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Out towards the centre of China, heading west from Beijing you start hitting far more rugged terrain. Sitting at the southern edge of the Gobi desert in the province of Shanxi is the city of Datong, one of the key players in the Chinese coal industry. Unsurprisingly, the city is not outwardly pretty, but it does have a few remaining sites of interest in town, if you can make them out through the smog and coal dust. Outside of town are the famous Hanging Monastery and world heritage site of the Yungang Grottoes.

We took a weekend trip to Datong from Beijing, on the overnight train which trundled through the night at little over a walking pace. It was another place I had not heard of before, but looked like and interesting and out-of-the-way place to visit. Datong was much colder than Beijing, below freezing the whole time we were there, but we stayed in a nice hotel and found a pretty good karaoke bar on the Saturday evening.


Rooftops through the coal-dust haze of Datong, at the Huayan Monastery in the city centre.

The Nine Dragon Screen, also in the city centre, is the oldest and largest glazed screen in China. It was carved over 600 years ago, and there is another similar screen in Beijing.

Nine Dragon Screen

Hanging Monastery

A bit of a drive out of town is the Hanging Monastery, Xuán Kōng Sì, which clings to a cliff face above a usually dry canyon. It was built over 1500 years ago.

Near the monastery is a 1950s dam and spillway tunnel, used to control flow through the canyon. Prior to its construction, the canyon was slowly filling up with deposited sediment. Note the idiot walking on the ice at the bottom right.

Dam spillway

Hanging Monastery

The monastery itself clings precariously to the cliff face.

Some not-very-sturdy posts have been added more recently to give the illusion of support from below, however these are purely decorative as the monastery is anchored directly to the rock on beams protruding horizontally from deep holes in its face.



On the way back to town we stopped by this rural village for a wander.

Being next to a main road as it was, the village was well prepared for our arrival.


Village cart

Village cart. The whole area was very, very dry, as the southern edge of the Gobi Desert continues to encroach.

One of the villagers in particular liked getting his photo taken.

Old man

Central Datong city

Back in Datong, we took a walk through the hutong by the hotel, as the skyline sank into the smog.

I have never seen such poor air quality, the respiratory health of Datong's citizens must be terrible. This dark sheen appears from all the soot particles reflecting my camera flash.

Datong smog


The following day we visited the Yungang Grottoes world heritage site - a series of buddha statues carved into the cliff face opposite one of China's largest coal mines.

Parts of the cliff have been carved away, and the interior caves festooned with buddhas and artwork. Most of the work was carried out around the year 500 AD during the Northern Wei dynasty.



Detail inside one of the many caves. There are over fifty thousand buddha statues in total, many very small. Constant restoration is required to fight the effects of soot and sandstorms.

One of the giant buddhas with a smartly designed support in the form of a smaller buddha under his right arm.



Many of the buddhas were missing their hands. The position of the fingers is what gives the buddha its power, thus if the hands are destroyed then the symbolism is lost. Unfortunately Mao's Red Guards took full advantage of this during the rampages of the Cultural Revolution.

We ended our visit where we began, at Datong station. The train back to Beijing was another slow chugger, but no overnight this time and the buffet car was relatively ok...

Datong station

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Copyright © Ross Wattie 2010