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Yunguang and Heng Shan

Datong needs a marketing makeover. In the hills of Shanxi, it’s gotten a little lost of the last couple of hundred years and most Chinese know it for coal rather than culture. A friend in Beijing asked me before we left “Why would you want to go to Datong? It’s the sick bowl of China.”

The walls of this bowl are mountain ranges that both protected Datong and made it a stop for camel trains heading north. They traded religion as much as tea or spice. Datong has sheltered Buddhism and it’s best known for the Yunguang Caves, where thousands of sculptures were carved into the sandstone cliff faces that have survived centuries. This is why we hop off the train.

But first we visit the Hanging Monastery, suspended from Heng Shan (Heng Mountain), one of China’s five sacred Taoist mountains. Taoists seek to climb each of these mountains making offerings as they go and as we approach Heng Shan small shrines appear in the hillsides. The monastery itself though is Buddhist so pilgrims gather here from both religions and there’s even a smattering of Confucianism. The monastery has been routinely trashed over years, but has been balancing three religions on this cliff face since the Northern Wei dynasty (AD386-534).

And it’s a precarious balance. Stilts built into the rock support the building but every footstep creaks with weight and another large tour group bounces the structure under us. I’m reminded of every Indiana Jones film where someone would almost certainly hack out a stilt from under this relic and the whole building would slide into the trickle of water below in Jinlong Canyon.
To take my mind off how narrowly we seem to be defying gravity, I ask why so many of the Buddhist statues have been beheaded. “Red Guards,” our guide says flatly. You can build a miracle into a cliff face but you can’t defy the Cultural Revolution.

We make for Yunguan Caves. More than 250 caves of varying sizes were carved into this 1km stretch of Wuzhou Shan. Because Datong was on major trade route, the caves reflect how Buddhism adapted to China. Earlier caves feature Hindu gods like Vishnu and Shiva, but the latest feature Buddhas who are more Chinese looking as the religion journeyed East. With more than 500,000 statues from tiny intricate carvings to the 14m-high Sayamuni, Buddha burnout is a real risk. A slow wander to appreciate the little differences is ideal, but our guide hurries us along.

On the way back into town small structures pimple the surrounding ridges. These beacon towers from the Ming Dynasty are reminders of the strategic importance of Datong as it was a line of defence against the Mongol hordes to the north. The Mongols swept down to sack Beijing and stretched beyond the reach of the Trans-Siberian with an empire that went as far as Germany. And in this empire, synonymous with barbarians and Genghis Khan, is our next destination.

This post also appears at Viator.

Comments

  1. Soooooo jealous. Earlier in the year, it was looking like we were going to get to Mongolia,but if fell through. Slightly peeved that you are beating me to it! Safe travels and keep the posts coming.

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