A Hidden Gem in Datong

Following our escape from Beijing by the skin of our teeth, we set off for a city called Datong, home to two more of China's wonders: a series of caves filled with 1600-year-old Buddhist carvings known as the Yungang Grottoes, and a Hanging Monastery. Given our experiences so far, we were skeptical about how good either of these things would be, especially given that our guidebook pulled no punches and described Datong as "charmless".

To call Datong charmless is putting it mildly. Datong is everything that is wrong with Chinese cities: it is sprawling, polluted, ramshackle, filthy, overcrowded and under-planned. Consequently, we took zero pictures of the city proper as it is not a place anyone needs to see. There is really nothing to the city in and of itself to recommend it, and we exacerbated things by arriving late (arriving late in a strange city with a questionable infrastructure is one of my least favorite things) and having booked a hotel that was nowhere near the train station,making it virtually unknown to any of the taxi drivers. After 7 hours in hard seats, dealing with the swarm of taxi touts that met us at the station exit was not ideal, but with some ad hoc bargaining and a frantic taxi ride in which our driver ran every single light (and appeared more focus on the television show he had playing on the monitor mounted to his windshield), we were more than ready for bed. The upswing is that our distant, hard to find hotel was nice; a clean, comfortable bed was certainly the best part of our day.

A monk near the entrance of the caves

We faced the morning with trepidation, as we had planned to get to our destinations using public transit to save on the cost of taking a China Travel Services guided tour. We had researched the route, and it seemed simple enough: outside the train station, catch Bus 4 and ride it to the end of the line, where you catch Bus 3 to the end of the line which also happens to be where the caves are located. Of course, we hit our first roadblock of the day when we learned that no buses ran near our hotel (so the staff claimed, but this was a lie as we later saw several buses outside, but had no idea where any of them went), and the only way back to the train station was by the dreaded taxi. Thankfully, finding the stop for Bus 4 was easy enough, and when it arrived, we settled in for a lengthy ride. What we didn’t know was that Bus 4 runs on a loop line and the “end” of the line is actually the halfway point through the journey and wasn’t marked or indicated in any way. Thanks for nothing, Wikitravel. After riding the bus for about 45 minutes, we ended up right back where we began, at the train station. Having gotten nothing more than an unwanted tour of they city, we were close to giving up… but we pressed on, if out of nothing other than sheer stubbornness (it also was late enough in the day that the CTS tour had long since left and our only other option to make it to the caves was via taxi.). We trudged back to the station’s information booth but on the way received a little unexpected help from a CTIS (China travel agency) employee — armed with a stop name and some kanji, we were back on the bus.

This time we made it triumphantly onto Bus 3 and sat down. After leaving the bus for several minutes our already oddly furious driver returned and jerked the bus into motion. All was well for a few minutes until the bus came to a grinding, coughing stop and the driver had a minor tantrum. He began shouting, and everyone got off the bus (including us) and started walking. At first we were mystified as to what was going on, but we saw the cause soon enough: a huge traffic jam, one so bad that frantic commuters were driving on the sidewalks to get back to clear roads. One thing Datong taught us is that there is nothing too outrageous for a Chinese driver to attempt, and there is also nothing too outrageous to make a traffic policeman stop a driver. Chaos reigns in the streets of Datong at all times, and I could devote another post just to things I saw Chinese drivers doing that made me fear for my safety and that of those around me. Given that we had no idea where we were or even where were going, not to mention that English in Datong was so limited that taxi drivers didn’t even know the word “train station”, we were more than a little stressed. But we kept walking with the group, because what else could we do? Finally, just as traffic was starting to clear, we spotted another stalled Bus 3, so we made a break for it and jumped on before anyone else noticed. Thanks to a little quick thinking we beat the other 90 people (literally) on to the bus and managed to get a seat.

Oh, and the reason for the traffic jam? A truck was trying to make a right turn from the leftmost lane. Obviously.

