No reservations, part 6

Back to part 5.


The final installment of my Shanxi trip.

The first thing we did when we arrived at Datong was hurry to the ticket window to see what was available to get us back to Beijing. We managed to reserve seats on the 11pm train that night, giving us one full day to see the city’s sights. When we left the station, we were assaulted by a bunch of men who had scruffy old taxis, offering to take us to the famous places for exorbitant prices. We listened to them for a while, then went into a noodle shop for breakfast and to use the restroom to clean up. Two of the drivers hung around outside the whole time, watching us through the window.

When we left, we brushed past them and asked a local woman what city bus to take to the town’s bus station. At the bus station we found that there was one leaving for Xuankong Si, known in English as the Hanging Temple (literally the Chinese means Hanging from the Sky Temple), which is around 70km away. At least I thought that’s where it was taking us. After leaving the bus station, it went to another place in town where a whole lot of other people got aboard, to the point where they were sitting on little stools in the aisle.
Yeah, it was raining.

We got to a little village an hour later, and the bus pulled over to let us off, where a guy in a little car was waiting for us. The bus took off one direction, and we headed into the mountains.
Once we got to the place where we could see the temple, the driver pulled over.
I thought he was just letting me take a picture, but he pulled out a brochure for Hengshan, another famous site a bit further up the road, which he said was much better. He would take us there instead of, or in addition to the Hanging Temple, for a price. There was much arguing in Chinese. When I was asked for my opinion I said I didn’t think we had time for anything else since we only had one day. Eventually the driver gave up on that and agreed to wait for us while we saw Xuankong Si then drive us back to town. At least I thought that was the deal.
I think the word “precarious” was invented for this place.

The ticket costs ¥60 per person, for which you get some lovely misspelled English.
There are lots of stairs to climb, and I had to think that maintenance here must be a nightmare. The day will probably come when visitors will no longer be allowed to enter the temples, as the wooden supports get older and older.
Given their location, I suppose it’s not surprising that the individual temples are tiny.
The stairways are very narrow and steep, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to a person with a fear of heights.
When we were done, we found our driver hanging around waiting, and got in the car. He drove us back down to the village, and then pulled over and turned off the engine. He said we had to wait a minute.
There must have been some sort of miscommunication. He kept checking his phone for a text message, and we sat there with rain tapping on the roof for ten or fifteen minutes before he made a call. Then he started up the car and we hurried off to a little bus station. He let us out, we gave him the money, and we got onto a bus for the ride back into Datong.

As we went along, the weather cleared and we got a chance to see some of the countryside.
The houses have an interesting style here. Aside from the terracing on the hillsides, the landscape reminds me a lot of Eastern Washington.
Once, we were all startled by the bus driver slamming on the brakes.
There was a big truck passing a horse drawn cart.

Here’s another moment on the trip.
That’s one of those three-wheeled trucks loaded down with onions. It’s being passed by a car while another truck comes on. This happens all the time, and the oncoming truck will just drive on the shoulder for a bit.

We eventually got back into Datong, and the bus driver told us where to wait for a city bus that would take us to the Yungang Grottoes, which are not so far outside of town. We stopped at a little noodle place for an inexpensive but pretty tasty lunch, then caught a bus.
Yungang means Cloud Ridge, but luckily for us the afternoon was pretty nice, if not especially warm. It is another World Heritage site. Most of the carvings were done between 460 and 525 CE, which makes them about the oldest things I’ve seen in China, or pretty much anywhere else for that matter (discounting dinosaurs and such). Only some parts of the Roman Baths in Bath, England are older.

Entry is ¥60 per person.
There are 45 numbered caves, with the entrance at Cave 6.
A few of the bigger caves right near the entrance still have the wooden structures framing them. These structures date from 1621.
The carvings inside range from elaborate and colorful to weathered beyond recognition. This is inside Cave 6, which is too big to capture without a large industrial strength flash on your camera.
The caves range from really huge to tiny niches. I think they were mostly natural features that were just taken advantage of by the sculptors. Most of them at one time also had wooden structures outside to protect them, long since victims of rot or fire.
Here’s one that’s interesting for what’s not there.
One of the holes – I think the second row on the right side – is missing its Buddha, but it didn’t weather away or fall down in an earthquake. It’s been removed and now sits in a museum in New York. That’s according to a bit of a guide talk that was translated for me. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s one in the British Museum in London too.

Here’s one that hasn’t been carted away, the giant of Cave 20.
You can’t really see it from this distance, but the pupils of his eyes are large round black stones that have been set into the sandstone.

Many of the open areas of rock are carved with little tiny niches, each with its own tiny Buddha.
It’s areas like this that lead to the published total of more than 51,000 Buddhas carved here.

Here’s one that’s rather severely weathered, leaving it with a sort of zombie look to it.
After making the trek down to see Caves 1-4 at the other end, we decided to return by an alternate route after a little rest by a pond.
It was getting near to sunset, and we’d seen all the caves, so we took the bus into town. We had dinner at an interesting little hole in the wall not far from the train station. It was small but full of people, so we figured the food must be good. That turned out to be true. I really got a lot of stares from the patrons, especially a group of five older men sitting at a table with several empty baijiu bottles. They kept calling out “Hello!” to me. Someone asked if I was Russian. The one waitress was so busy trying to service all six tables at the same time that it took quite a while to get food ordered, and then we had to ask repeatedly for plates, glasses and so on. Gradually the old guys trickled out the door until only one was left. When she tried to present him with the bill, he said one of the other guys was supposed to pay. They discussed it for a while, then he just got up and staggered out the door. The waitress and one of the cooks followed him, trying to get money. I don’t think they ever did, but I also think the guys are from the neighborhood, so maybe they’ll eventually pay, at least if they ever want to eat there again. We had quite a long wait until our train, so we took our time, and talked for a while.

Back at the train station later, it was a repeat of our previous routine. We waited at the front of the line in a big waiting room full of people with big bundles, and when the time came, rushed to find the conductor. We had no luck at all on this trip tryingto get beds, but at least we had seats reserved. So we spent the night trying to get comfortable, surrounded by people sprawled in every available spot of floor space. Our seats were close to each other, but not together, so we couldn’t even talk to each other. One time when I left my seat, I returned to find a guy sitting in it seemingly asleep. I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Zhe shi wode.” That’s mine. He moved along without any complaint. It was cold onboard (unheated like all the other trains), so I kept my coat and stocking cap on all night, sleeping in short spells with futile changes of position in between.

It was 5:15am when we reached Beijing. I was dead tired and badly in need of a shower. Of the five nights away from home, only two were spent on solid ground in a bed, and only one of the other three involved a bed at all. If I’d known it would be like that, I wouldn’t have packed all those extra clothes.

Anyway, it was certainly an adventure, and gave me a taste of what it’s like to travel the way ordinary Chinese people do. I didn’t keep a close tab on my budget, but I’m certain my total was under US$200 for the whole thing, transportation, lodging (hah!), souvenirs and incidentals. But don’t expect me to write the next edition of China on $20 a Day. I’ve been more detailed about this trip than previous ones because I want to give readers a sense of how different it is to get around here once you get outside the metropolitan areas. And if anyone has any ideas on how to improve the train system, especially the ticket purchasing process, please do something about it!

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