The hanging monastery, oldest glazed wall screen, and the amazing collection of grottoes—Datong may be more laid-back than Beijing or Shanghai, but it can outshine them in history and culture.
Datong is a prefecture that belongs to the province of Shanxi. It has a population of around 3.5 million people. Geographically it sits right in a basin with an altitude of more than 1,000 meters above sea level. Most of the sides of some parts of the area are surrounded with mountains. Some of the closest cities and towns are Xinzhou and Zhangjiakou of Hebei Province. Inner Mongolia is located in the northwest.
Just like a lot of parts of China, Datong has a very long history, which can be traced back during the Han Dynasty. Its role in Shanxi Province was more related to warfare or the military. It became a significant fort, and some administrative offices were set up around the Warring States Period. The massive Great Wall of China also passes through the area.
Datong experiences all four seasons, though the temperatures and weather conditions vary from the rest of China. For example, the winter can be very cold but dry and windy, and the situation can last for up to four months.
The summer, on the other hand, can be extremely hot, with the temperature going up to as much as 22 degrees Celsius. There’s hardly any rain on certain months as well, especially during wintertime, but it comes between June and September. The best time to be in Datong is during autumn when the temperature is milder and cooler.
Shanxi cuisine, which includes that of Datong, is less popular than Beijing or Hainan dishes. One of the common reasons is that Datong has fewer people. Nevertheless, dining on their regional specialties is a treat and is a walk through the natives’ culture and tradition.
Datong cuisine relies on wheaten, or there’s considerable use of wheat. That’s why most of the restaurants and food stalls in the area offer noodles filled with either vegetables only or meat and vegetables. Speaking of meat, though pork and chicken are typical, the most well-known is the lamb. The dishes of Datong are also comparable to those of Mount Wutai as they make use of a lot of oil and prefer to see more color in the bowl or plate. Most of the seafood dishes are prepared by those located in the southern part of Shanxi.
One of the most remarkable religious and historical works of art in Datong and probably in the whole of China is the Yunggang Grottoes. It’s a collection of more than 50,000 statues and 252 caves that were carved in celebration of Buddhist art, infused by the influence of Chinese culture, especially around the early times of Datong.
The Grottoes used to have wooden temples at the front until they were destroyed because of a war. The caves are made up of different sizes, though they are clustered. They have their own windows and doors. Because of the unimaginable feat, the Yunggang Grottoes is now officially part of UNESCO World Heritage List.
Monasteries are aplenty in China, and they are found everywhere, even in the mountains and near bodies of water such as rivers. What makes the Hanging Monastery very different from all the others is that it’s found right at the edge of the cliff, giving the feeling that it’s really hanging. The main foundation of the monastery is right within its bedrock while the crossbeams, which were made of wood, had to be attached to holes that had been carved in the cliffs. The monastery now stands about 75 meters from the ground and is around 6,500 years old. Aside from Buddhism, the monastery also practices Taoism and Confucianism, making it more interesting and unique.
Shanhua Temple is one of the most famous temples Shanxi and is found in Datong. Its construction lasted for more than 4 centuries as more buildings, halls, and pavilions had been added. The last few were built during the Jin Dynasty around 12th century. The temple covers about 14,000 square meters and has three main halls, namely, Da Xiong Bao Dian, Hall of Three Saints, and the Gate.
Nine Dragon Screen
Another highlight of the temple is the Nine-dragon Screen, which is an attraction on its own. It is considered to be the most elaborate and the oldest of all the wall screens found all over the country. It measures 45 meters in length and 2.09 meters in width. The height is 8 meters. The glazed wall is made up of several colors such as black, white, green, and blue, giving a perfect contrast to the rather structured patterns of the temple. The screen, moreover, showcases nine swirling but powerful dragons.
1. Visit the Red Flag Square. Every night the Red Flag Square comes alive as most of the locals come here to talk or showcase their culture through certain performances. This is also one of the most opportune times to get to know more about their history and way of living. Don’t expect them to learn proper English—some of them may not be able to speak the language at all—but they are more than happy to learn some words from you. They may also invite you to some games like kick ball.
2. Join their festivals. Datong celebrates various kinds of festivals such as Jin Merchant Shehuo, International Tourist, and Buzha Dance, where performers wear a special kind of mask.