Datong: Big Buddha

Datong

From Datong

Datong has been listed, in some surveys, as one of the most polluted places on the planet. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/06/06/eveningnews/main2895653.shtml .

From Datong

Why did we go there, do you ask? Because they also have one of the oldest collection of Buddha caves in China – and we love our Buddhas, and we love ancient art. I love the old Buddha caves because I feel it is so amazing that someone can touch me from nearly two thousand years ago – that, ultimately, we are more similar than we are different, if we find the same things, years apart, to be beautiful.

From Datong

Our luck with transportation, considering it was so near National Day and Mid-Autumn Festival, was great this trip. We were able to get hard seats from Hohhot to Datong with the help of one of the young women working at the hostel. The train was a great, old-fashioned looking thing, the kind you see in movies with women waving their handkerchiefs out the windows to the lovers running along side. As most places in China, we were packed in tight, three to a seat, with our knees touching. An middle aged man, working for the train, asked us in Chinese where we were from. When we said, “Meiguo” (America), he said “Welcome – to – China.” While I’ve found people everywhere to be helpful in China, people in Inner Mongolia seem to be especially nice and welcoming.

Our four-hour, smoke-filled train ride was marked with excitement – a fight broke out that drew everyone’s attention at the front of our car. When we tried our Chinese to call a hotel to ask for a room, we also received a standing audience. (I found it easiest to communicate with the hotel clerk if she spoke in her very limited English [she asked if I wanted a room for today or for yesterday] and I spoke to her in my poor Chinese – and I’m finding this is really the best way for both parties to be understood.)

The hotel we ended up staying at was not the one I reserved a room for, because we found one closer to the train station, which would minimize time in a cab. (In fact, I had called this place from the Lonely Planet, only to be told there was “no bed” – I think that the clerk was just overwhelmed with speaking to a foreigner and wanted to get rid of me as soon as possible.) Though it was a clean, but run-down two star place, there were plenty of foreigners, probably due to the listing in Lonely Planet. This also meant that there were amateur tour guides/taxi drivers nearby soliciting business, and we ended up working with one pair, Simon and his taxi-driver cousin.

After a Chinese breakfast (fried and steamed white bread, pickled vegetables and one hardboiled egg – I had the tongs ripped from my hands by the egg Nazi when I went up for a second) , we set out with Simon and his cousin first to the Hanging Monastery. On the way to the monastery, we stopped along the side of the road overlooking a village.

From Datong

The houses were made of mud, and a flock of sheep were right outside the village.

From Datong

Nearby, men spread yellow millet in large circles on the ground, throwing it up into the air to let the husks blow away. At times in our journey, farmers had laid millet along the road so that cars could go over it and crush the edible seed out.

From Datong

Our tour guide explained that the people are farmers, and they eat what they grow and the sheep they raise. They have very little connection with the rest of the world. Three women ran up the side of the cliff to sell us little birds they had sewn, with paper octahedrons wrapped with yarn with traditional herbal medicine inside.

Across the street, up a small mud staircase, was a traditional cave house, allegedly three hundred years old, lived in by a happy old man and a dirty old shiatsu. The old man was eager to show us the small place, and a photocopy of a New York Times article with his picture in it. Outside of the place was a cheery little garden, complete with flowers, sunflowers with heads droopy from the weight of their seeds, and tall hemp plants. Our tour guides took two heads of sunflowers for the seeds, and we ended up buying two pairs of medicine birds before continuing on our journey.

From Datong
From Datong

The Hanging Monastery is set on wooden stilts on a mountain cliff face. The emperor that commissioned it had three stories built so that followers of Confucius, Buddhism, and Taoism could all worship together. The temple was continually raised higher on the cliff to keep it safe from the flooding river, but today a dam has been built that keeps the river away.

From Datong
From Datong

Climbing in the Hanging Monastery was like walking through an old, once nicely painted, tree house built for children. The walkways and stairs were narrow, with low hand rails, and the twisty-turvy layout, where you could look at people on the levels below, gave it a kind of fun-house feeling. The sun was quickly moving to behind the cliff face, hiding it in shadows.

From Datong

We meant to grab lunch quickly at a road side restaurant, but two large parties of men, truck drivers, continued to order food that slowed down our service. One thing the waitress brought out was a smooth round yellow mound. I asked the men at the table, “Zhe ge shi shenme?” (What’s that?) They said, “Gou. ” “Gou?!” I asked, “Bark-bark – gou?” They laughed at me and nodded. Lucy asked them if it really was dog, and they laughed and said no, but they never did tell us what it was.

The lunch knocked us out on the ride to the Buddha caves. After paying 1 RMB to pee in a bag-lined toilet in a dirty outhouse, we set on to the caves. The Yungang Caves were built by the same dynasty and the Longmen Caves that we saw last year in Luoyang. The ones in Datong were built before the dynasty moved its capital to Luoyang, so these caves were not only old, but they were supposed to be closer to the Middle Eastern and Indian art forms and images of Buddha.

Matt led the tour, organizing us so that we saw the statutes chronologically. The oldest statutes were in the roughest shape, with their faces eroded away, limbs broken off, or simply no longer in their little cave homes. On the other side of the grottoes, though, they were similarly splendid as Luoyang’s Buddhas. Luoyang had more demon-soldier-like statues, and the statues at least appeared taller, but some of the large Buddhas in Datong were carved inside of their own caves, so that you had to walk into a cave room, which itself had carvings all along the walls. These little rooms also meant that there was more protection from the elements, so some of the color paint has stayed. One Buddha was golden in color, and there were blue and red colors, too. Some of the Buddhas were pock-marked, with holes drilled into them. Our tour guide explained that the paint didn’t stick onto the stone, so they used a kind of plaster over the stone carvings to paint. But the plaster would slide off of the stone, so they drilled holes and inserted wooden pegs to hold the plaster on.

From Datong
From Datong

Just outside of the caves, bulldozers and construction workers were kicking up the already loose red-brown dust. Previously, outside of the caves had been a coal mine. They were changing the area, however, to have old-fashioned Chinese buildings, creating a real tourist attraction that I am sure Beijingers will love.

We finished our first night in Datong at the restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet as “galaxies above” other dining options in the city. Flipping through the English picture menu the size of a Christmas catalogue, we gave into temptation and ordered everything that sounded good – dumplings, a seaweed tofu (which we were inexplicably instructed to eat WITH the Pringle potato chips), spicy cabbage, green salad in sweet dressing…. We left stuffed, with leftovers to supplement our one-egg breakfast the next morning.

From Datong
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s