A visit to the Yungan Grottoes
After a nice break in Shanghai, we woke up much earlier than we wanted to because of an early flight. I know we said we would do this again but given this was the only non stop flight from Shanghai to Datong we figured we really didn’t have an option. Plus it is a 3 hour flight so we could sleep.
We arrived late in the morning, grabbed a taxi and headed to our hotel/hostel. During the drive like most of China, the building continues in leaps and bounds. The city itself has about 3 million residents but you would think they had 10 times more than that . The number of high rises being built is almost unimaginable back home. There were high rises where one couldn’t see anything else but these unoccupied buildings. By the time people move in, they have to tear them down again. There were wide boulevards of empty roads or very few cars hoping people move here.
The central (restricted access - no cars) area of Datong
We eventually arrived in the old part of Datong, where some of the historical sights go back to 1,500 AD. As it’s an ancient town, the local government is either restoring or building new architecture which resembles what the town looked like back in the day. There were some high rises, about 12 floors high, which we found out later will be torn down to build new structures which will keep in the ‘ancient’ theme. Apparently, a lot of the old town will disappear to make a new version of the old town.
Historic in 2014 - Slated for demolition in 2018
Mark and I had the day to explore the old town, as there were multiple temples, 9 and 5 dragon walls, drum tower, pagoda, you get the drift, a lot to see. Although in the map it appeared to be a good size city, one can see most all of the sights in a few hours.
The oldest existing glazed nine dragon wall in China
The four archway roundabout in Datong
Our hotel was in an area cars weren’t allowed, and it was quite quaint. Inside the square, there were some restaurants, bars, temples, a water fountain which was off, a couple of shopping streets, and some shops.
Inside the restricted area - it peaceful and quiet.
In one of the temples were were exploring some Chinese were sitting there, and as foreigners were the anomaly, had asked to if we would pose with them. Its been many years since a request like that has been asked. Reminded of us when we first moved to Xiamen.
Dinner was similar where we had our photos taken. Menu was in Chinese, and the lady in the restaurant brought over sample dishes to see if we were interested. One dish, we saw as it passed, and Mark asked if I had really taken look. Saw it, and reminded me of heart or some internal organ. Apparently not, he thought they were skinned rat heads. Thanks for that image. Since we can read a few characters and a few words, we opted for rice, and grilled mushrooms. Figured it was safer.
Onto the sightseeing of the Hanging Monastery and the Grottoes.
The next day we got up early to meet Nancy, from Nancy Magic Tours. She is an independent tour guide and we would definitely recommend her. One can hire a taxi to do the same thing we did which is less expensive but we wanted to know a bit more history.
We drove out about 2 hours from Datong to the Hanging Monastery, and to see this is awe inspiring. Oddly enough Mark and I weren’t expecting to see this, as we were focused on seeing the our last remaining of the 3 grottoes in China. We had been to the Longman, and to Mogau when we lived in China and talked about visiting Yungang since we moved back from China.
This was an unexpected surprise for us when we booked the tour. The monastery took about 100 years to build back in 460 AD. It was amazing to see as you walk through the original temple. The Chinese had closed the temple last year to reinforce it due to the number of tourists, mostly local who are visiting this site, Nancy, our tour guide, wondered if at some time in the future they might close it down to tourists to preserve the temple.
There temple is built into a cliff about 70 meters above ground and is about 1500 years old. Impressive as the monks needed to climb down the mountain to build this temple. If interested you can read this on Wikipedia, we only have a little information and photos as we aren't the site to be reading for detailed facts.
After a couple hours it was time to back to the city for lunch. We stopped at a local restaurant where the noodles are the star attraction. Even at the fast food style restaurant we ate they were hand cutting noodles directly into the boiling broth keeping with tradition. Even without the show, which we missed when we ordered, they were delicious and can clearly understand why this place was so popular.
After lunch we were off to the Yungang Grottoes. We were excited to see them and with good reason. They were the largest and the oldest of the grottoes in China. In fact the ones we had seen in Louyang were done by the same set of monks who carved the ones In Datong. Apparently the Emperor moved the capital to Louyang, according to our guide, and the monks all followed him to carve into the mountains there.
Entrance to the grottoes, with an old section of the wall to the upper left
The site has over 50,000 carvings of Buddha in over 50 caves. They were built during the time the Hanging Monastery was being built. Unlike the monastery these were built 85 years compared with the monastery which took 100 years. The difference being they had over 5,000 monks from around the world. The colors in the caves were richer than the other grottoes, and the Buddhas were enormous. The largest around 70 feet and the smallest under an inch.
The craziest thing is that unlike the other temples, the only tourists are local Chinese and not even that many compared to Longmen and Mogao Grottoes.
Nine Story Pagoda carved inside of a cave.
Datong is currently building a high speed train where it will only take 90 minutes from Beijing which I am sure will bring more tourists to this town.
This was one of our highlights while we have been in China. Not to take away the fun we had in Xiamen and Shanghai, but we have been multiple times so it was refreshing to see another part of China we have never seen.
On a separate note we found out that there is a 4th Grotto site, the Maijishan Grottoes. Believe that trip will be in our future.