Pleasant astonishment and vast disappointment in Datong ...

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November 20th 2011
Published: December 7th 2011
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Beautiful elephant carvingBeautiful elephant carvingBeautiful elephant carving

the complex had a lot of influence from India, Rome and Greece

Datong - Ancient Land of Buddhism

The border crossing from Mongolia was in fact more interesting than the Russian-Chinese one. We had a lot of time and we could choose whichever option we liked. Obviously the most convenient way was to take the last leg of the Trans-Mongolian and go directly to Beijing but somehow we changed our mind after few weeks in UB. Maybe because there was almost nobody doing that or just maybe because we have heard about some nice places to visit in Inner Mongolia or Northern China. I should probably mention the enormous price difference between the train to the border and the Trans-Mongolian. I could say it is the advantage of this option that every backpacker finds very appealing ;-)

The second decision was to go to Hohhot but after reading LP and some blogs we found out that getting to the nearby sights is way to complex and expensive. We had never been to China so doing complex stuff at the beginning did not seem reasonable to us. Then someone recommended Datong to us, as a beautiful spot with ancient sights and very straightforward way of getting there. Datong it was then. We took the very slow train to the border that we mentioned in our previous blog. We also knew that it is the lowest of the lowest classes and the price of 10£ for both of us and 15h journey seemed much too suspicious. We made it though and in the morning we were ready to cross the border. That was very easy as well just a bit tiring. As there is a bus/minibus taking you through the border but you have to get out and get in all the time together with your backpack to be scanned. It was also so cold that we could not believe we are 15h journey south from from UB – it must have been much colder.

Once we got to Erenhot (the Chinese border town) we just had to find the onward transport to Datong and get some money exchanged. The fact that you are in another country you spot straight away. Proper roads instead of field roads, clean landscape and modern buildings. It always amazes us how country as powerful as Mongolia in Chinggis Khaan time could have ended up as it is today? Shame really as the progress they are making is not fast enough I guess. Erenhot is a new, small town but very nice in fact. We went to the train station first and we were told that there are no trains this day.;-( The station was kind of closed so we had to get back to the bus station. We could not see any bank on the way so we asked about it in one of the hotels and we got the directions how to get there.

Unfortunately, no one told us that there was no possibility to exchange Mongolian money in the bank (apparently you can only exchange it in Erenhot as well) and we had to take a taxi (5Y/0.50£) to the black market. Not something we would normally do as we read many warnings about it but we had around 20£ in Mongolian Tugriks left so we were not willing to keep them as souvenir. Immediately after walking into the building we were surrounded by people trying to quote us rates for money. Not willing to go any further we accepted the rate similar to the one that we had seen on google few days before and we left. Only then I realised that the calculator this woman was using was fixed in a way that it showed different exchange rate and I got really angry. We did not loose much but I could just not understand why I did not spot that!!! I am really good with numbers but I guess the whole experience of being in that place put me somehow of guard. Anyhow we had most of the money back at least and we took out some Yuans as well so we could go ahead to the bus station.

We were so lucky as the bus for Datong (actually to Jian and then to Datong) was just leaving so we did not have to wait any longer. It was also the last one for the day and if we were late for this one we would have had to stay over night. 8h later we were dropped at the south bus station in Datong, that isn’t really a station but a crossroad. We had no idea where we are and no other choice but take a taxi. We showed the driver the address of hotel we were planning to stay in and he of course tried to put us in other, more up-scale places on the way. Finally we made it to the hotel but when we stood in front of it we thought it must have been mistake. It looked for 3/4* hotel not a budget hotel. Address was ok so we went inside and asked. It was the same place just after refurbishment and of course they did not offer any dorms anymore but double rooms for a bargain of 188Y (19£). It was too late to go and search for another place and besides LP did not mention any other budget place so we decided to stay one night and do some internet research. We found out that this one is the cheapest in town and there was nothing else. Only later on our trip someone told us that there was a Youth Hostel but it did not really come up in the internet browser for some reason.

Actually we were glad it turned out this way as this hotel room was so nice and luxurious when compared to the places we had been staying in for the last 2 months that we thought we deserved it ;-) We had great sleep there, beautiful en-suite bathroom and buffet breakfast in the morning. We also realised that the location of the hotel was great as well. Located just next to the train station made it so convenient for all of our excursions and then onward train to Beijing. All the buses such as one to the old town, Yungang Caves and to the main bus station leave from the Train Station so it was really easy to find them.

Datong was actually a capital of Northern Wei Dynasty in IV century. As they believed in Buddhism many ancient buildings, sculptures, drawings, paintings, and other pieces of Buddhist art in Datong date from that time. The Yungang Grottoes are the crowning achievement of this ancient culture. Today Datong is important because of the coal industry not a touristy place. There actually is walled old city but it has been demolished and is being rebuild at the moment. So we did not see any of the city centre or old town and we only focused on the ancient Buddhist sights.

