Saturday, 17 September 2011

Yungang Grottoes

2009 09 19 – Days 85 – near Datong

Not too far from Datong, but in the opposite direction to the Hanging Monastery, is one of the most famous ancient Buddhist sculpture sites in China, the UNESCO World Heritage listed Yungang Grottoes.
A couple of the grottoes had wooden temples constructed in front.
While the rest are vulnerable to the elements and display signs of significant weathering.
I'm sure weathering is not the only explanation for this Buddha's lack of nose and other surface detailing - looting and vandalism must have occurred at some point in its history.
The many small holes were to hold short sticks of wood that supported a coloured plaster surfacing, both now fallen away by fair means or foul.
A couple of the grottoes have kept some of their colour and detail:
And this Buddha retains his surfacing in the form of blue robes up to his waist:
Either side of him:

Our guide told us that, rather than having complex scaffolding, the sculptors would cut in through the cliff and sculpt the head before gradually working down the figure and then cutting the door. Aside from the practical nature of this approach, it results in an aesthetically and spiritually pleasing arrangement whereby a visitor walks in through a darkened doorway to stand, often in dim light, by Buddha's feet. From there, your gaze is naturally drawn upwards to the light, the main source of which is Buddha's serene visage bathed in the natural light entering through the upper cutting.

There are 252 grottoes spread along the site,
many of them quite small,
but some are pretty big and of impressive craftsmanship.
This is the best preserved face on one of the large Buddha sculptures and is an iconic tourism image in China.

Hanging Monastery

2009 09 19 – Days 85 – near Datong

One of three non-industrial reasons to stop in Datong, the Hanging Monastery is truly a fantastical sight.
Who would live on a cliff face like this?
Monks it would seem and not only those of a particular type as the Hanging Monastery has Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian elements.
The nearby trickle with pretensions of being a river must become a raging torrent with spring snow melt because some serious concrete channels had been constructed and our guide told us that the Monastery had been washed away a couple of times and rebuilt slightly higher up the cliff face.
Despite the place crawling with tourists, a well thought out one-way loop of a route enabled frustration free touring and appreciation of the vertiginous positioning.
Despite the simple wooden construction and sheer drops beside most walkways, the building felt stable, with a magical quality to the way it clung to the cliff.
Experiencing that stability while walking around it made the location seems slightly less ridiculous than when viewed from the valley floor.
One of the best preserved shrines.
Ceiling art, accompanied by an entirely necessary, but unnecessarily conspicuous smoke detector.
Is this really necessary!? Whether it should be there or not is debatable, but that it should be so conspicuous?

Friday, 16 September 2011

Building Capacity

2009 09 19 – Days 85 – near Datong

My CITS tour group for the day was an eclectic mix, consisting of a French couple and Spanish lady all about the same age as me and an older Chinese couple who didn't speak any English. The six of us fit tightly but neatly into a little minibus with our driver and English-speaking guide.
The drive to the Hanging Monastery was a little less than two hours and mostly unremarkable. The road was in decent condition for the most part, there was little traffic to compete with and the countryside rolled by offering little to the eye, with the dust and smog I'd grown accustomed to draining the colour and life from the world.

However, there was one noteworthy event of the journey – a thought – a powerful and scary thought.
About an hour into our journey, we had to negotiate some road construction works. Nothing remarkable about that as there are construction projects everywhere you look in China. The new road was at least double the width of the one we were using, no doubt it would become a motorway with three or four lanes in each direction. Again, not a particularly noteworthy observation, but as we were driving away, I wondered why they would build such a big road when our much smaller road was far from full? What vast volume of traffic would it take to fill the new road? And what did that say about the expectations of car ownership and usage in China?

Considering the already terrible air quality, the prospect of such a huge road being filled with traffic, and car ownership becoming normal for the many millions of Chinese people, was a profoundly scary thought. How can the environment cope with such punishment?

Friday, 9 September 2011

Welcome to Datong, We've Been Expecting You...

2009 09 18 – Day 84 – Datong

Datong is an industrial city with no particular reason to visit. It is, however, well placed to use as a base for visiting a few otherwise remote sites.
As with most of the Chinese stations I'd experienced, the arriving passengers spill out into a large square in front of the station without passing the ticketing or departure areas. So there I was, in the fading twilight, knowing that it's wise to buy your onward ticket as soon as possible, trying to decide whether to stay one night or two, as I really didn't want to stay any longer than possible, and whether I should even try and answer that question now, when I didn't yet have a bed for the night and didn't know if I could get on a tour the next day or not.
Not knowing anyone in the city, I was unnerved and on guard to see a middle-aged guy in a brown corduroy jacket striding purposefully towards me. I glanced around, confirming that there wasn't anyone else he was aiming for. Nope. It was definitely me...
Thankfully he turned out to be well intentioned. He was from CITS, the Chinese state tourism company, and he often looked for foreigners arriving from Beijing to see if he could help, despite it being beyond his normal working hours. Chatting about the tourism scene in Datong, he revealed that most visitors were, as I was, only passing through, not keen on staying and with a mind to see two or possibly all three of the tourism-worthy sites within range of the city.
Back in his nearby office, we struck a deal over a tour of two sites the next day and sorted a dorm bed in the basic hostel run by CITS.

With my objectives for Datong 'in the bag', I returned to the station and was delighted to be able to also secure an onward ticket for the following night. Sometimes everything just seems to fall in to place so effortlessly it's amazing. I'd arrived in Datong with nothing booked, having never been there before, barely able to utter a word of Chinese and yet within a couple of hours I had a bed for the night, a tour for the next day, an onward train ticket and was sat enjoying a basic but tasty local dinner! Incredible.

About Turn! - Westward Bound

2009 09 17-18 – Days 83-84 – trains to Datong via Beijing

Just a few days earlier, leaving Beijing, I had thought that after Dandong I'd go further north and east to hike in a large national park, but my growing appreciation of the sheer size of China, and the realisation that it could be unwise to go hiking solo in an unknown mountainous area in autumn (off-season), forced me to make some more cuts to my possible destinations list and led to an overnight train to Beijing.
Stopping just long enough to buy a ticket and wait for the train, I was soon on a standing-room-only train to Datong, a short six hours to the east.
My standing status wasn't to last the full six hours though, thanks to the effervescent Shar Shar (aka Sarah) sat in front of me:
It came as no surprise that she normally worked in Beijing's infamous tourist trap The Silk Market, as she proceeded to assault me with her enthusiasm, transferring her everyday sales skills instead to social interaction. Surrounded as I was on all sides by other passengers, there was no escape from her verbal barrage, so it was of huge consolation that she was so smiley and good-humoured. It wasn't long before she forced her seat upon me. I tried to resist, but there's only so many times you can refuse someone's hospitality before you cause serious offence. I did manage to add in the clause that I would take it for only an hour and then she could have it back by which point she was actually quite pleased to sit down again. Although Shar Shar was a lovely person, friendly and fun, I wasn't too upset that she wasn't going all the way to Datong as her lack of interest in pausing for breath lead to one of the best demonstrations I've seen of what it takes to literally talk the hind legs off a donkey! Although she was a funny and engaging person, I was exhausted by the time she got off.

Much of the journey had been winding our way around under and through steep-sided mountains, but the last couple of hours were mostly over level terrain and I had a seat and conversation free calm to enjoy view.
As the sun set over the iconic yellow earth, it occurred to me that, throughout the entire six hour train journey, we'd never once escaped the smog! Could it really be that such poor visibility over such a large area was entirely man-made!?
I supposed it probably was, sadly, both possible and probable.