After the most crowded bus ride of my life, we finally made it to the grottoes. At this point, a trip that was supposed to take about 45-minutes had now taken about 2.5 hours. It was clear that this would be our only stop in Datong, and both of us hoped it would be worth the rigamarole.

The promenade after leaving the ticketing center

As an aside, the ordeal involved in making it to the caves prompted both Steph & myself to stop and re-examine our motivations for coming on this trip. At the end of the day, our goal is to see and experience as much of the world as we can. And although we certainly have more time for exploration and discovery than we would on a normal vacation, we also realized that our time and happiness are just as important — if not more so — than saving a bit of money here and there. Acknowledging that with our limited ability to communicate in Mandarin (pretty much, if it’s not in the pocket phrase book Steph’s parents gave us, it’s not being communicated!), sometimes it may be worth it to pay for the peace of mind that a tour would offer rather than stubbornly insisting on doing it the “authentic” but demanding way. In the end, we made it to the grottoes and everything turned out ok and that is what really matters, but it was definitely stressful. If the day’s aim was to see the caves, then mission accomplished, but accomplished in a far more difficult way than was strictly necessary.

After some confused wanderings, we found the poorly signed entrance to the caves and purchased our tickets. Although our guidebook was only two years out of date, we were a bit horrified to find that the ticket prices were now triple the price listed: a single adult ticket was a whopping 175 RMB (~$27USD)! Thankfully, they accepted Steph’s student card, meaning she only paid 125 RMB (~$20 USD). Smarting from the massive inflation (we thought China was supposed to be cheap!), we headed into the complex.

The monastery
The monastery

Seeing that first cave, all complaints about the price of admission fled from our minds; truly, the Yungang grottoes are one of the most spectacular, fascinating and rewarding things we had ever seen.

Really. We certainly didn’t see that coming.

Decoration at the monastery
Decoration at the monastery

To reach the caves, you first pass through a monastery. Tranquil and utterly calm, it was our first taste of the spiritual side to China, and we found it intoxicating, and the all the stress and frustration leading up to that moment simply melted away. We drifted through the courtyard, riding the wave of melodic chanting that filled the area, both remarking that if all of China were like this serene slice of heaven, we would really be in love with the country. Experiencing this moment reignited our belief that even if reckless bus rides and bad directions must be braved, there absolutely are parts of this country that are worth making the effort to see.

As for the caves, they are nothing short of amazing. There are over 250 caves, each filled with thousands of carvings of every size, from an inch to 30 meters and everything in between. The detail is stunning, and is especially impressive considering the age of the statues. Honestly, they were so old, it was a little difficult to wrap my mind around it; when you realize you are staring at something that someone crafted with their hands over over 1500 years ago, it is pretty awesome in every sense of the word.

Many of the carvings and statues have remarkably withstood the ravages of time, but perhaps best of all is that the preservation efforts here are truly exemplary. The park around the caves is tastefully done, and you can tell that every attempt is made to maintain the quality and quiet majesty of the caves. Our only disappointment was that the four caves housing the most colorful of the sculptures was currently undergoing restoration work and so was off limits to visitors. Still, we reveled in the fact that we essentially had the other 246 caves to ourselves for the entire day, and took our time wandering from grotto to grotto, soaking in the perfect weather and tranquility of the setting.

A nice cap to the day, after touring the enormous cave complex, we stopped on the way out for a late lunch. Despite being worried that any restaurant in close proximity to anything charging admission would be a huge rip off, it surprisingly turned out to be one of the best meals we had enjoyed since indulging in Peking Duck. The price was a bit high, but the food was tasty (even if we had a few dishes that were little more than glorified guts!), and we were happy to linger here a little longer before braving the city again.

Now old pros at the Datong bus system (we had certainly spent enough time on their buses to qualify), we took the bus back to the train station and caught a cab back to our room. Interestingly enough, Datong cab drivers were among the most honest we encountered anywhere. We only had to insist that one driver use the meter (the rest of them automatically switched it on), and one driver gave us a discount because he got lost on the way to our admittedly hard to find hotel. In fact, cab drivers were possibly Datong’s saving grace, if it has one, and their unexpected integrity was a bright spot in a blighted city.

