China - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 222 (32)

Datong

Saturday 16th October

We really noticed the difference between the very comfortable beds here in our nice hotel compared to the usual standard issue hostel beds we’re otherwise used to. We awoke this morning completely refreshed and ready to start the day so we got dressed, prepared our cameras and went downstairs to enjoy the free breakfast that is included with the room.

The two Canadians, Monica and Peter are earlier starters than ourselves and were already finishing their breakfast by the time we arrived. The range of foods on offer at the buffet setup was mostly Chinese cuisine but they did have eggs, bacon, bread and what looked like orange juice. By the time we had oriented ourselves and found all the things we wanted and brought them back to the table, much of it was cold. The bread in particular was very dense and heavy and tasted just awful. Still, the fried eggs and orange juice (which actually turned out to be mango juice or something else just as odd) were sufficient for us to take our malaria tablets. We polished off what we could tolerate eating and went out into the lobby to wait for our driver. I strolled around and came across an ashtray that had been spat in several times and was just gross. It was enough to make me gag to the point of having to sun to the toilet and throwing up. So much for breakfast! I find this common act of spitting everywhere to be the most appalling experience of our trek through China so far. Every time the thought enters my head, and you cannot avoid it as everyone does it everywhere, I start to gag again and do my best to try to put the thought out of my mind. I don’t think I’m exaggerating by saying that these disgusting images that are now etched into my mind may very well have psychologically scarred me for life!

Our friendly CITS officer was true to his word and was outside the hotel lobby waiting for us at nine o’clock. The car that he had arranged for us was a taxi but was nevertheless big enough for us to travel in relative comfort to the sites we planned to visit today. Our driver spoke no English so after everyone else got into the car, I spoke with the CITS officer to find our exactly what the plan was so that we at least had the right expectations. Without the ability to communicate effectively with the driver, all manner of things could potentially go wrong so I thought it prudent to make sure that everyone understood up front what was going to happen. Something as relatively simple as knowing what to expect can go a very long way to making a day work well.

Our first destination was just half an hour or more out of town but it took much of that time to simply clear the city limits. The road users here drive extremely haphazardly and meander in and out of each other as though it’s one big free-for-all. Having observed the behaviour of the drivers here in China for a week or so now, we’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that nobody here has ever actually been taught to drive. Nobody has any road skills whatsoever. Our driver used all of the lanes on both sides of the road, regardless of whether or not there was any oncoming traffic and made absolutely no attempt to stop or even slow down at red lights, even though traffic was flowing back and forth through the crossroads. Our driver was by no means unique in this regard. All the other drivers do the same. The net result of all of this undisciplined road use is that there are constant traffic jams and gridlocks that needn’t be necessary given the volumes of traffic. Everyone constantly sounding their horns as they constantly strive to avoid colliding with each other as well as pedestrians and even static objects, surely also increases the resulting stress that all the drivers must be subjected to even further. If people simply paid attention to the lines on the road, at least, then the traffic would move very much faster.

With the aid of a few abrupt direction changes and some U-turns, we did eventually make it out of Datong’s city centre and made our way to the Yungang caves. Our driver dropped us off and motioned that we would be able to find him at this exact location when were done and pointed us in the direction of the ticket office. As has been the case with many other sites of interest here in China, the ¥60 ($7,30) entrance price was discounted by half for students. Thus far, the ticket salesmen and women have been pretty eagle-eyed in spotting Sandy’s elapsed expiration date on her student card so I handed over mine for close inspection and had Sandy wave hers just beyond the reach of his glare. The trick worked and we were both allowed in with the student discounts.

The temple caves at Yungang are truly a sight to behold and immediately is easily the most impressive place we’ve seen so far. Over the course of about a kilometre of cliff face, dozens of caverns have been carved from the rocks. Within the caverns are hundred if not thousands of Buddhas that have equally been carved right out of the rocks. These Buddhas range in size from just a few centimetres to over fifteen meters tall and are very colourfully decorated. Some of the caverns are so big that you can go inside and walk right around the huge Buddhas. The cavern walls are equally stunning and are also decorated with yet more carvings of the various incarnations of Buddhas and related deities. Some of the larger caverns are affronted with wooden structures several stories tall but many are no longer there for having been lost to the elements or destroyed at various points in past history. We both had an absolute field day with the cameras and spent a good two hours walking along the cliff face, peering into the caves and snapping happily away in every which direction.

