Datong

   

October 24

It was a long day of travel.   We secured a hard sleeper; which meant we had a bunk (a "hard" bed) to stretch out (sort of) and snooze if preferred. 

The waiting area was crowded and as the time approached for the officials to open the gates, the crowd push forward with their boxes, bags and babies.   Once the narrow gates were opened the pushing started in earnest.  The ticket takers were only able to collect and punch the odd ticket (perhaps meant to be random) for passengers were all but crawling over the turnstiles. 

For the majority of our fellow passengers there was a reason for the push.  Inexpensive hard bench seats were on a first-come-first-get basis and it was going to be a long trip.

Those with hard and soft sleeper tickets had reservations for a numbered bed.  In hard sleeper "rooms" (no door) there are six bunk beds (stacked 3 on each side).  There is a little table below the window and a yet smaller shelf-like-table with flip down seats in the narrow hallway.

Below the "in-room table" is a holder with a large thermos.  During the trip the thermos can be filled with water from the coal burning boiler at the end of some cars.  The most popular things for its use are making tea and instant noodle bowls.

 
 Most everyone travelling by train in China has a noodle bowl.   A variety of flavours may be found at corner grocers, in train station lobbies and on train platforms.  If fighting crowds in the aisle is too difficult, buy your beer and groceries through the train window.

We left the big city and watch the changing scenes pass the window.
 
 We were not the only Caucasians on board and we struck up conversations with Anthony from Calgary and his girlfriend, Marieke, from Netherlands, as well as a cheerful fellow named Tommy from Denmark. 
 
In the arrivals area of Datong's train station we were approached by two fellows wanting to sell tour tickets.   It was our plan to book these tickets with  CITS [China International Travel Service] and were sceptical when they said they were with CITS.   Still not convinced, he led the way to their office in the main station building (where Lonely Planet guide book said the CITS office was).  We were followed by the young couple as well as Tommy. 

We all booked the same tour for tomorrow, said our "good night"s and made our way across the square to the Hongqi Grand Hotel.  An adequate hotel.
 

Dinner in the restaurant two doors down from the hotel entrance was good and reasonably priced. 

Next time Terry and Sherrie will pass on the chicken feet ... too bony.   

As Terry and Sherrie returned to the hotel, Stephen and Angela took a walk around town. 

October 25 

The hotel offered a full Chinese breakfast.   It was interesting to watch the other guests, all Asian, eat boiled eggs from the shell.  They would peel the shell half way down, then while holding the egg in the remaining shell, they took bites off the top until they reached the half shell; then holding the shell close to their mouth used their chopsticks to scoop bit by bit the remainder of the egg.  Brilliant.

It was smoggy in Datong - the Datong area is China's largest coal producer. 

We met up with the rest of the tour group (Mariek, Anthony and Tommy, plus a few others)  at the CiTS office.  We all piled into a mini bus.  Sixty-five kilometres and approximately an hour later we arrived at the site of the Hanging Monastery located at the foot of Mount Heng (Hengshan), one of the five holy Taoist mountains of China.

The building of this monastery clutching precariously to the vertical rock face, began in 491 ... 1571 years ago.   Until recently, the distance was  100 meters between the monastery and the valley floor and river.   A dam, canal and silt have calmed the river and decreased the distance to half but those who have concerns about heights yet walk the narrow not-even-three-foot wide walkways with only knee high railings feel it's plenty high enough. 

Although the collection of rooms seem to "hang" and only be supported by long, very thin poles from below, in reality most of the structural support is furnished by unseen rock ledges and cantilevered wooden beams imbedded deeply into the cliff face. 

Because of the shape of the valley, the majority of winds miss the monastery and the overhang at the top of the sheer rock face acts as an umbrella.  The first monks selected their building site well.   The only thing they perhaps did not consider as an impact for the  structures longevity was the endless line of tourists who now walk upon the creaking structure.    We were fortunate for there were few people at the monastery on our arrival and we were able to wander along the skywalks and within the rooms at our leisure to better understand the solitude it's occupants must have experienced.


At one point several people from our little tour group stepped out onto a cantilevered terrace at the far end of the building group.  "You may not want so many there at one time," the guide said, "it leans."   They all hurried off.

Besides the location and the architecture the temple also is a rarity for its simultaneous acceptance of the practices of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.

At one point during our time at the monastery, Stephen was approached for an interview.  He was asked for his opinions of the monastery and his time in Datong.

After our group shared a prepared hot-pot lunch at the site's tourist area, we piled back in the mini-bus and headed to the Yungang Caves.

 
During the ride we passed adobe style villages where adjoining flat areas were being utilized for drying crops.   We also passed numerous tiny three wheeled flatbed trucks hauling dried corn husks. 
       
 The Yungang Caves (some more grottos than caves) date back to about 450 AD.  The 51 caves hold over 53,000 carved figures which range in size from the tallest at 15  metres (49.2-foot) high down to a few inches. 

Our guide pointed out the marks on the bricked walkway where once wooden structures protruded from the rock walls.  A newer wooden structure can be seen today in front of a few caves.  There is talk about enclosing the site again either with replica structures or a glass dome in an attempt to neutralized the pollution which is taking its toll on this now UNESCO Heritage Site.
 
 
  
Returning to Datong, we boarded the overnight train to Xi'an.   We were unable to secure soft sleepers, so it was hard sleepers again and this time we were unable to all be in the same room.  Terry and Angela were in one room with four others, Stephen in another with five others, and Sherrie in yet another with five others. 

Sherrie was in her bunk keeping busy while a young family tried to settle their little boy down for the night.   After some time, the mother indicated that she would like to turn off the lights.   The idea pleased Sherrie.  She nodded and quickly put her book away.   The mother walked down the train aisle.   Soon the train car was in darkness.  We had not realized that the last one going to bed at night turns off the main light switch for the whole car.  
     
    

      

click here to go to October 26 and Xi'an ... 
     

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