I love road trips. Stac and I have been loading up the car and driving a 1000 miles on a weekend since the first days of our marriage when we were at school in Utah and we traipse through southern Utah and northern Arizona. We saw Monument Valley in our 4 door Toyota Corolla that had no heat while Kiah played with her electric toy guitar that played It’s a Small World After All.
DaTong is in ShanXi province around 250 miles northwest of Beijing. Thanks to the major infrastructure building of the Chinese government in the last 20 years there are national highways that cross most of China. So getting there by car is not an issue in general. The two main attractions in the DaTong area are the Caves at DaTong and the Hanging Monastery. These two destinations are actually 80 kilometers apart. And there are actually a couple of other interesting things to see in the area as well. I’ll cover the logistics first and then more about the experience.
The Yunguang Grottoes or the DaTong Caves are 16 kilometers west of DaTong proper. After touring the caves in the morning, we headed south to the town of HunYuan where the Hanging Monastery is located. There is no real direct route from DaTong to HunYuan, there are two different routes and one is definitely shorter than the other by 60 km. We ended up taking the longer route due to a misreading of the exits and no short turn around once we were on the wrong freeway. In the end I preferred this route because we got to stop at the small town of YingXian and see the amazing 1000 year old all wooden Pagoda of Fong Temple. From here we drove to sleepy town of HunYuan, we somehow missed getting on thr toll road and ended up driving on the adjacent provincial road. The county road has no toll, is a bit bumpier on places and full of trucks. The adjacent toll road is brand new, beautifully paved and largely empty. In HungYuan we stayed at the Heng Greely Hotel. In HunYuan there are really two attractions, the 1500 year old Hanging Monastery and HengShan Mountain (or really Heng Mountain), which is one of the 5 sacred mountains of China and is covered in daoist temples and shrines.
We left Beijing on a Saturday morning at 5 am and drove to DaTong. The first hour was spent driving through Beijing, finding and picking up Seven on the west side and then heading north towards BaDaLing. The road grows narrow through this mountainous pass were the Great Wall protects Beijing. Even at six am the three lanes where full of massive trucks making their way up the pass, the three lanes becomes four and more as trucks squeeze to pass each others, tour buses and cars weave in and out of truck stacks as the race towards the tunnels and the otherside. My guess is there is no hour you can leave Beijing on this northern route and not dodge massive trucks.
You leave Beijing, enter Hebei (which encircles Beijing District) and make your way west towards Shanxi. After truck dodgeball at Badaling the highways are sparse in traffic and your easily able to make your way down the road. Quite often there are pull outs on the right side of the road. We must have counted 20 men peeing on the side of the road. At the Shanxi border we stopped to use the restroom and picked up our toll card for the highway. Datong came along fast enough and we exited paying a 70 rmb fare. Here the Google directions had us take the direct route through the middle of town to the caves. Direct it was, straight through construction, huge trucks hauling coal, big displays of backhoes and earth movers. We inched along until we finally got free and made our way to the caves.
The (云冈石窟) Yungang Grottoes are designated a Unesco World Heritage location and there is a new large entry system. You enter inside a large building to buy your tickets, and then exit through large doors and walk down a very large and grand outdoor walkway of huge elephants and newly crafted murals. The entire time your wondering where the caves are. Finally you come to a a long set of cliffs and the caves are carved into them. The oldest dating back 1500 years. They are largely buddhist in origin, there are over 50000 carvings in over 252 caves. Some of the caves have wooden facades built as temples to protect them, others are completely open. Some have wooden fences that really prevent entry and others you can walk entirely around. Many of the caves and the buddhist figures are monumental in size, I was not prepared for how large some of them were, not to mention the sheer number and the intricacy. The site was truly impressive. After a visit to the most impressive section of the caves we bought a ticket to ride back to the exit on large electric carts where you have the typical walk way through shops and restaurants. I stopped and had an older gentleman tell Kiah and Sofi’s fortune; you pay 10 rmb, he shakes around a cane with sticks in them. There are four character couplets with fortune pronouncements. After hearing how 100% positive each one was I accused him of only having happy fortunes, he promptly reached in and found me one that sounded like a sad country song : “You’ll lose all your money”, “Your family will abandon you”, “You’ll die alone”; that sort of stuff. So I guess its the luck of the draw.
