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Day 4: Beijing—The Summer Palace & 798 Arts District | Day 6: Xi’An—Within the Walls >>
Datong—Hanging Monastery & Yungang Caves
We were up at 4:15 a.m. in order to make our early, one-hour flight to the city of Datong. We were devoting a day to seeing two amazing places near there—a “hanging monastery” built into the side of a cliff, and the Yungang Caves containing over 51,000 carved Buddhas.
Here are Genevieve and Sebastian waiting outside of our hutong:
Last night at Qing’s house, she had confirmed our flight information with China Air and discovered that the flight was leaving 45 minutes earlier than the time printed on our tickets. Thank goodness she checked because otherwise we might have arrived at the airport too late to board the plane!
Wangchen got us to the airport on time. Here are Ben and Wangchen:
We grabbed a quick breakfast at the Beijing airport. Sebastian chose a sandwich:
Genevieve and Sebastian, at the small Datong airport:
Because the monastery and caves were far apart, we had pre-arranged (and prepaid) to have a driver and guide waiting for us. Unfortunately, no one was there at the airport. We called the Chinese travel agency that we had used, but we got a recording spoken in Chinese. We tried several phone numbers that we had, and actually reached someone who said spoke to us in Chinese. We don’t speak Mandarin, and the person did not respond to our English.
After waiting half an hour, I was ready to move into “Plan B” mode—we would hire a local taxi driver for the day. Several at the airport had already approached us, asking if we needed a ride.
Just then, a van appeared and stopped in the empty airport parking lot. A woman emerged, looking a little flustered. It was our guide, Li Ann! Hurray! She apologized for being late, stating that traffic had been very bad. We loaded into the van, and off we went.
Our first stop would be the Hanging Monastery, located about 40 miles southeast from Datong.
Li Ann turned toward us from the front passenger seat and began to recite lots of facts about the 2400 year history of Datong and the Shanxi province.
I tried to follow along as best I could, but it took me a while to understand the rhythm of her accent.
Li Ann really was a wealth of information, as well as a very kind person. She studied tourism for 4 years in the capital city of the Shanxi province, Taiyuan, and she has been a guide for about 10 years. She said that she has been to the Hanging Temple about 3000 times (wow!). Her Chinese first name is Ying, which means “hero”; when she was born, her parents thought that she would one day do something heroic.
Li Ann, with Genevieve:
The passing landscape was generally very dry, with buildings that blended with the earth.
At first glance, this photo below appears to show just a wide expanse of open land. However, there is actually a row of buildings near the middle (hint: find the electrical tower).
The drive took about an hour and a half, over some winding roads. We had to stop once to let Genevieve get some fresh air to quell her motion sickness.
Sebastian kept himself entertained with my glove liners:
Li Ann told us that this bright sculpture represents a sunrise, and symbolizes prosperity:
A new public park had a wide expanse of concrete with playground equipment along the edges.
The Hanging Monastery is located on Mt. Hengshan, one of the five sacred mountains in China. At the entrance to the parking area is a tall column topped by the symbol of Chinese tourism—a horse standing on a sparrow.
Perched over 160 feet in the air, and clinging to the side of a steep cliff, the monastery was visually astounding.
Li Ann commented that we had arrived at a good time (late morning), with the sun beaming against the cliff wall. In the winter, the surrounding mountains block all but 2 hours of sunshine from hitting the monastery.
The Hanging Monastery was initially built about 1500 years ago (with periodic restorations). According to Li Ann, the flooding on the valley floor, and the pounding rain and wind on the mountain top, made the side of the cliff seem like the best location. The design, however, required some creative engineering. Deep horizontal holes for the foundation beams had to be painstakingly chiseled out of the rock face. Wooden beams were then inserted into the rock, with 2/3 inside; 1/3 of each beam remained outside to support the various structures. Some of the rooms were partially carved into the cliffside, supplemented by ornate wooden walls.
