Published: October 19th 2009September 28th 2009
*Quick note: I'm really far behind on my writing (because I'm having a better time) so if I skip between present and past tense, it's because this all happened a few weeks ago*
I got the train from Beijing to Datong, a tiny little place, that only has three hotels, and the only reason people go there is to visit the Yungang Grottos which are a taxi ride away. These caves (although they're not really caves at all, more walls with holes) were carved with huge Buddha's inside them in about 450 AD, and took 50 years. It took a combined effort of about 40,000 people to do them. I think Buddhist monks carved them. Monks are cool, even the really devoted ones like these guys. They're still standing, and the tallest one is over 17 metres. How they did it, I have no idea, I'm guessing they made ladders first, and then tackled the Buddhas. Very impressive. Apparently, these caves and Buddha's are special because you can see an Indian and Greek influence in the faces of the Buddhas. I could see how the Buddha's might look like indians (they had round faces and eyes, not like most Buddha's here that have flat Chinese-y faces) but the Greek influence was totally lost on me.
Anyway, so I arrived from Beijing on a train at about 11pm. The one hotel that has dorm rooms is right opposite the train station, but I was still hounded by touts as I walked across the empty street to the neon-lit, easily seen, Hotel Feitian. I was staying with three other people, an Italian (Marco? Possibly. Possibly Salvo, Allessandro, Antonio, Italians have a very limited selection of approved man-names), and a Belgian couple, Ellen and Matthieu. I hadn't brought my usual suitcase of food onto my train journey, so I was hungry and tired too, so set out to find food straight away. Datong is not a pretty place. It's near the Gobi Desert, so is really sandy, and dusty. There was also a ton of night-time building work going on, and roads being paved and men collecting rubbish. There were no street lights anywhere, and it was generally a bit dead. Not dangerous though, I don't think. My spider sense for danger might have just been suffocated by the dust. The piles of rubbish at the side of the road were piled really high, like 3 feet of rubbish and cats were crawling about looking for food. I'm guessing it was binman-day though cos the next day it was all clean (cleaner, anyway). It was also crazy cold, being almost desertland as well. And I really started to regret leaving my one pair of trousers in a hotel. So I had to walk really fast. I kept walking into what I thought was restaurants, asking if they had food, but everyone kept pointing at their watches, I assume to say that it was too late to eat. I started to get a bit cranky, and then I found a place that was open. I'd left my dictionary at the hotel, so I had to just point at a few random things on the menu, and hope something okay came. (No Oysters!) I ended up with, two kinds of meat on stick (bonus), and a bowl of hot water, with small dumpling things. Inside the dumpling things was, what can only be described as sweet, grey, gritty dirt. It was fucking rank. Something I'd pointed at wasn't available, so I'd just pointed at the next thing on the menu cos it was the same price. The woman had looked a bit baffled when I ordered it, but I didn't know what it was, so I just said yes. It came, and it was three silkworms on skewers. The only two tables in the restaurant were full of Chinese people whose entertainment was basically watching me eat. They saw I was startled when the silkworms came, so they were all staring at me to see if I'd eat them. So I had to finish all my food. The silkworms tasted a bit like mould, but not as bad as I imagined. The dumpling things were the worst, and I only managed half of them, doused in chilli and washed down with lots of warm beer to get rid of the taste. On the upside, it was only 10Y, inlcuding two beers so it was cheap. On the way home, tons of kebab stalls had opened, even at the places where I'd been told it was too late for food, so I think I need to learn the difference between "too late for food" and "too early for food." I couldn't find a quilt that night, so slept with one of those old fashioned fire blanket things, and no shower because I'm pretty sure there wasn't one. I walked around for a fair bit of time, at about 1am trying to find the showers and failed.
The next morning, the two Belgians and the Italian all wanted to go to the Yungang Caves too, so we shared a taxi there. They were oddly situated, in the middle of the desert, with a hotel's foundations being laid next to it, so it was (again) kind of like a building site. After driving for ages having not seen anyone, and then along an empty dirt track, we arrived at a tiny little hub of activity in the middle of the desert. People building stuff and hawkers trying to sell us corn. The caves were pretty cool, especially the really big ones, and especially if you think about how old they are. Although they aren't very cave-like. I'd carried around my trainers, expecting wet, damp caves like, well, like a cave should be. But these were more like things carved into a wall of rock. So be advised: flip flops are entirely appropriate for Yungang Caves.
We went for food afterwards, and as I spoke the best Chinese, I ordered for us. I then proceeded to amaze everyone with my Chinese skills by ordering what I thought was noodles, and getting four portions of fried rice. Good fried rice, but not noodles. I learnt that in Belgium, everyone is given a possible five year break from their job that they can take. Most people use it for when they have babies but Ellen was taking some of her time to travel, and her boss has to keep her job for her. I think that's great, and we should have that in the UK. It would be perfect for mid-life crisis' and stress relief. We walked around afterwards, and Datong is very Soviet-looking. Lots of square buildings that are really huge and all the same. We also saw cute puppies. Then I had to run for my night bus to Xi'an (at 4pm, more of a night and day bus) and made it (AGAIN) with about two minutes to spare. I am determined that one day, I'll get the train in a calm relaxed manner, and not arrive to my compartment covered in sweat and dirt and scare the poor Chinese people. Not today though.