Our last month in China was spent doing the time-honored Beijing Expat tradition, the frantic dash to see all the Chinese sights you somehow forgot to see during the last four years. Week one of this cram-it-all-in fest was spent visiting Datong, home of the famous Hanging Monastery and the Datong Grottoes.
The Hanging Monastery is an incredible architectural accomplishment, a temple built 1500 years ago (the story goes) by one single monk named Liao Ran. When traveling in the area, he was amazed at the perfect Feng Shui of the location and decided to built a structure that would “hang” 250 feet up on the cliff face, with no support from the ground.
The entire temple is held up by oak beams inserted into the cliff face, but when too many foreign tourists refused to go up, someone decided to add “support beams” and a brick base to add the illusion of support. The walls and beams don’t actually support (or even touch) the monastery itself.
This temple is (obviously) not for the faint of heart. The heights are dizzying, the “safety rails” are too-short-to-nonexistent, and even the ramps and stairs within interior of the monastery are steep, slick and dangerous. Wear your hiking shoes.
And it’s all worth it. This is one of our best temple experiences in almost four years in China, and is definitely the most memorable. Keep a death-grip on any little kids, but don’t miss this chance to experience life as the monks did, perched like a bird on the side of an impossibly steep mountain cliff.
After a morning on the cliff, we were ready for something a little less frightening. We headed up the road to the nearby Heng Mountain. We hiked (actually walked on paved paths) up the sacred mountain to visit a few of the many temples on the mountainsides. You can also ride a cable car up to the top, but we contented ourselves with walking through the pines and wildflowers and enjoying the views and clean air. (The pollution in Datong city itself is notoriously bad, even for China. Which is saying something.)
After we wore ourselves out on the mountain (and ate some ice cream, of course) we headed back to our hotel in Datong for dinner. We stayed at the Garden Hotel, and can recommend it. Clean, roomy and pretty cigarette-smoke free (hard to find in China), the hotel also had a good (but fairly pricey) buffet restaurant which kept our hungry kids happy. The rooms were also very cheap, especially when booked on a Chinese booking site instead of an English one.
Next morning we drove the short distance to the incredible Yungang Grottoes. I had never heard of this site before we moved to Beijing, but it’s one of the most impressive places we’ve ever been.
Fifty-plus caves carved into the mountainside are filled with over 50,000 statues and carvings in this huge Buddhist grotto complex. Most of the grottoes are over 1600 years old, and the sheer scale of it all is overwhelming. Some of the Buddhas are enormous, several stories tall, and some are smaller than your finger. Many of the caves are carved on every surface, some are austere and overwhelming with a single huge sculpture.
And while a few caves feature entrances designed to reduce the visiting claustrophobe (me) to tears, most of the grottoes are open to the air, with columns and windows perforating the front walls. The state of preservation on most of the Buddhas is really unbelievable, and some look like they were carved decades ago instead of millennia.
The Grottoes are now part of a very Chinese “attraction park” which is probably very beautiful during Summer. (Our visit was in very early April.) The park features modern photo-op-friendly elephant statues, tea shops, ice cream carts (of course) and a few temples.
One which is worth a visit is the temple built in the middle of the lake near the entrance. This temple features a beautiful ivory-colored tower and several nice interior halls with resident monks praying and greeting visitors. (Be careful, though. The extremely friendly monk attendants will give you incense to burn on the altar . . . then suggest you donate 100 kuai for the gift. It’s not much, but you’re totally fine laughing the suggestion off and donating 10 kuai instead. No hard feelings will be had.)
The trip to Datong was one of our most memorable and amazing adventures, and I am so glad we didn’t miss it. Our five hour drive from Beijing went quickly (thanks to our marvelous and much-missed driver Mr. Lou) but you can also find a hopper flight from many other major Chinese cities. If you are planning a trip to China, I’d suggest seriously considering adding Datong to your itinerary. You can do it all in less than 48 hours, and it’s an experience you won’t have anywhere else in the world.