While our time in Datong was certainly fraught, we don’t really regret a moment of it, so good were the caves. We can say with certainty that anyone who visits China would be well-served by seeing these caves, despite Datong’s general lack of appeal. If you are ever in China, do go to Datong, but learn from our mistakes: arrive early (take a sleeper train), see the caves, then leave the same night. Or, if you must stay the night, choose a hotel within walking distance of the train station. See as little of Datong as possible and spend as much time at the caves as you can… even if this means taking a taxi or a tour instead of the bus. Do this and you will have a even better experience than we did!

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14 comments Leave a comment

  1. I don’t recognise the name Datong, but I do recognise those caves so I know I’ve been there. It is such a shame that so many of the carvings were destroyed during the cultural revolution. It must have been outstanding when it was first created. I guess our tour company took your advice and we passed through the rest of Datong very quickly!

    Jan. 11 2013 @ 12:09 pm
    1. Jackie (Farm Lane Books) author

      Probably all for the best. I think this particular area survived the revolution better than most. It looked like a lot of the damage was simply from time itself. That’s not to say that a lot wasn’t lost then, but I am glad so much of this area survived at the least.

      Jan. 12 2013 @ 8:24 am
  2. I love caves. Those carvings are just spectacular. Glad you didn’t give up!

    Jan. 11 2013 @ 2:25 pm
    1. Carmel author

      Us too! Well worth the journey!

      Jan. 12 2013 @ 8:24 am
  3. I have to admit, China has never been high on my list of possible places to visit. There is so many other places I would rather go. Hearing these stories makes me even more leery! I’m glad you at least found the one hidden gem there…

    Jan. 11 2013 @ 5:54 pm
    1. Amanda author

      It’s certainly hit and miss, though this wasn’t the only great thing we found in China (no spoilers!). We wouldn’t discourage anyone from finding out for themselves, everyone experiences places differently, but there is a lot to be aware of. We think if we had made more local contacts it’s likely we would have had a better time. Perhaps one day we’ll find out.

      Jan. 12 2013 @ 8:27 am
  4. I went to Datong four or five years ago and it’s shocking how much the entrance fees have increased, but that’s been happening all over the country, so it’s not really surprising.

    I thought parts of Datong city were all right–the park for example–but overall you’re right, it’s pretty filthy. It’s a coal city after all. I liked the grottoes too, but I actually preferred the hanging temple, even though I know it’s technically not as impressive.

    Jan. 12 2013 @ 12:25 pm
    1. Daniel McBane author

      We wanted to go to the hanging temple as well, but after our public tranist nightmare and desire to escape Datong, we didn’t, which is probably to bad, but nothing to be done now! We heard the park was okay, but the logistics of getting there were more than we wanted to deal with, meaning we were sick of taxi rides.

      We knew it was a coal town the moment we arrived, as our taxi ride to our hotel left us coughing up dust.

      Jan. 21 2013 @ 6:19 am
  5. It’s posts like this that give me travel fever. That moment when you walk up and see what all the fuss is about can near take your breath away.

    The first time I ever flew anywhere, I went to Italy. I walked into this unassuming building, and it was the largest church I’d ever seen. I started laughing and crying at the same time, it was so magnificent.

    Absolutely beautiful. Glad it made the trip to Datong worth it.

    Jan. 12 2013 @ 10:44 pm
    1. jenn aka the picky girl author

      It very much did. Moments like that make all the fuss worth it, for sure. Italy is on my list of must-see places, we just have to make it our of SE Asia at some point!

      Jan. 21 2013 @ 6:20 am
  6. Those facades and caves are beyond words. Incredible. They remind me of the facades of Petra, so striking.

    Jan. 14 2013 @ 7:09 pm
    1. Jill author

      They were gobsmacking, to be sure. I’d love to see Petra one day as well, I’m sure it’s also a wonder to behold!

      Jan. 21 2013 @ 6:22 am

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