After having seen all there was to see, we realised that there was still another destination on today’s agenda and this was going to be a couple of hours by car from here so we located our driver and set off for the long drive. None of us were under any illusion that anything could top what we saw at Yungang and we talked enthusiastically about what we saw during the drive. Along the way, I kept my camera with zoom lens at the ready to snap at the passing scenery and the Chinese people going about their daily lives. I’ve found that it is these impromptu photos of passing images that often make for the best photo. Pictures of monuments, statues, temples and the like are great but these random photos are the best way to convey to others what a given place was really like. Amongst other things, we passed huge bundles of hay atop rickety trailers being pulled by mules, small trucks loaded absurdly high with cabbages and other goods, small villages where the inhabitants were drying out thousands of ears of corn on the hut roofs and even some inhabited cave dwellings. The people in this region of China clearly lead a very much more primitive lifestyle to that we Westerners are accustomed to. It felt very much like travelling back to another time.

The two-hour drive terminated at the base of a much larger, sheer, cliff face very close to a dam and we simply could not believe our own eyes. The same wooden structures that affronted the caves back at Yungang were also here but this time they were clinging perilously to the sheer cliff face about thirty meters or more in the air with long, downward extending, wooden pillars wedged into the rocks supporting the whole structure. After successfully pulling the same stunt with the student cards, we managed to get in here also for half price and quickly made our way up the stone steps carved out from the rocks, up and towards the caves behind the wooden facades.

The wooden structures consisted of no more than a few roofs supported by some timbers and some very narrow wooden decking. The roofs were topped with the same, distinctive, Chinese ceramic tiles and were architected very much like those we’ve seen from other ancient sites. There could not have been more than a couple of meters of woodwork extending outwards from the rock face and there was barely enough room for two people to pass each other as we and the many other tourists tried to make our way up through the different levels to see the carved Buddhas inside the much smaller caves. Since the whole thing is clinging to the side of the cliff face, simply leaning over the shaky handrails was enough to bring on the onset of vertigo for anyone afraid of heights. I’d have to say that this was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen and it was a real thrill to experience it up close. Again, the cameras were working overtime and we must have snapped the view from every conceivable angle from both below and above.

We had to finally decent in the end to make room for more tourists that had arrived and we decided to wander through the traders stalls in the makeshift, mini village below. Once again, most of what was being sold was junk and cheap tourist crap but there did seem to be quite a few old coins dotted around and I thought I’d take a closer look at some of these since I’m quite interested in old coins. Annoyingly, however, I know next to nothing about coin collecting but I did find a series of old coins that I personally thought looked rather nice and haggled the price for a collection of about fifty assorted old coins to ¥100 ($12,20). I may very well have overpaid for what they were but you never know with this sort of thing, I may have gotten a real bargain after all. Sometime in the very distant future, I may have them looked at by a professional to see just what they are.

We left the hanging temples at Heng Shan having thoroughly enjoyed a spectacular day of site seeing. If the rest of our path through China holds anything like the kinds of treasures that we saw today, then we will continue to enjoy ourselves here immensely.

The long drive back wasn’t anywhere near as arduous as I thought it might be and before we knew it, we were back at our hotel. For some reason, our electronic key cards for our hotel room were no longer working so we stopped by the front desk to get them sorted out. Whilst the receptionist was fixing things on the computer, I happened to notice that the room rate being paid for our rooms by the CITS office was just ¥160 ($19,50) and not the ¥200 ($24,40) that they were charging us. It just goes to show that for all the haggling we did, we still paid more than we could have done.

With our key cards now working again, we left our bags in our room and went over to speak with the CITS officer on duty about what to do for tomorrow. The only reason we are staying here for two full days is because I had assumed that we would need this long to accomplish the task of seeing both of the sites that we saw today. The fact that we have been able to knock these two things off in just one day now leaves us with an extra day in hand. We already have our return train tickets to Beijing and onwards to Xi’an so we can’t leave a day earlier either. The one other major attraction in this region is a huge wooden pagoda, apparently one of the oldest in China, but this is also a couple our hours drive away so we decided against that idea. We will see plenty more pagodas before our time here is complete anyway so this is no great loss. We also have to accept the fact that we cannot see everything China has to offer in the limited time that we have here. For tomorrow, then, we will content ourselves with some lesser attractions right here in town and make tomorrow somewhat of a rest day.

With the next couple of days now nicely laid out, we have little more thinking to do. We joined our Canadian friends in the hotel restaurant again for what turned out to be yet another very long meal with each individual dish coming out of the kitchen very slowly and at staggered intervals. Our waitress was attentive but often-times distracted and a little disorganised. The language barrier did nothing to improve the situation either.

We topped off the evening with the four of us sitting in front of the laptop, going through the six hundred or more photos that Sandy and I snapped today and I burned them a CD full of the best of these to take home with them. We’ve exchanged contact details and our paths may yet cross again sometime in the future.

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