden brackets called “dougong“, it is one of the most important elements in traditional Chinese architecture. These buildings were constructed in front of the caves to protect them from the heavy weathering.
The Hanging Temple
It was worth a trip to Datong just for this – the Hanging Temple! But first, let’s have lunch. Our driver suggested us to have lunch first before visiting the temple, so we pulled up a stool at one of the stalls outside the site and slurped up a bowl of delicious cold noodle dish called Liang Fen.
Liang Fen is a local specialty, especially in the Shanxi province. This cold noodle dish is a popular street food during summer season. The slippery silky noodle is made from potato starch using local potatoes which is what this area is famous for. The cold noodle was accompanied with shredded cucumber, cilantro, tofu and crunchy peanuts, all doused in soy sauce and a hint of chilli oil, absolutely delicious!
Tummy satisfied, it was time to visit the hanging temple.
The Hanging Temple is a temple built into a cliff, 75 metres above ground. It is located near Mount Heng, about 64 kilometres from Datong city. Built more than 1,500 years ago, this temple is notable not only for its location on a sheer precipice but also because it is the only existing temple with the combination of three Chinese traditional religions: Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.
The monastery is located in the small canyon basin, and the body of the building hangs from the middle of the cliff under the prominent summit, protecting the temple from rain erosion and sunlight.
The hanging temple was also listed in the “Time” magazine as the world’s top ten most odd dangerous buildings. Visitors are able to climb all three levels of the temple, the wooden paths are narrow and rickety, most time we even had to dodge visitors coming from the opposite direction, definitely not for those who have acrophobia.
Our last stop of the day trip was Mount Heng. Known as the northern mountain of the Five Great Mountains of China, Mount Heng has a strong Taoist presence, it is considered a sacred mountain since Zhou Dynasty. Due to its northerly location, often under control of non-Chinese nations, the mountain has a weaker history of pilgrimage than its four fellows. Indeed, to this day it is the least-visited and least-developed of the five. Hence, it is also less commercialised and not on the tourist radar.
The main peak is a lovely 3 hours round trip hike, or do what we did – take the cable car.
The view from the top of Mount Heng was pretty spectacular. There are no hotels on the mountain but only temples. During the Han Dynasty, a temple called the Shrine of the Northern Peak (Beiyue Miao), dedicated to the mountain god was built on Hengshan’s slopes. While periodically destroyed and rebuilt, this temple has an uninterrupted history from Han times to the present day.
One thing we noticed when we were in China was the locals love spicy food and Sichuan food can be found almost everywhere. So for our last meal in Datong, we ended up at Spice Spirit, a Sichuan restaurant chain with branches all over China. This modern restaurant attracts the younger crowd who are not afraid to spend a little more.
One thing that made this restaurant unique was the little gimmick to promote the restaurant’s fast service. They were obviously very proud of it because as soon as we placed our order, the waitress came back with an hourglass and told us that the food will be at our table before all the sand trickled down to the bottom half of the hourglass, or else the meal is free. And she was right, all the dishes arrived at the table and the hourglass was still running.
The meal itself, well it was no doubt numbingly hot! Both dishes we ordered were covered in dried chillies, sichuan peppercorns and a thick layer of chilli oil. Since we had a flight to catch the next day, we definitely didn’t want to have an upset tummy in mid air. So we only managed to eat half of it and considered defeated.
Then we stumbled upon a night market right outside the mall. Even though I was pretty full, but I couldn’t help myself and had a giant fried squid instead. The giant anger squid was a specialty from Taiwan, just like the Hot Star large fried chicken, but a whole deep fried squid, coated in chilli powder according to the heat level of your choice.
A bit ironic to have Taiwanese specialty in China, don’t you think?
I have also written an article on Expedia about my experience to follow my roots back to China. You can read it here.