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Visiting Datong in Shangxi Province

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I had been taking lots of weekend trips away from Beijing, usually by plane, but on this particular weekend I wanted to go to Datong so with two other friends we hired a driver to drive us there.  We set off very early one Saturday morning and our first stop, after a four hour drive, was the 1,500 year old Yungang Grottoes.

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The grottoes are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and comprise mountain side caves and recesses which are said to be filled with approximately 51,000 Buddhist statues ranging from a couple of centimetres high to about 17 metres high and took sixty years to complete.

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The caves total 252 and the statues represent the outstanding achievement of Buddhist cave art in China in the 5th and 6th centuries. The site extends as much as 1 km east to west.

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Apart from the grottoes, the nominated core area includes the remains of a castle, a defence wall, and a beacon tower of the Ming dynasty on the plain above the grottoes.

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The early grottoes are composed of five main caves; these magnificent caves were dug under the direction of the monk Tan Yao and are named after him. For the layout of the grottoes, large caves were dug to house the giant statues, 13-15m tall. They have a U-shaped plan and arched roofs, imitating the thatched sheds in ancient India. Each cave has a door and a window.

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The central images have tall bodies and occupy the major part of the caves, while on the outer walls 1,000 Buddhist statues are carved, a feature rarely seen in the tradition of Chinese history of grotto carving.

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We stayed at the Garden Hotel in central Datong which was comfortable and clean.  We ate a very healthy dinner of chips and tomato sauce/wine and diet coke at the hotel as we were tired and really just felt like a snack.

The next morning we departed the hotel and went to look at the Nine Dragon Screen which is a beautiful 600 year old screen made from glazed tiles which as the name suggests depicts nine dragons.

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Our next stop was a choice between the Huayan Temple and Shanhua Temple.  We chose Shanghua as Huaya had been totally re-built in 2010 (although of course still described in our guide book as ‘the oldest temple in China’).  Shanghua Temple was re-built also but quite some time earlier, during the Jin Dynasty (1115 – 1234).

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The temple grounds were really beautiful with lush green grass, lovely trees and small flowers creating a spectacular yellow carpet.

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The temple is located within the southern part of town and just within the confines of the old city wall.  A quick walk up to and along the city wall afforded us the opportunity to observe old Datong on one side and new Datong, with skyscrapers, on the other.  My favourite part was observing the courtyard homes of old Datong.

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Our last two stops were to the famous Wooden Pagoda and the Hanging Monastery.  The pagoda is the older of the two sights and our trusty guide book informed us that the pagoda is ‘the most ancient wooden pagoda in existence in China today’.  Not that I am a disbeliever of guide books but it also went on to describe the pagoda together with the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Eiffel Tower as ‘the three wondrous towers of the world’.  I must say I did not know that!!!  But it’s in the China guide book so it must be true.

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The Hanging Monastery was magnificent.  It and the grottoes are definitely my favourite  places in Datong.

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The Hanging Temple is one of the main tourist attractions and historical sites in the Datong area. Built more than 1,500 years ago, this temple is notable not only for its location on a sheer precipice but also because it is the only existing temple with the combination of three Chinese traditional religions: Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.

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The structure is kept in place with oak crossbeams fitted into holes chiseled into the cliffs. The main supportive structure is hidden inside the bedrock.

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The monastery is located in the small canyon basin, and the body of the building hangs from the middle of the cliff under the prominent summit, protecting the temple from rain erosion and sunlight. In 2010, it was listed in ‘Time’ magazine as one of the world’s top ten most odd and dangerous buildings.

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We then got back into our vehicle and drove back to Beijing.  All in all a wonderful weekend away!!