Under the buildings were a number of long wooden poles that stretched downward, appearing to be adding to the structural integrity.
However, Li Ann said that the posts are mainly for decoration—probably to make people like us feel “safer” when walking out onto an overhanging deck! (I must add, however, that I actually DID feel safer . . . surely those poles added a tiny bit of structural support . . .)
In front of the monastery was a gorge, with a small river and a waterfall that was currently frozen.
On the opposite wall of the gorge, from right to left, were the symbols for “Buddha,” “Peace,” and “Meditation”—all painted in 1997.
We crossed the bottom of the gorge on a low, swinging bridge.
The river flowing through the gorge had been dammed in 1958, so the water under the bridge was merely a small stream.
For safety reasons only a certain number of people are allowed to enter the monastery at one time. We had heard that there is sometimes a very long line of people waiting to enter. We were lucky today—there was no line at the entrance!
Looking up at one of the towers:
The Hanging Monastery was once a Buddhist temple; however, the last monk left the Hanging Monastery during the Cultural Revolution, when the Red Guard invaded temples, churches, and monasteries throughout China and destroyed many buildings and objects connected with religion. (Many monks and religious people were also killed, tortured or sent off to labor camps.)
In one of the first rooms was a statue of a fat Buddha—rubbing his belly is purported to bring good luck, rubbing his hand means that you will get what you want, and rubbing his forehead will endow you with “no worries.” We rubbed all three spots.
Visitors must follow a one-way, winding route through the monastery. Signs pointed us in the right direction:
The buildings are connected by a maze-like series of stairways and bridges, some of them which seemed a bit precarious.
Genevieve and Sebastian led the way:
(Of course, this picture doesn’t have the added sound effects of my voice calling out after them, “Stay close to the wall, please!”)
Sebastian peeked cautiously over the edge:
A view of the ground below:
Visiting the temple is perhaps a true exercise in faith. Although the boards did not creak or move under our feet, we were undeniably perched high above the ground in a structure that was hugging the side of a rock face. We had to maintain the belief that all of the seemingly fragile wooden support beams would continue to hold us in the air.
From their high position, Genevieve and Sebastian could see the frozen waterfall and were looking forward to testing out the ice later:
There were not many people visiting today, so we did not have a flow of bodies pressing us forward through the temple areas. We had plenty of time to linger and admire the architectural details:
The modern, green, mushroom-shaped garbage can was in stark contrast to the traditional elements here:
As we wandered and climbed, we also looked into some small rooms.
One had a statue of Buddha and other figures:
Another room was labeled “Chunyang Palace”--a barren room containing a traditional bed with woven mats and a place underneath for a warm fire.
Above the bed, we could see the faint remnants of a painted gold design, so perhaps the room was once more “palatial.”
Then we reached the “Hall of Three Religions.”
The Hall of Three Religions unifies under one roof the founders of China’s three main religions.
First, there was Sakyamuni Buddha, who is considered the founder of Buddhism:
Second was Laotzu, who is associated with founding Taoism:
And third was Confucius, whose ideas are embodied in Confucianism:
In China, it is considered very unusual to have all three represented together in one room. This feature draws many tourists who view the three figures here as symbolizing hope for religious tolerance, harmony and understanding.
I must say that the eyes on most of the statues were a bit disturbing because someone had chiseled out the original eyes (precious stones, perhaps?). Some of the eyes had been replaced by black stones, and some were still empty.
After the Hall, we climbed more stairs to reach the uppermost rooms of the temple.
Genevieve and Sebastian:
Here I am with Li Ann:
People had placed offerings of money in front of one Buddha:
There were many statues to look at, each one with a story. Li Ann explained the religious importance of every character. Genevieve and Sebastian were definitely on “historical information overload” at this point, and I had reached my saturation point too. Nevertheless, we did enjoy looking at the figures:
Here we are in the last tower room before leaving the monastery:
Genevieve and Sebastian had been eyeing the frozen waterfall all morning. They couldn’t wait to scoot around on it. However, when we reached the waterfall path, Li Ann insisted that walking on the ice was much too dangerous. Even though the children were very disappointed, we respected Li Ann request and told the children that we could only view it from a distance.
