Sunday, September 04, 2011

Sat,Sept 3rd -- Datong

Sights -- Yungang Grottoes, Heng Shan Hanging Temple... and a meal to forget.

Interesting coincidence in the train the previous evening:  in the compartment next to ours was a French couple of a certain age, who until three or four years ago owned a Mas in Eygalieres.  To add to the unlikelihood, they live in Vichy, which is (they told us) twinned with the town of Bad Tölz in Germany (for those who don't know, our county in Germany is Bad Tölz / Wolfratshausen).  And the most surprising thing?  They weren't Romanian.

We arrived at 9:15PM and were met at the door of our carriage by our new guide, Joan, wearing bright purple pants (very useful -- I quickly got into the habit of ignoring faces and just looking for legs in a crowd when we were with her :-).  Around 30, forthright, proud of her city, speaking good English, and above all knowledgeable, she was a dramatic improvement over our Beijing guide.

As we drove through night-time Datong on our way to our hotel she told us a few things about the city.  3 million people, capital of the Northern Wei dynasty in the mid/late fourth Century, it was an important frontier city (to the north lies Mongolia) during the Ming dynasty (13th-16th Centuries) and was massively fortified then with a 25km long city wall (!).  The wall still exists... and is remarkable... very high and thick and with projecting bastions every hundred and fifty meters or so... it almost doesn't look real.  It appears to be in superb condition -- apparently it has been renovated by the current mayor as part of a larger plan to attract more tourists to the city.  Datong's primary economic activity is coal mining, but the seams are almost worked out (the mines are over 1000 meters deep) and the future will be difficult if they don't diversify.

Our hotel was luxurious and almost brand-new, 28 stories high.  From the top-floor breakfast room the following morning we had a good view over the city and of a long section of the wall.  Massive construction ongoing everywhere as older areas of single story buildings are replaced by 10-20 story appartment blocks and the occasional villa subdivision for the rich (we drove by one that would not have looked out of place in Miami Beach named "Platinum Mansions").  Whether this will prove to have been a wise decision remains to be seen... to be sure many of the older areas look like slums, but in the West we haven't always been happy with the "projects" that have resulted.

Our first sight of the day was a sandstone bluff to the north of the city into which have been carved grottoes filled with a riot of Buddhas.  On the way we drove along and over a large dry riverbed -- apparently they are "mining" water from deep underground and even now, at the end of the rainy season, the rivers and streams are often dry... which doesn't bode well for the future.  This is the Loess plateau -- high (Datong lies at over 1000 meters) and dry, with deep, sandy and friable soils (the Loess) that erode quickly and are carried away by winds to become a bane of life in Beijing and other Eastern cities.

The Yungang grottoes are spectacular, with tens of thousands of figures up to 17 meters in height carved out of sandstone in artificial caves (competently explained by Joan), but for me perhaps even more spectacular was the newly built temple complex between the grand visitors' entrance and the grottoes, complete with lakes, forests (of 30 year old transplanted trees), courtyard after courtyard, and building after building with monumental Buddhas, some still being finished.  The whole thing was done in the last 18 months (the Chinese build faster than anyone else in the world), and while there are already signs that not all of the work is of high quality, overall it isn't bad and one cannot fail to be impressed by the quantity and the intent to make this a first class tourist destination.  The ensemble of old and new is definitely worth a visit... and on the evidence I wouldn't be surprised if the mayor succeeds in his economic diversification efforts.

A side note:  throughout the grottoes there were high-quality metal-stamped information tablets in Chinese and English... well, a sort of English.  This is something that we have seen at various tourist sites:  I'm amazed that they spend so much money on material, but can't find a decent English translator for text.

Another side note:  Lidia wishes me to add at this point that the Yungang caves gave her skin-thingies (goose-bumps, I think :-).  She loved the sculptures and the decoration in the caves, and artistically for her yesterday was the high-point of the trip so far.  There were more details than we saw in most of the Beijing sites, and more cross-links to our cultural traditions (tree of life, angels, etc.), and many of the sculptures were very well done, so it was much more interesting.  

After lunch we drove off into the Heng Shan mountains to visit the Hanging Temple, a small complex of buildings clinging to a cliff face under an overhanging cliff 60 meters above a small river gorge and surrounded by mountains.  Charming and enjoyable.

The same unfortunately cannot be said about dinner in the hotel yesterday evening.  I wasn't very hungry but a poster in the hotel advertizing their Korean/Japanese restaurant showed a nice-looking steak, which after several days of Chinese food was appealing.  Trouble was, only one of the half-dozen serving girls spoke any English (and although she bravely did her best, she didn't speak much).  Nice big menu with many pictures... but no steak.  Finally I found it, without a price.  I asked how much, and was quoted an exorbitant figure. I thought, what the heck, and ordered it anyway, along with some fried rice and a bottle of wine (Lidia ordered a soup and some seaweed, Madeleine had opted to sleep).  A few minutes later the steak arrived... about two mouthfuls worth.  Excellent quality, but, well, not quite what I was hoping for.  90 seconds later the steak had been consumed, 15 minutes after that the wine arrived, followed a quarter of an hour later by the fried rice.  During all this time there was only one other couple in the restaurant, and the serving girls much of the time stood with their faces to the walls interacting with their mobile phones.  I don't see a Michelin star in the restaurant's future....  Construction is clearly easier than education!