Jul 7, 2011
On Wednesday we had a long drive to Datong, arriving in the early evening. Datong dates back nearly 2500 years, though these days is a modern city of over one million people. As in the rest of China, many of the old buildings are being pulled down and replaced with huge skyscrapers.
On Thursday we left early for one of the main attractions of the area, the UNESCO World Heritage Yungang Caves. These are 5th century AD Buddhist caves filled with around 50,000 statues, from towering 17m Buddhas to tiny little carvings tucked away in corners of the caves. As John, our Chinese guide, told us, these caves date from the early days of Buddhism in China, and are copies of statues from India where Buddhism originally came from. The Indian influence is easy to pick in all the caves. There are around 250 caves with approximately 45 open to the public. They are the oldest collection of Buddhist carvings in China and they really take your breath away.
After a morning spent exploring the caves and taking numerous photos we headed back to Datong for lunch (noodles) before getting back on the truck to visit the Hanging Monastery.
The Hanging Monastery dates back over 1400 years and clings to the side of a vertical cliff face. It seems to be supported by thin chopstick like poles underneath but this is just an illusion - the monastery is in fact securely built into the cliff face and is not in danger of falling into the dry river bed below!
It consists of various halls connected by rickety walkways, again with statues everywhere. We wondered why it was built where it was, halfway up the cliff - surely it would have been much easier to build it in a more accessible location. Our guide didn't have an answer for this, but on reading a book on the province later we discovered that there used to be a river running past the monastery and this used to flood on occasion. The Chinese used to believe that floods were caused by a golden dragon and decided to build a monastery so Buddha could keep the dragon in order! Well, it's a good story anyway.
On our way back to the hotel we called in to the Nine Dragon Screen, which is actually next door to our hotel. This ancient spirit wall is 45m long, 8m high and 2m thick and depicts nine scary looking dragons. It's the largest glazed wall in China and was built to protect a Ming dynasty palace behind it - it didn't work as the palace burnt down years ago!
Tomorrow (Friday) we're on the road again heading for the town of Huairou - not sure what's there but will find out tomorrow.