We then drove a short distance to the small city of Hunyuan for lunch at Luyuan Restaurant. The food was basic and good, although we have to learn to ask if the meat has bones in it next time (we are finding that sometimes a dish of pork or chicken consists of small bite-size chunks that are mostly bone underneath the outer fried coating layer). We were not adventurous enough to try the rabbit heads with the brains, which Li Ann said is a specialty in Datong, and very delicious.
With Qing and Wangchen in Beijing, we had all eaten our meals together; however, Li Ann was much more formal and insisted on eating at a separate table with the driver, Jia. (Jia, I must add, had stunned us in the parking lot of the Hanging Monastery, where he had tossed a big paper cup out of the window and laughed. The children, with their deeply ingrained “don’t litter” mentality, had looked at me in horror. I counterbalanced my desire to pick up the cup with my knowledge that to do so would made Jia “lose face,” something that is very important in the Chinese culture. Right or wrong, we drove away with the paper cup still on the ground.)
Here is Genevieve outside the restaurant:
A view down the street:
Our next stop would be the Yungang Caves with the carved Buddhas. To reach the caves, we would be making the long drive back to Datong, and then going 10 miles west of the city.
In retrospect, I should have planned for 2 full days in Datong, with a visit to the caves tomorrow. We were all tired (especially the children), and our brains were full from viewing the Hanging Monastery. However, what little information that I could find on Datong (in English) before our trip had said that the city was not a place to linger (i.e., dirty, not much to see). This proved not to be true, but I didn’t know that when coordinating our travel details back in California.
In any event, Genevieve and Sebastian rested during the drive to the caves. We were finding the drivers in China to be very fluid and easy going. For example, people would pass other cars very slowly, and the oncoming traffic would just move over onto the shoulder. There were no horns blaring or angry gesturing out the window.
New construction was everywhere, including lots of large apartment complexes.
A few years ago, the head of the district had decided that people needed to move out of the cities into the rural areas. The government began resettling people here from the city of Datong, regardless of whether the people wanted to move.
As we got closer to Datong, we saw hundreds of newly planted trees.
In the past, the desert storms north of Datong would often color the sky yellow. The powerful winds would sometimes blow the sand all of the way to Japan. The Chinese government was promoting the planting of trees to purify the air—and the plan was working! Each year, the air quality was getting better and better. Li Ann said that groups of Japanese people come every year to help plant more trees.
Many large trees had also recently been planted within the Yungang Caves area.
A big blue truck was making a tree delivery:
Yungang Caves (or Grottoes) was declared a UNESCO Heritage Site in 2001. Along with that designation came a huge increase in visitors. (While the UNESCO label is often bestowed in order to recognize and preserve the special characteristics of a site, some say the UNESCO label is a “kiss of death” to many pristine, tranquil places.) The Chinese government was in the process of changing the entire area around the caves, with new buildings that would provide services to the ever-growing flood of tourists.
Near the front entrance, an elaborate complex was being built, complete with bridges over what would be an artificial lake.
Li Ann said that there used to be a village here before this new complex, and that the villagers had all been relocated to a brand new village, ½ hour from here; she hinted that at least some of the people “perhaps” had not wanted to move.
The "caves" are really a series of man-made carvings into a sandstone mountain. Numerous large and small rooms and niches were hollowed out, with over 51,000 Buddha figures that grace the interior, the walls and ceilings, and even adorn the exterior. Most of the carvings were made from 453 to 494 AD by the Northern Wei dynasty, when Datong (then called Pingcheng) was the capital of northern China.
