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Mining the Past

Coal city is shaking off its polluted past and revealing its relics in a tourism transformation

By NewsChina Updated Oct.1

Practicalities: Trains from Beijing to Datong take around six hours. Tickets should be reserved in advance since they sell out quickly (100-150 yuan, US$14-21). Yungang Grottoes: Take bus No. 4 at Datong Railway Station and get off at Xin Kai Li. Then transfer to bus No. 31 to Yungang Grottoes. A taxi from downtown should cost around 50 yuan (US$7). Hanging Temple: Take a bus from Datong Bus Station to Hunyuan County. Then take Bus No. 8 or a taxi to the temple. Hiring a van or a taxi to the temple from Datong costs around 150 yuan (US$21).

I was lured to Datong on grounds slightly different than one would expect from a city that is trying to become more appealing to tourists. Often overshadowed by Taiyuan, the provincial capital of Shanxi Province, Datong has been trying to sneak out from under its influence and create a distinctive brand of its own. Besides the historical sights surrounding the city, I got interested in the struggle for transformation itself. 

Once dubbed one of China’s most polluted cities due to its reliance on coal mining industry, it still depends on the industry. However, Datong did not seem to enjoy the title that much and has been attempting to rebrand the city as a tourist destination rather than streets where when the wind was coming from a certain direction, coal dust rained down like negative snowflakes.  
The movie The Chinese Mayor (2016) depicted the struggle in great detail. The film tells a story of the city under the mayorship of Geng Yabo. He served as a mayor of Datong from 2008 to 2013 when he started implementing a project to turn Datong into a more appealing travel destination and rebuild a 14th century Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) city wall. The project required demolishing about 200,000 houses in the city center to recreate the original old town and rebuild the wall, that now rises 14 meters in height and is 16.6 meters wide at most. With many ancient cities around China priding themselves in their drum and bell towers and temples, this was exactly the unique angle I was looking for.  

Datong is easy to reach by train from Beijing and could serve as a great weekend getaway. Although this Shanxi pearl boasts a population large enough to fill a small European country, it still feels miles away from the bustle of the capital. We took four days to drive to Datong from Beijing on an old and tired motorbike, fit for one person or two very skinny people at the most. Getting into the city takes a while and straight, broad streets encircle the old town and seem to be never-ending. 

One of the Shanxi highlights for foodies is all the fresh noodle dishes. Shanxi locals often claim they eat noodles three times a day. That might sound boring, but there is a huge variety of different noodles and sauces to go with them – you can easily change up the combination of vegetables and meat. Shanxi’s specialty is flat and wide knife-cut noodles, that some restaurants still do by hand. Others have a noodle-cutting robot, which is certainly quite entertaining and ensures all of your noodles are of almost the same size. Whether you opt for meaty options or a classical vegetarian tomato-egg combo, the centerpiece remains glutenous noodles, that do a great job filling the stomachs of all the starving travelers.  

After (or in between) filling your stomach with noodles, take time to see all the cultural sights Datong has to offer. The city center boasts the Huayan Buddhist Monastery that was first opened in the 12th century, although it has been burned down and rebuilt a few times. It now delivers possibly the best panorama of the city center. After walking around the temple, head up the wooden pagoda for the view. You can see the new skyscrapers that house some of the people who were moved for the city wall project. Surprisingly, the old town is still dotted with empty half-demolished houses that seem to be stuck in time after the mayor who so enthusiastically started was moved to another city. Truth be told, I found the presence of ruins to be an impressive and special part of the city since you can truly see the whole contemporary story of the city wall unfold in front of your eyes, and it serves as a monument to the change. Probably not the most desired one, but a distinctive one, nonetheless. 

Just around the corner from Huayan Temple lies another pride of the city, the Nine Dragon Screen. It is a relief with nine different types of Chinese dragons depicted on glazed tiles. Walls like that are often found in imperial gardens and palaces. They were used to protect privacy and would often be placed by the entrance to block sight of the inner courtyard. The one in Datong though is 45.5 meters long and is the oldest and longest remaining such wall in China.  

The old town around the drum tower hosts plenty of small restaurants, bars, and traditional courtyard hotels of different price ranges. Walk around to grab some souvenirs, snacks, and evening drinks with a band or a movie blasting in the background. 

Hanging Out in Caves 
After the city is explored, head to the two biggest attractions that entice most tourists to the city. Yungang Grottoes is a UNESCO World Heritage Site just a few kilometers outside the city. It is a Buddhist site consisting of three cave clusters that extend around one kilometer with 53 caves containing more than 51,000 stone sculptures. The grottoes were started in 450 during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534). The statues are in different condition and some of the larger ones have been better preserved than smaller ones. Regardless, the visit to Yungang Grottoes will take up at least three hours and is sure to spark your curiosity and impress by revealing unexpected artworks inside the caves. The temple in the territory of Yungang Grottoes is a real treat to anyone interested in frescos and unique sacral art, since the walls of the temple portray scenes with often truly gruesome illustrations and unique purple shade-heavy art. 

Further out of Datong lies a hanging temple that might not be a suitable destination for those with a fear of heights. The wooden structures are built into a cliff and hang 30 meters above the ground. The only thought that saved my legs from shaking was that if it managed to hold for 1,500 years it seems unreasonable to start falling apart now. The Hanging Monastery is an impressive sight both from below and above. It is one of the few existing temples that combine the three biggest Chinese religions: Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. The temple is protected by a relatively large summit that prevents the elements from destroying it. There are a total of 40 halls and pavilions in the temple and coupled with the narrow paths, it might take a while to visit the whole temple if it's crowded.