Yungang Grottoes

The caves were our first planned excursion and we could not wait. Our first sight in China as well. Datong is not a touristy
The biggest Buddha statues in the complexThe biggest Buddha statues in the complexThe biggest Buddha statues in the complex

hidden deep in one of the grottoes
place and people still stare at you a lot when in public transport but it was a great stop. Way to the caves is very easy. You take one bus (No.3) to the end of the line and then switch to another (No.4) that goes directly to the site. 40 min all together and 2Y each (0,20£). The site itself is just spectacular. It used to consist of more than 250 caves - today you can see around 40 which they still make for 4-5h of walking around. 50,000 statues are all together on display plus temples, museum and beautifully landscapes garden. It must be amazingly looking place in summer but also it must be full of tourist. When we visited there was not a single white person there – just some native Chinese visitors. The place can be compared to Petra in a way, in terms of how it was constructed etc, Of course the purpose of it was completely different and it was build later than Petra but still 1500 years old caves and statues make great impression. We thought it was even more interesting then Petra to be honest so place worth putting in your plan when
Wooden Temple build around the cavesWooden Temple build around the cavesWooden Temple build around the caves

the only remaining wooden structure in the complex
in China for sure.

We actually loved the way they looked after the place. You can almost see where the money from a steep entrance fee (150Y/15£) go to. The grottoes are very well displayed and explained and additionally you can visit an exhibition hall featuring photos and animations of how grottoes were constructed and how they looked like as well as excavation process. All the displays are very informative and there is no way you can go home without understanding why and what and where about this place;-) We also loved the massive temple complex leading to the caves as well as food court at the exit. As it was our first town in China we were very impressed with an old Chinese design of all the shops and restaurants. Just a lovely place for a whole day excursion really.

Hanging Monastery(Xuankongsi)

As we were only staying in Datong 2 days we reserved the next day for the famous Hanging Monastery. This monastery was built on the face of a cliff at the foot of Hengshan Mountains. It dates from the late Northern Wei Dynasty about 1,400 years ago. Its forty halls and pavilions were built along the contours of the cliff. The building set cross beams paved with timbers and stones and supported by wooden posts. We read so much about this place that we were really looking forward to this day. It is supposed to be an amazing experience. It is really easy to get there, just have to take a bus. During the winter season they transfer you to the pre-paid taxi for the last few kilometres as there is not enough people to go there by bus. Of course the driver tried to take money from us but I showed him the ticket which said we paid till the Monastery and he gave up. It was very cold and windy day so we were trying to do the whole trip fast. We thought that the 40 halls will take a lot of space and that the whole complex will be as big as the grottoes for some reason. So we stood in front of the Monastery and we started to examine our expensive ticket (125Y/12.5£) for more information where to go next. That was it unfortunately.

I don’t know if the disappointment was so big because of the expectation we build in our minds or just because the grottoes were so amazing and we kept comparing them to this place. We climbed it all even though I was scared few times as it is so old and so high up the mountain. There could be a chance it would crack right? OK, let's be honest – the Monastery is an exceptional sight. We have to give it a credit for it, but it is just few old buildings mounted on the cliff. The view from it is great too. As you can sense we have very mixed feeling about the place but we met many people who visited this place and they were not impressed either. Maybe it is the hassle to get back from there? Ow yes, I forgot to mention that the way over there is easy and inexpensive (26Y/2.6£) but there is no public transport to come back to Datong. They don't really explain it well in LP. I am not sure how it works in the summer but in the winter you have to budget for a taxi back (100 -200Y minimum) or try to go to the nearby village to find a bus. We shared a taxi with some French girls so we paid 100Y.

Very happy to be back we went to the supermarket to get some snacks and we called it a night early. Next day we were finally heading to the capital ;-)

Additional photos below
Photos: 33, Displayed: 30


Traditional drum in the templeTraditional drum in the temple
Traditional drum in the temple

there is always bell and drum tower at the opposite sites of the temple
Chinese writingChinese writing
Chinese writing

I still find them soo charming
Amazing elephant alleyAmazing elephant alley
Amazing elephant alley

all the pillars were supported by beautifully carved elephants

9th December 2011

Shanxi Provence is extraordinary and packed with treasures of ancient have had a taste...and two of the best...the hanging monastery...sensational...and Yungang picked of the five top grotto sights in China...but you did not mention one of the biggest coal mines in across the road..!
10th December 2011

Thanks for your comment - of course now I remember there was a huge mine. We could see people getting of the bus on the way to the caves. Didn't know it was the biggest though ;-) Cheers, B
10th December 2011
Beautiful elephant carving

Great picture guys.
20th December 2011
Beautiful elephant carving

thanks again ;-)
19th December 2011

Datong great wall
Your blog bought back great memories for me. Visited that area some years ago and did go out to see the Great Wall at Datong. We also had mixed messages about the state of the wall and finally hired a driver to take us there. He dropped us at a very unimpressive section of the sall that was very damaged and falling down and pointed towards the hills and said "walk half an hour" and we did - what an amazing sight - the wall snaking off as far as the eye could see - just the two of us standing on the hill - thanks for provoking that memory for me. Just come back from Mexico and Cuba - both great countries to travel in - We did the Copper Canyon train ride in the north of Mexico - great experience. Happy travels.
15th January 2013

Amazing Photography
I skipped Datong when I visited China. Going by your blogs, I know there's so much more I missed. And Mongolia too! Love your blogs, guys. Keep them coming.
23rd January 2013

really appreciated
Thank you so much Liliram!!! so glad you enjoy them :-) B&T
1st March 2013

All are nice pics. really superb. we welcome u you to india, and the state tamilnadu -land of hospitality..

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