Datong - The Carved and The Hung

sichuan.jpg - 13888 Bytes Datong, the largest town in northern Shanxi, lies on the railway line from Beijing to Mongolia. Although only 300 miles from Beijing, Datong is a lot less prosperous and progressive. Datong is most famous for its Yungang caves and coal production. It used to have China's last steam-engine factory.

Datong's name means the "Big Same". One's first impressions of the city fit the name perfectly. The entire city is scorched with coal pits and riddled with slow-moving coal trucks. However, few tourists leave Datong disappointed because of its Yungang Buddhist Caves and the Hanging Temple.
Datong City Ratings
** The following ratings are based on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best.
History(7) Art(7) Local Culture/Unique Tour(4)
Nature/Scenic(5) Food/Shopping(4) Night Life(3)
Religion(6) Adventure/Sports(7) Reasonable Cost(7)
Recommended Days of Stay: 2

Quick Facts
Area - 1,700 square km
Population - 2.7 million
People - Han
When to go
Coldest Moths - December to February with temperature as low as -29.9C;
Hottest Months - July and August, with temperature as high as 37.7C;
Annual Precipitation - 1,000 millimeters (mainly in May through September)
Getting In and Out
By Train - Datong is 7.5 hours by train, No 205, the fastest from Beijing. The same train can take you all the way to Moscow.


Datong was founded about 2,200 years ago as a garrison town built between two sections of the Great Wall of China.

Datong reached its peak between 398-494 when the Northern Wei Dynasty adopted the city as capital. It was during this period that the Yungang caves were constructed and Datong became the most prosperous city in China.

Datong maintained its strategic importance because of its geographical location during the later dynasties. Today, Datong sits on the largest coal deposits in China. People call it the Coal Sea.

Datong City Wall* *
The Datong City Wall is as old as the famous city wall of Xi'an. It was constructed during Ming Dynasty. Renovation is currently underway to restore it to its past glory.

There is also an eight-sided seven-story brown-brick pagoda on top of the wall in Datong.

Steam Locomotive Factory and Museum* *
The factory was the last place in China to make steam locomotives. During its life, it produced 5,572 steam locomotives. Right now, it makes only electric and diesel engines.

The factory itself is a great place to get a rough understanding of how a Chinese factory works.

The museum is said to contain the first locomotive engine imported into China from Britain. It was used to haul Empress Dowager CiXi's state carriage, which is also on display.

Wooden Pagoda* * *
The Wooden Pagoda is located approximately 75 km from Datong. Sixty-seven meters in height, it is the highest and the oldest wooden pagoda in China, built in 1056. The tower is said to have survived seven earthquakes. A glance inside will explain this architectural wonder. Huge timbers have been carefully jointed to crate an amazingly resilient structure. The workmanship is extraordinary even judged by today's standard.

There are five levels in the pagoda, three of which is open to the public. On each of these three levels there are Buddhist statues. On the ground level, there is a huge, 11-meter-high, seated statue of Sakyamuni.

Nine Dragon Screen*
The Datong's most famous sight is the Nine Dragon Screen, a ceramic mural of 150 feet long portraying nine dragons rising from the sea in pursuit of the sun. It was created in A.D. 1392. There is also a wall with the same name in Beijing.

Local Culture/Unique Tour
People Who Live in the Caves* * *
In rural Datong, there are still many people who still live in the cave houses dug out of the steep earthen bluffs. Many of these caves are over two centuries old. Unlike what they sound, they are usually neat, homey, warm in the winters and cool in the summers.

Usually the caves consist of two large curving earthen chambers tamped smooth. The entrant room is used as kitchen and storage room. No running water is available in these caves. The room inside is the living quarter for the entire family. There is no bed. The entire family sleep on what is called "Big Kang" which was built of mud and brick and covered with rattan mat. Tunnels are built between the "Big Kang" and the kitchen stove. Coal fire heat is transmitted through these tunnels to the "Kang" and sealed in it while the family cooks. It is definitely an efficient way to recycle energy.

Take a trip out here and check out the chosen residences for many of the people here for well over two centuries.

Wutai Shan (Wutai Mountain)* * * * *
Wutai Shan has been venerated by Buddhists as one of China's four sacred sites since ancient times. It consists of five towering peaks. Yedou, the tallest of them all, is 3,058 meters above the sea level, know as the "Roof of North China."

Being close to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, Wutaishan was a frequently visited place of pilgrimage for Mongolians who have adopted the Tibetan version of the faith. Wutai Shan has a rare example of original Tang temple architecture. The buildings from 850 still stand.

The mountains are beautiful and perfect for hiking. However, the weather in the mountains is very cold, even in mid summer.

Yungang Caves* * * *
The caves are the best preserved in China. They stretch for about a km and are grouped into three main sections: east, central and west. The earliest caves were carved around 450.

The format of the caves came from Indian Buddhism. According to history books, five Indian monks who were also accomplished sculptors arrived in Datong in 455. Their influence is quite obvious in the carving.

Cave 20 has the largest figure, a seated 14-meter-high Buddha with one surviving standing disciple on the right.

Cave 18 is considered to be the finest in Yungang.

All the caves have different stories and styles. They are all worth exploring diligently.

The Hanging Temple* * * *
Datong has another architectural wonder besides the Wooden Pagoda, the Hanging Temple. Clinging to a sheer cliff, the temple was built in Northern Wei Dynasty, approximately 1,400 years ago.

The monk who built this temple had three reasons:
1. Find the most difficult place to built a house of worship to show his determination;
2. To avoid the terrible flood;
3. To promote the unity among Chinese people by combining the three main religions: Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism in this temple.

The temple in its spectacular setting is unique and breathtaking. One has to see it with his own eyes in order to believe such an undertaking was possible about 1,400 years ago.

The Huayan Temple* * *
Several of this temple's halls date from before 1,100 AD. It was completed 40 years later during Jin Dynasty by Khitan tribe.

Its Main Buddha Hall is reputed to be one of the two biggest Buddhist halls in China.

Do stop by the Bhagavan Stack-Hall during your tour as this is where the Buddhist sutras were kept. It also contains 29 extraordinarily vivid Buddha.

The interesting fact about the temple is that every hall and pavilion faces east instead of south as traditional Chinese constructions. This is a reflection of the sun-worshipping traditions of the Khitan conquerors.
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