From the entrance to the caves, we looked up and could see some of the openings that had been carved into the mountainside.
The Yungang Caves were spectacular. Jaw-dropping. Really. Words are just inadequate. I had read the descriptions, but I just was not prepared for the true magnificence.
Even the photos cannot convey the wonder of being surrounded by thousands and thousands of detailed statues, bas relief designs, and architectural elements, all painstakingly carved out of sandstone. Here are some of my favorites:
Many of the larger caves had “windows” carved high above the entrance. Some were small, and some were quite large:
Li Ann explained that these “windows” were the initial entrances into the caves. The artisans would start a cave by making a very high hole (the “window”) into the sandstone; then they would gradually carve out the interior of the cave by working inward and downward. Thus, a large Buddha statue would be carved starting from the head.
The effort involved in creating all of the caves must have been tremendous.
Here is an example of one interior wall:
Sandstone is a very soft rock that is eroded easily over time when exposed to harsh weather. Many of the sandstone figures and designs in the Yungang Caves area have slowly disappeared or been damaged over the centuries.
In the 1600’s, the Qing Dynasty attempted to shield a 55-foot Buddha and a 50-foot stone pagoda from further deterioration by building a wooden structure in front of two adjoining caves (numbers 5 and 6)—photos are also prohibited in those caves. Here is the wooden temple facade:
The Qing Dynasty also drilled numerous holes in the sandstone statues in order to cover the figures with a coating of clay, much of which has worn off.
For each of the caves, Li Ann wanted to stop and tell us the story behind the figures depicted, as well as who had ordered the carvings and why.
She was extremely knowledgeable.
Some of the Buddha faces:
To Genevieve and Sebastian, however, all of the figures started looking alike. After the first few caves, they were more interested in finding things that they could crawl onto or under.
They even found small sticks and leaves that they combined together.
Li Ann understood that the children were a bit tired, but she also wanted to make sure that she provided us with all of the detailed stories and tidbits of information related to the caves. Ben could see that I was absolutely enthralled with the caves, so he graciously took the kids outside to the open plaza area, where they could run around, while I listened to Li Ann’s descriptions.
In the end, Li Ann and I visited the last four caves together, backtracking past the entrance to visit cave numbers one through four. I doubted whether I would ever make it back to Datong, and I didn’t want to miss seeing anything. Here I am with the large Buddha in Cave #3:
Waiting for us at the main exit of the caves were numerous vendors, who were very low-key and did not call out to us or try to convince us to buy their items:
We watched in fascination as a crane hoisted the large tree that we had seen earlier.
A year from now, this area will undoubtedly look completely different--transformed, for better or for worse, to serve tourists (like us).
Scenes leaving the Yungang Caves:
Tonight we stayed at the Datong Garden Hotel, which surprised us with its exceptional service, a large comfortable room (luxurious, by our standards), and a plentiful and delicious buffet breakfast, all for less than $100. We were very pleased.
The hotel is in downtown Datong and within walking distance to several tourist sites (a temple, a drum tower, and a 9-dragon screen) that we didn’t have time to visit. We would also have liked to visit the nearby coal mine, which has underground public displays that show different techniques used for extracting coal over the years.
For dinner, we walked two blocks and found a promising restaurant, the Yong He Chinese Food Hall. None of the wait staff spoke English, and we unfortunately had a server who acted completely disgusted and irritated that she had to wait on us. Luckily, she was the only negative aspect of our dinner. The food was good, and the other servers (who giggled and smiled as they passed by) seemed very nice. We were the only obvious tourists there. To convey our order, we pointed at pictures, other people’s dishes, and even elicited the assisted of a helpful customer who provided us with the proper words for “plain rice” (sounding like “mi fan”).
Genevieve liked her pastry dessert:
Here are the children giving a final toast to our wonderful day:
Day 4: Beijing—The Summer Palace & 798 Arts District | Day 6: Xi’An—Within the Walls >>
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