My Visit to Datong and Surrounding Regions, Shanxi Province, China, Summer 2010
This as been my dream trip for over a decade, and I’m so delighted to finally be able to visit the historical city of Datong, which is located in the northern fringe of China’s Shanxi Province. This amazing trip to northern China began with a 4.5 hours flight from Bangkok to Beijing, where we arrived very early in the morning. We then proceeded towards the city of Datong, which is approximately 335 km west of Beijing, or about 5-hours ride by bus. As we passed through Beijing, I was delighted witness the profound change that has taken place since I lasted visited back in 2004. The city has wide boulevards with canals and lots of lush green gardens and trees, which blend in well with the modern skyscrapers. It seems that the city’s “greening up” effort has paid off, and the trees have grown considerably since my last visit.
As for Datong, this is one of China’s foremost historical cities, with a history of over 2,400 years and was the capital of the Northern Wei, Liao, and Jin dynasties. As such the city and its environs are endowed with such famous historical sites as the Yungang Buddhist Grottoes, the Hanging Monastery, the 9-Dragon Screen (Wall), and the Wooden Pagoda (located in a nearby county).
Datong is located on the northeastern edge of China’s Loess Plateau (Huangtu Gaoyuan), and has a continental monsoon climate with long cold winters, windy springs (with the occasional sandstorms), mild rainy summers, and cool, cloudy autumns. Just north of Datong lies China’s Inner Mongolia Province, with the famous Gobi Desert lurking farther to the north. In stark contrast to my native Southeast Asia (Thailand) where the heavy wet monsoons produce lush green tropical foliage, northern China’s Loess Plateau appears relatively dry, yellow, and dusty in comparison. This became increasingly apparent as we headed westward from Beijing, past Hebei Province, and onwards to Datong which is located on the northern edge of Shanxi Province.
From the lush green hills of western Beijing and Hebei province, the vegetation gradually became sparser and the landscape drier as we headed westward. We headed west of Beijing, pass the verdant, green hills and the Great Wall, through Hebei Province, and onwards to the city of Datong, which is located on the northern fringe of Shanxi Province. This journey by bus took approximately 5 hours, but it was a rare opportunity to view the countryside along the way.
One good thing about traveling in China during the relatively wet summer season is the opportunity to see all the natural vegetation and agriculture in full swing. As an avid gardener and plant lover, I enjoy observing and documenting the vegetation and plants in all the places that I travel. To my delight, it appears that northern China is home to one of the world’s most massive reforestation program, and this includes Hebei and Shanxi Provinces which I’ve traveled.
As an enthusiastic gardener and tree lover, I enjoy observing vegetation and plants in various places which I travel. To my delight, large tracts of the yellow, dusty Loess Plateau are turning green as the reforestation program takes hold, with new tree and plant growth clearly evident along the way. I was told that the government encourages many farmers to plant tree saplings, which are then transplanted in large tracts of land slated for reforestation, as well as along roadsides and in urban areas.
Northern China’s Leoss Plateau is a relatively dry region, with most of the rain occurring during the wet summer monsoon months of June-September, but precipitations here are relatively light compared to those in southern China. It is expected that the massive reforestation program will help restore soil quality, retain soil moisture, alleviate droughts, reduce dust storms during the spring, and avert the spread of deserts, particularly the Gobi Desert to the north. Therefore, the benefits of reforestation are multifaceted.
Upon reaching Datong, we found a modern city in the process development, transformation and beautification. Once a grim industrial city dependent upon the coal industry, Datong seems to have discovered its full potential as a tourism, logistics, and services hub.
The first attraction I visited was The Yungang Grottoes, or Cloud Ridge Caves* (云冈石窟 Yúngāng Shíkū) which are a collection of caves located approximately 16 km west of Datong. There exist over 50,000 carved images and statues of Buddhas and bodhisattvas within these grottoes, ranging in size from a mere 2 centimeters to 19 meters tall. The Yungang Grottoes were built since the Northern Wei Dynasty (460-494 A.D.), and so some of the statures are up to 1,500 years old. If you visit, Caves 5 and 6 contain the most beautiful and well preserved images. The following are photos of the magnificent Yungang Grottoes taken during my trip:
The Hanging Monastery (悬空寺 Xuán Kōng Sì) is located approximately 65 km from downtown Datong city, was built during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 A.D.), and ranks among the area’s two top historical attractions alongside the Yungang Grottoes. At a height of up to 70 meters above the ground, the temple was erected alongside a steep cliff on the side a high mountain, with a gradient of almost 90%, resembling a swallow’s nest. Completely built from wood with narrow corridors and small altars, the temple unites the three religions of Buddhism, Lamaism and Taoism. Even today, the temple is still supported by the same wooden buttresses that were used for its construction over 1000 years ago.
I visited the amazing Wooden Pagoda in Yingxian County about 70 km south of Datong, which has been built during the Liao Dynasty in approximately 1056 A.D., and stands approximately 67 meters high. It is said that this pagoda was originally erected of wood without the use of a single nail. There was an earthquake later during the Yuan Dynasty, but structure survived intact. Inside the Wooden Pagoda lies an enormous statue of the Buddha, which was partially damaged during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s but later restored.
Another major attraction is the colorful Nine-Dragon Screen (Wall) in Datong’s city center, which was built during the Ming Dynasty in approximately 1392 A.D. The wall stands approximately 8 meters high, is approximately 2.2 meters thick, and approximately 45.5 meters in length.
Datong’s city authorities are in the process of rebuilding ancient temples, palaces, and structures in this old section of the city surrounding the Nine-Dragon Screen, whereby old flats and apartment blocks are being demolished to make way for the massive restoration project. The city itself appears very economically vibrant, with new skyscrapers, malls, and residential high-rises springing up throughout the skyline.
Trees, gardens, and parks have been established throughout the city, in line the other reforestation programs to “green up” northern China. Formerly a grim industrial city dependent upon the coal industry, the Datong seems to have realized it’s full potential to be a tourism, services, and logistics hub.
This visit to Datong was amazing, and I hope to return to this historic city and its attractions again and again.
Happy traveling, wherever you go, and wherever are!
Lat (Ratasit C.)