Datong and back to Beijing
10.01.2007 - 10.04.2007
On Monday night we took the sleeper train to Datong. We were wary of the conditions of the trains here, but as it is an efficient and relatively inexpensive way to get around, we decided to give it a shot. It was wonderful! We got what is called a Hard Sleeper, which is not hard at all, and is actually quite comfortable. The train car is divided into open "rooms" with six bunks per "room", three on each side. We had two middle deck and one upper (I got the upper). Our train left at nearly midnight so we were tired and basically passed out immediately, with our bags securely under our bunks. Six hours later we arrived in Datong. I think the train conductor was standing there calling out to us several times before we woke up (I had my earplugs in), but we made it without a hitch. Plus, we didn't have to pay for accommodation that night! We checked into our hotel, which looked like it was straight out of "The Shining", but the rooms were nice. The bathrooms were not, but you roll with it.
I don't know why I was expecting Datong to be small, perhaps that is the impression that my guide book gave, but Datong happens to be a small town of 3,000,000 people. I guess there aren't many small towns in China. Datong is very industrial, and there was a permanent haze that sat on the city during the 36 hours that I was there. From what I've heard, that is case all year round. It is a mining town that supplies 70% of China's coal. You can taste it in the air. I often wondered to myself how people can live there, but most probably don't know any different. Most have probably never seen stars. Sometimes you can't even see the sun, just a brightness in the sky.
That morning we took a tour to see the Hanging Temple, which is a Buddhist temple literally built into a cliff side 50 meters above ground. It was originally 100 meters above ground, but has been sinking over the last 1400 years. It was built into the mountain because previous temples had been repeatedly washed away by flood. We had to wait a long time to get into the temple, as this is still the holiday week and there were a lot of tourists, but it was worth it. It was a little nerve wracking to know that you (and everyone else) were balancing on 1400 year old wooden beams that had been driven into the cliff to support the structure, and trying not to fall over 3ft high railings. China does not have the same liability issues that the USA does, for better or for worse.
On that same tour we went to see the Yungang Caves, which were constructed in the 5th century AD by the then Emperor, and consist of 48 caves excavated to house carved Buddha statues, the largest of which is 17 meters high. The Buddhas were also carved from the mountain. Some of the caves are so intricately carved that there are several Buddhas in the center, which you can walk around, and the walls tell the pictograph story of Buddha himself. The original builders had to drill giant holes in the top part of the mountain and carve from top down, to take advantage of the sunlight hours, so each cave has two viewing holes, one at the top and one on the ground. And the view opposite the beautiful and peaceful Yungang Caves was, in fact, a giant coal factory with spewing smoke stacks.
We met some other travelers on our bus, or in our hotel, and we all went out for dinner that night. We were feeling adventurous and decided to order something odd, so we settled on dog. It looked a little strange, like sliced sausage. Those brave enough in the group all got a piece, counted to three, and ate. Tasted quite like sausage as well. I only had one piece, though. There were some other dishes that had funny translated titles that we were too afraid to order, such as "Fried Chicken, Kidney, and Ox's Sex Organ in Bamboo Barrel", or "Depressing Blood Pressure Peanut." Here is a shot I took while walking around Datong that night:
The next day our train did not leave to return to Beijing until the afternoon, so we walked around Datong. In Beijing, there was an occasional person who stared at us, but it was much moreso in Datong, as they get even fewer foreingers here, though plenty enough to think that they wouldn't need to stare at someone with blue eyes. People will often yell out "hello" without any intention of stopping or trying to have a conversation. I've decided that it is like what patrons of the zoo are trying to do when they walk up to a cage and make animal noises (I admit I have done this), just to see if you can get a reaction. There is no malintent, just curiosity. I don't mind; it is interesting to be the minority for a change. People have often taken pictures of us, too, without asking. They try to be subtle about it, as if they are taking a picture of something behind us, but it is often quite obvious. And again, I don't really mind, because I like taking pictures of the local people as well, so at least we're even. We explored some side streets, which were even more dilapidated and dirty that the side streets in Beijing, and we were definitely the ONLY foreigners walking around these streets. We stumbled across the street meat market soon enough, and were amazed by the animal parts and carcasses that were on display for sale. We saw goat heads roasting, full sets of intestines of some large four legged animal sitting in giant bowls (that looked like kiddie swimming pools), racks of half carcasses from which locals would point to a part and the butcher would just hack off the desired piece. The sanitation was, of course, questionable; there was no refrigeration and flies everywhere. Resisting the urge to buy a chunk of meat, we moved on and found a tea house where we had a round of some delicious floral tea, though I'm not sure what it was. The store owner picked it for us, steeped the tea, and poured for us while we all sat around a serving table together. She steeped small amounts at a time and filled our cups, which held no more than an ounce or two of tea, until we had had enough. It was extremely pleasant.
That night, after returning to Beijing and checking into our hostel, we went to check out the famous street food market, which is renowned for its various foods-on-a-stick. We tried a few things, the most adventerous thing I ate was squid, but they served everything from tofu to giant scorpion, worm, centipede, slug, dog, snake, kidney and other organs. This was a very touristy stop, though, but fun to see. Someone bought the scorpion, though I did not actually see him eat it.
The next day we decided to do as the locals do, and rented bikes to ride around the city. Not only was it really fun, but a very efficient way to get around. We covered much more distance than would have been possible on foot, and saw twice the sites. It was a little scary crossing traffic, especially the huge round-a-bouts and dodging the buses, but we survived. We saw Bei Hei park and the Lama Temple, which has the largest Buddha carved out of one piece of sandalwood, at 18 meters high (it holds a guinness world record). It was quite impressive. Then it started to rain when we were at the farthest point from our hostel. At first we thought we'd wait it out, but it didn't appear to be stopping, so we had to grin and bear it. We made it back about 40 minutes later, soaked the bone with no warm clothes to change into as we had dropped off a load of dirty laundry that morning. We only had shorts and tank tops, so that's what we wore, went to find someplace to eat dinner and the nice woman who ran the restaurant was gesturing to us, "where are your clothes?!?!" She was very nice, and served up a delicious pork-and-onion-wrapped-in-noodles dish. After getting our laundry and getting packed, it was early to bed for us as we were waking up early to catch a flight to Xi'an.