On a high at the incredible Hanging Monastery in Datong...


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Asia » China » Shanxi » Datong
October 25th 2014
Published: November 12th 2014
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We woke to sunshine and blue skies on our first morning in Datong. Buffet breakfast was a surprise - absolutely everything you could imagine including endless cappucinnos - a lovely way to start the day. We had been planning on catching a bus out to the grottoes - we knew we would have to hire a driver to take us to the Hanging Monastery a it was 70 kilometres from the city but after talking to the staff at the hotel they suggested that we visited both together next day in a taxi which would then take us to the airport (nearly an hour out of the city) for our 7.30pm flight to Shanghai. We decided to follow their advice so once the transport was arranged for the following day we set out to explore.

It was another massive city which we expected to be grimy and dirty with coal dust as it was in the middle of the coal mining region. Any information we had read about the city implied this. However it appears that all the smaller mines - many of which were illegal and badly operated - had been closed down and there was now a big push to promote tourism. This had led to the inevitable Chinese development into a new 'old' town and the area our hotel was in was right in the middle of it.

We were surrounded by smashed hutong houses, with many more close to being destroyed. Half of the hutong area had already been rebuilt into old China - the finishing touches were still being done so it hadn't opened yet. and there was still so much more to be rebuilt, judging by the last area of vacant rubble covered ground that was left. A truly frightening amount of money must have already been spent.

We walked through the empty new streets, passing the old drum tower now sitting on a roundabout amidst road traffic. We passed through the avenue of the empty shops towards the city wall. We climbed up and had a fantastic view of the city, both old and new from the top of the watchtower. The whole city was surrounded with new high rise housing blocks - most were still vacant we discovered the next day. In fact we counted hundreds of blocks - and I'm not exaggerating - empty. There must have been thousands of apartments waiting for tenants. And they were still building them.... On one side of the wall was a lovely park which included the city wall moat, now full of water.

We then wandered back through the derelict hutongs that remained to find the Nine Dragon Screen, which is the largest glazed tile wall in China. We fid find it - behind a wall in the hutongs - and it was impressive. At 45.5 meters long, 8 meters high and 2 meters wide it is made up of nine panels each with a coiled dragon on it. In mustard, green and blue glaze it was originally a palace wall. The palace burnt down years ago. There are only two other similar screens in China - one within the Forbidden City, the other in the park behind the Forbidden City.

During our walk through the hutongs we discovered the Fahua Temple with it's glazed tile entrance (the same colours as the Nine Dragon Screen) and large white pagoda in the central courtyard. The halls were full of beautiful gold Buddhas and all the internal walls were beautifully painted with scenes in muted pinks, blues and greens highlighted in gilt. They were very pretty and unlike the other temples were the colours are quite vivid. We also passed another temple - this one was in the middle of a recently destroyed hutong area which was being redeveloped. The temple was all that was still standing and was currently under renovation, no doubt to become the centrepiece of the new old city block.

Afterwards we visited another really stunning temple - Huayan Temple. This temple's upper hall was the largest Buddhist hall in China. It dates from 907AD, the Buddhist hall is newer as it was finished in 1140 The site was very large and half of it is still an active Buddhist monastery. It is the best preserved monastery of it's age in China today. The gardens were beautifully manicured and very peaceful. All the temples in Datong had bright blue enamel ware on their altars. I loved it and really wanted to buy a piece but could not find it for sale anywhere.

The monastery was fronted by a new rather ugly large town square from which new 'old' pedestrian street which was packed with people late in the day. Lined with a combination of fashion stores, mobile phone shops and souvenir outlets and pounding with music as every shop had speaker systems on the footpath and unfortunately for the ear drums they were all playing different music. Stopping for a short time to watch a group of elderly men practise their calligraphy skills on the footpath, using large brushes and water as paint, we decided to go back to the hotel for dinner instead of eating street side as originally planned. The pounding music was just too much. Chinese people seem happy to live their lives on full volume - or maybe they think it's impolite to complain... Our meal at the hotel turned into a farce as despite English/Chinese picture menus we didn't get any of the food we actually ordered and Jerry is still waiting for his beer.... We at least at the next day's breakfast selection to look forward to.

The next day was the highlight of my time in China this trip. Absolutely beautiful sites... The Hanging Monastery was an hour and half drive - we eventually left the forrest if empty apartment blocks behind and were out in to very dry and quite barren countryside. There was no sign of coal at all, though we had seen some mines from the train enroute to Datong from Beijing. The monastery blew me away - it was stunning! It was built in 491 it's crossbeams were half-inserted into the rock as the foundation, while the rock face behind it became its support. It is a tiny narrow fragile looking building hanging precariously off the side of a very high cliff. The small halls of the monastery have been built along the contours of the cliff and were connected by narrow rickerty catwalks and corridors.

It appeared as if could fall off anytime but I couldn't get up to it's entrance fast enough. I absolutely loved it - Jerry only came up to the lower halls as he doesn't like heights and the narrow walkways with low railings were a bit more then he was comfortable with. I will admit I was very thankful that there were very few people there as it wouldn't have been such an enjoyable experience with a crowd.

Only two monks lived there at a time - sharing one bed in the central living hall. The other halls were full of wooden statues, some still brightly coloured but many faded and dusty. I think that is one thing I liked about the monastery as it hadn't had the Chinese facelift - all the paintwork was faded and peeling in places. I cannot imagine spending months at a time though in such restricted living conditions. And Datong does very cold in winter. It was freezing on the side of the cliff and I appreciated the warm clothes I had packed. I spent a long time in the monastery - Jerry was being very patient - but decided it was time to go when the tour buses started to arrive. They looked like matchbox cars below us...

It was a totally amazing building and we are very happy that we took the time and detour to visit it.


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12th November 2014

Incredible Dating
I appreciate your vivid description of your travel experiences in China and your consistent interesting pictures. Thank you Linese.
12th November 2014

Delightful Datong
Wow...Datong is getting a facelift...wow! Hope you get to Yungang Grottoes. I reckon they are the best in China. By your pics the Hanging Monastery has not changed since your cousin Ros & Mike and we were there in about 2007. We met them south of there in Pingyao as they were heading north and we south that led to us travelling to Mali together years later. Shanxi is one of my favorite provences...full of treasures. Enjoy.
13th November 2014

Yungyang Caves
Hi Dave, As you can see we did get to the caves. A highlight of our trip this time - though the amazing tulou houses we saw ten day later were high on the list too. Thanks for reading. I love your blogs too... Linese
13th November 2014
Perched on the side of a cliff

The old-new
The Hanging Monastery looks fantastic--worth putting up with the street music and the missed beer. China is so bizarre--destroying the picturesque hutongs to build new, old cities. Glad you found treasures within those streets, and I love that great doorknob.
13th November 2014
Perched on the side of a cliff

Door knob..
Hi Tara, I agree with you re the doorknob.... Thanks for reading and enjoying my blogs.. Linese

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