Long route to Datong.
Today I’m going to visit Yungang grottoes, one of the most famous attractions in China. The site is located not far from a town called Datong. Every time the topic is building carved out in rocks, as temples of Petra in Jordan or Fethiye in Turkey or big statues like those I will see today, it is hard for me not to think of Indiana Jones movies, so iconic it was “Last Crusade” episode of the saga (partially shot in Petra). So, this kind of Indiana Jones writing this blog wrote his latest post in Tianjin and now is in Datong so, I think I should tell you something more. Yesterday was actually first day in my trip in which I didn’t take any photos. The trip from Tianjin to Datong was incredibly long especially if compared to the previous one. No fast train this time and the ordinary ones are actually quite slow. Differences between two trains are not limited to speed. The train is constantly crossed by people selling food, such as fresh fruit and other typical Chinese stuff but there are also strange characters selling weird items that they present histrionically standing in the center of the car. The funniest object is an automatic bright fish walking on the ground (who doesn’t need at least one…). The most sold item instead is a razor featuring a torch and I’m wondering when it could be useful. There are no loudspeakers in the car so, whenever we approach a station, one of the controllers runs along all the train shouting the name of next town. I’ve left Tianjin yesterday morning at 8:25 AM and I had to wait until 5:30 PM to finally hear the name of Datong. Nine hours for less than 500 km. You can see the full path of the train in the little frame in the page. My hotel is close to the station but however the heavy rain I’ve found in town prevented me to go further around. I just went to eat something in a local fast food chain called Mr.Lee, whose logo resembles that of KFC.
How to reach Yungang grottoes.
This morning I left my hotel quite early to reach the caves. I hope I will have also some time to visit the town later. I have no idea of what to see here. Yesterday I had the chance to ask in a the regional tourist office in the station square how to reach to the caves. I learned that there are several buses going there. Best one is the direct bus #603 leaving from the railway station square. It is quite frequent so I don’t have to wait so long. On the way I see crenellated towers and walls from the bus window. The weird thing is that everything looks to be new or under construction. It is not a restoration work. Are they really building a new walled town in 2017? It would be crazy. I need to check this later… Bus takes about 40 minutes to reach the caves site. I could have also taken a taxi for about 50 yuan (6 Euro) but a bus for 3 yuan looks much better to me. On the bus I meet a couple of french tourists and chatting with them makes the time flowing away faster. The entrance to the site is close to the bus stop. Ticket is relatively expensive for Chinese standards: 125 Yuan but I soon realise that it’s really worth it.
Lingyan Temple & big yellow duck.
The entrance is particularly scenic and this makes sense since it leads to Lingyan Temple. I didn’t know about it so I consider it as an extra feature of the site. A long aisle surrounded by pillars with elephant-shaped bases, then a small bridge over a moat and finally the temple is reached. The temple is quite interesting. It was built in the 12th century during Liao and Jin Dynasty. When I arrive there is a religious ceremony running. I watch the ceremony and the most curious thing to me is a monk dancing and playing a kind of Chinese maracas. When I leave the temple I notice a big yellow duck in the moat. I heard about similar installations made by several contemporary artists in other part of the world but it is quite surprising it to find one here in China where in 2014 the search term “Big Yellow Duck” was banned from Chinese Internet due to a photomontage, the one you can see in the small picture in this page, depicting the famous Tienanmen iconic photo of the man stopping the tanks that here are replaced by small rubber ducks. I take some picture of the yellow rubber duck and its smaller friend made of just legs and finally I start the tour of the site. Based on the map, I should be able to see most of it with a walk around a rectangular path crossing the site. Its length is about 4km. that’s why for who wants there are small electric buses carrying visitors for a small fee. I’m here for the caves and I find them after about 1 kilometre. Map of the site is displayed here below (click on it to see it bigger).
And it is finally time to visit caves. I must say that this is really a fantastic site, one of those place that will remain in the memory of the visitors for a long time. There are about 50.000 statues of Buddha of every size from few centimeters to several meters. This site was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2001. All statues were carved out in Wuzhou Shan mountain starting from begin of 5th century while the most recent ones date back to end of 6th century. Caves are all numbered. A first taste of the caves is on a wall of the mountain where some small hole are located at an height of about 30 meters. Statues of buddha in these caves are consumed by the time. I guess they’re the oldest ones in the site. On this area, few more steps lead to a small temple. It is not very impressive but what is surprising me is a guy sitting just outside the temple selling soft drinks under a Pepsi Cola branded umbrella. I go down again and I enter in the area of the pagoda temples. These ones are really amazing because beside the statues there are also incredible wall paintings. I’m not so sure that taking photograph here is allowed but I take some shots and after, to clean my conscience, I give some donation in each temple. I don’t know how to tell you about the interiors of these caves. Little buddhas are carved out in small multicoloured niches. As I always say in these cases it’s hard to describe things with words or maybe I’m not able to. I hope my pictures will do better. But wonders are not over yet. There is a third group of statues and probably would be the first one you will see if you google “Yungang caves”. I’m talking about the biggest statues of the site that are visible from outside. They’re absolutely impressive. The highest is 17 meters tall. According to guide books I’ve read, local artists were influenced by Indian style as testified by the black pupils of Buddhas making their looks more real.
A break, the museum and some other break.
It is a very hot day and I decide to have a short break eating a local ice cream. I have to confess I’m suspicious at the beginning but in the end I’m glad because the ice cream was very good. Caves are all located on one of the long sides of the rectangular route of the park. Now, on one of the short side, I have the chance to visit the museum. It is quite interesting because it mixes a contemporary environment with modern lights with a lot of ancient items, some of it borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Visit doesn’t take so long but I stay in the museum a bit more because there is an elegant cafe with WiFi where I can sit, sip a tea and taste a delicious local pastry. The way back toward the exit is not so interesting as on the opposite side. The walkways in the park are nice but in the end nothing special. There is another pavilion in Chinese style resembling a temple but that cannot be visited but probably the most remarkable item is the huge screen wall built in 2010. You can see it in the picture. Afterward I see a group of geese and probably because of the beating sun I have a moment of craziness and I start running behind them with my camera. The evidence of my insane act is in the following video.
Right next to the exit there is a sort of food market. I don’t want to sit in a restaurant so I just grab some fruit that I eat while watching tourists playing with camels just outside the site. Are these animals here just for the fun of tourists of there are really part of local environment? Well, Inner Mongolia is not far from Datong and with it also the Gobi Desert, so, camels maybe were and they still are part of the ordinary life in this region. Tourist seem to enjoy them without doing too much questions about. It has been a full morning but now I still have time to visit Datong. Is going to be a long day, maybe too long for a single post so I will tell you about the afternoon and centre of Datong in second part of this article. For now I leave you with the following gallery of pictures of Datong area.