We loaded up the van and headed out of Datong to Hunyuan. This time we didn’t follow Google maps but headed outside the city on the loop / ring road. There was a tricky junction with the freeway and instead of heading south east toward Hunhuan, we headed due south. There wasn’t an exit for 10 km or more so we decided to just take the longer route and go through YingXian and see the ancient wooden pagoda. Pretty much everyone feel asleep while I drove. Sofi was crammed into the very back section of the van between the back of the back seat and the luggage. Everyone was still sleepy when we pulled in YingXian and everyone but myself, Seven and Teresa got out to see the pagoda. It was very old and very amazing to see considering it was made entirely of wood with no nails or metal. Sadly you can only walk around the main level and no longer walk up the stairs. We walked around and took some photos before heading back to the car. I stopped at a ATM to take out some money and we climbed back in the car and headed due west to Hunyuan. There is a nice new toll road but we missed the onramp and ended up on the provincial road with all the coal trucks. We pulled into Huyuan after a long long day and met the father of a friend of Teresa’s who was studying in Tennessee, I just always called him Hua’s father. When I went to pull out my China bank card I had the sinking feeling as a realized I’d left it int he ATM back in YingXian. After 60 seconds the machine eats the card, within that time window someone could push the button to retrieve the card but they’d still only be able to use it if they had the pin number. I get a SMS text message whenever someone uses the card and I knew it was idle. Rather than even try to go back and get the card I went to the local ICBC in Hunyuan and withdrew RMB on my US bank account. I was able to pay for the hotel rooms and everything was fine, though I had a bureaucratic headache in my future when I got back to Beijing.
That evening for dinner we asked Hua’s father for a place to eat. He suggested we just eat at the hotel, insisting it was good food. I wanted something much authentic so I asked where we could get some local food. Up the road to the gas station and adjacent we’d find a place that fixed local Shanxi food. We walked up the road a fair bit, along the way we got endless stare after stare after stare. I don’t suppose they see many foreigners let along many of African descent. The restaurant was just a house across a dirty field. There was no menu and no prices. We were just to sit down and they’d bring us food. So we sat and they brought dish after dish, probably 12 or so in all. The food was interesting, there were three or four different kind of dumplings that were all of a “dry” variety. Authentic for sure, a taste of Hunyuan but not one I dream about.
The next morning I woke early and was out of the hotel by 5am. I drove up the road toward HengShan mountain. Immediately upon entering the canyon you see an entrance sign to the Hanging Monastery. I drove down the steep entrance way to the canyon floor next to the river. I parked in the empty parking lot, it was windy and cold. The monastery was closed until 8 am so I took a look from afar. Due to the canyon walls there really doesn’t appear to be a good time to catch the monastery in good morning or evening light. I got back in the car and drove up the canyon through a large tunnel which was extremely dark; there were no internal lights, the sides seemed narrow and the road was bumpy with large coal trucks lumbering towards you with tiny pencil lights making small circles of light. On the otherside the entrance to Heng Shan mountain is under construction building a beautiful grand entrance, I was still to early so I kept on driving up the road to the next small village of XXX; around 1000 people live here in one story tiled roof homes stacked one a top the other in a narrow valley which had a local coal pit that had been dug out in its “back yard”.
I parked near the road at the gas station and started walking up the narrow streets. The sun had yet to break over the mountain tops but there were already several folks walking around at 5:45 in the morning. I walked up the hill to get a better view of the city and saw two men squatting on the hillside having a morning smoke. I hiked up to them and chatted with them for a bit. They asked about my cameras (I had the D800 on one shoulder and my D7000 on the other). I showed them the wide angle and took a couple of shots of them and showed them in the view finder. I said good bye and walked back down by a large truck above the coal pit and a short little man was standing there watching the morning. I chatted with him and took his portrait as the morning light broke. He asked me for a copy of the photo and I wrote down his last name (Li). I still have plans to try to mail it to him and get it to him by visual reference.
