Coal is everywhere in Datong: in glistening black veins underground, fueling the factories, loaded onto and falling off massive trucks, thick and gray particulate in the air around you. But don’t come for the coal. Come for the monastery that hangs, the grottos (specifically the complex at Yungang), and a dose of Shanxi history.
A Heartfelt Apology
Sixteen hundred years ago, the Turkic Tuoba, better known here as the Northern Wei, came sweeping in to unify the upper half of China, and established Datong as their capital. The first few Tuoba emperors were hearty Buddha fans, but then came Taiwu. During the twenty-eight years of his reign, he executed, exiled and persecuted monks, as well as destroyed temples, images and written documents.
Taiwu’s grandson and successor, also known as Wencheng, created Yungang Grottos in the sandstone cliffs, as a form of apology. Led by Chinese monk Tan Yao, the project consisting of fifty-three caves began with five Indian monk-sculptors.
This project continued for decades underemperors Xianwen and Xia, eventually requiring the labor of nearly 40,000 workers.There are a total of 1,000 niches holding more than 51,000 sculptures, the most breathtaking of which is the 17-meter-high statue in Grotto Five. They have survived for 1,500 years, but barely. Looters and vandals, anti-Buddhist attacks during the Cultural Revolution, and coal pollution have all done some serious damage. Fortunately, in 2001, UNESCO listed Yungang as a World Heritage Site.
Also on the Datong sightseeing list is the surpassingly beautiful, architecturally unlikely Hengshan Monastery. The monasteryis 46m off the ground, and somehow pegged to the cliff-face itself. Again we have the Northern Wei to thank for this, though what you see today is mainly Ming and Qing restoration. To get there, drive 80km southeast from Datong to Golden Dragon Canyon.
Climbing the stone stairs carved from the cliff-face leads you to the first of six pavilions, none of which are more than three stories tall or a few meters deep. Despite narrow spaces, everything is here: the Mountain Gate, the Bell and Drum towers, a main hall and ancillary constructions, all hand-carved, all roofed in gorgeous tile.
But, why is this monastery up in the air like this? If you ask a guide, you will hear the standard theories: protecting it from floods, sun, rain and snow, or to ensure constant silence. Those things may be true, but perhaps you can create your own theory during your visit.
Datong’s most storied hotel has hosted the likes of Zhou Enlai, Zhu Rongji and Wen Jiabao. Rooms at RMB 336. 38 Yingbin Xilu. (0352 586 8666) 大同宾馆，迎宾路38号
Holiday Inn Datong City Center
Rooms from RMB 261. 37 Yingbin Xilu. (0352 211 8888) 大同假日酒店, 迎宾西路37号
Yungang Jianguo Hotel
A three-star hotel fairly close to the Yungang Grotto. Rooms from RMB 1,080. 21 Yingbin Donglu. (0352 506 6666/6333) 云冈宾馆，迎宾东路21号
Car: Take Badaling Expressway from Madian Qiao to the end and turn to Jingzhang (Beijing-Zhangjiakou, 北京-张家口) Expressway follow signs to Xuanda (Xuanhua-Datong 宣化-大同) Expressway and then follow signs to Datong. Takes about four hours (approx. 327km).
Train: 16 trains leave daily from Beijing Railway Station and Beijing West Railway Station to Datong.