I then hiked up a small trail to the very highest point overlooking the village for a couple of photographs. Several houses had thick black coal smoke coming from chimneys as families cooked their breakfast. Below me a mother and daughter noticed the strange foreigner on the hill and soon the entire extended family was staring at me over the wall. I asked them if it was possible to make my way down the steep gully, they assured me and I walked down and into their courtyard to chat with them. The mother was an elder daughter of a middle aged couple. Her two brothers came out with their bowls of breakfast and chatted with me asking me (as everyone does) which country I was from : “America”. They were coal miners in an above ground mine up in the mountains. It was Sunday their day off and after chatting and taking a couple of photos the youngest one walked me back down a different path to my car where I piled in and drove back to the hotel for a shower and some breakfast.
After everyone was ready we loaded up and headed for the Hanging Monastery. Hua’s Father accompanied us and through is guanxi he was able to get us all in the monastery without having to pay the entrance fee. A signed paper with an official stamp from a friend of his who was in charge the local sights let us enter. We walked across the suspension bridge over the river and up the stairs to the monastery. The monastery is a series of shallow buildings that have wooden poles appearing to provide support, which in actuality their are beams that are sunk into the wall of the cliff anchoring the buildings on the sheer face. You climb up ladders and wind you way up stair cases along gated walkways past shrines to Daoist and Buddhist figures. By the time you reach the top of the monastery (there are around three to four levels) and as you look over the edge of the walkways down into the canyon you can get a vertigo sensation. The path through monastery is a one way guide and Sofi and Miles somehow got ahead of us and they were a couple of levels above us hanging onto one of the corner poles and got a bit scared. Stac and I made our way up to them and we walked down to the entrance where we’d begun. A very impressive structure that would probably be closed to the public if it were in the States.
Afterwards Stac and Miles went back to the hotel to relax and the rest of us went back up on HengShan mountain. You have to purchase a ticket to enter the mountain road and then you wind your way up a narrow road with blind hairpin curves to a large parking lot. Here you can either walk 30 minutes up a path that climbs several 100 vertical meters to a series of temples or you can purchase another ticket to ride the tram. At the top of the tram you have to show your ticket again for the second part to enter the temple complex. There is a series of trails which traverse horizontally along the mountain, climbing here and there to various Daoist temples built steeply into the cliff face. There were Daoist monks hanging out at each temple, many with large white beards and weathered faces. They were all so willing to chat and have their photo taken. At one of them I purchased a couple of peach pit bracelets in exchange for the four monks posing for a photo. One of them read me my fortune from a very old looking book that he claimed was from Ming Dynasty era. Teresa met us on the lower paths after having hiked all the way up and we walked back to the tram where we rode back down the mountain.
That afternoon we went over to Hua’s parents homes to meet his wife and their grandchildren Amy and Audery. Amy’s mother Tracy met Teresa Bragg at school in Tennessee. Tracy later got married in China to Hua and they settled in the US where Tracy went to law school, first Amy was born and then Audrey. Hua is unable to work in the US because he is there as a guest on his wife’s student visa. When Hua’s post-graduate funding ended and he no longer had any income raising their children with them in the US became difficult. Their children returned to HunYuan in ShanXi county where they are being raised by their grandparents, Hua’s parents. When Tracy graduates from law school they will reunite with their children again in the US. The sacrifice of Hua’s parents is both impressive and at the same time commonplace. This commitment is at face value something any grandparent would of course do but the reality of it makes this not so common in the US. And yet in China the amount of time and devotion spent by grandparents on their grand children is amazing and inspiring.
That evening we ate at the hotel and the food was really good, the next morning we were off by 10 am. Hua’s parents saw us off at the hotel and gave us 4 bags of dried soy beans for our journey home. Rather than head north to the highway I opted to head east and slightly north along the provincial roads until we headed north and reconnected with the main highway. This took us through the Shanxi countryside past farms that stretched dry across a dusty plain, past piles of coal in heaps along the road side and trucks, always big huge trucks lumbering on carrying their loads of coal. We pushed on through lunch and made it back to Beijing in time to grab a late lunch at a random stop off the 4th ring road before saying goodbye to seven and making our last leg home to Park Avenue.
- Google Map – Route we drove and sights we saw
- Yunguang Grottoes
- DaTong Caves : These are 16 kilometers west of DaTong proper.
- Pagoda of Fong Temple
- 1000 year old all wooden Pagoda in the small town of YingXian.
- Hanging Monastary
- 1500 year old monastery outside the city of Hunyuan
- One of the 5 sacred mountains of Buddhism in China