Last week a friend and I made a quick overnight trip to the city of Datong in Shanxi province, home to two famous Chinese landmarks, the Yungang Grottoes and Hengshan mountain scenic area.
Datong is less than one hour by air from Beijing, but the experience was a world apart. My head is still spinning from the dizzying mountain heights, spectacular scenery, friendly people and one insane Didi driver whom I’m still trying to forget.
We headed straight from the airport to the Yungang Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage site dating from 450 AD.
This series of ancient Buddhist temple caves is comprised of over 50 caves and some 50,000 plus statues.
The caves, some of which are several stories high, contain ornate carvings and paintings, with golden Buddhas and colorful scenes of emperors and religious deities. Out of religious respect, photos are not allowed in some areas.
The largest statue is over 60 feet high, and the level of ingenuity required to construct these beautifully decorated sandstone caves is mind-boggling.
Almost as impressive as the scenery was the lack of crowds. We strolled leisurely, exploring the caves and stopping to enjoy an ice cream in the shade (My Chinese is just good enough to avoid the salted egg and red bean flavors in favor of a coffee one, thankfully).
Just like any good theme park, the exit from this attraction ended in an area filled with restaurants and gifts shops.
We took a break from sightseeing to sample the locally produced vinegar and admire the dried chilies from a safe distance (no sampling necessary).
Lunch of freshly carved noodles with ground pork and a few stuffed buns set us back about $3 each, including water.
It’s pretty cheap to travel around China subsisting on some kind of noodle dish, fruit, yogurt, bread or dumplings and tea, water or beer depending on how stressful the day has been. And these are all words I know how to say in Chinese, which makes things easier.
After a quick catnap at the hotel (our non-smoking room held strict warnings not to smoke in the bed), we explored Datong, which was once the beginning of the trade route headed to Mongolia.
We enountered some ghost town- like areas, with a shocking absence of crowds. After three months of living in China, I’m just used to wall-to-wall people. What a refreshing change.
We started out early the next morning, once again expecting large crowds. Our anticipated destination was the Hengshan hanging monastery, an ancient structure attached to the side of a cliff with spindly wooden poles. I had seen this feat of engineering in pictures, which is what lured me to Datong in the first place.
Does it count as getting lost if you don’t arrive at your intended destination but never actually lose track of where you are?
In our case I’ll just call it serendipitous that our crazy driver passed the turnoff to the hanging monastery and took us instead to Heng mountain scenic area. I won’t bore you with the details of the trip, but after three hours with Driver Wang we were just happy to get out of the car. Anywhere. Alive. The actual destination was of secondary importance.
We looked up at all of the monasteries on the hillside and assumed we had arrived at our intended destination.
Fueled by chips and cookies from our backpacks and buying water along the way, we started out hiking. In China, at least everywhere I’ve been so far, hiking means stairs. And lots of them. I was thankful for all of the times I opted for the stairs over the escalator in the subway station.
Each set of stairs brought us to another vista – a monastery, a rock outcropping, a small temple, or a man with a thermos of hot water selling instant noodles.
The farther we went, the farther we wanted to go. Where does this lead? What’s over the hill top? What’s around the bend? It was impossible to stop. The views got more spectacular as we ascended.
And there was only one way to go – up. We climbed over 100 flights of stairs, gaining a few thousand feet in elevation.
The surrounding peaks, temples and valleys were our primary focus, but to our fellow Chinese hikers we were the center of attention. In this somewhat remote area away from Beijing, as a couple of foreigners we drew a lot of attention. I’m guessing for some, we might have been the first “weiguoren” they had laid eyes on. Everyone wanted pictures, wanted to know where we were from. It was a friendly curiosity, and we shared a spirit of commaraderie as we urged eachother on.
What we didn’t realize until we reached the top was that we were sharing a pilgrimage; we had summitted one China’s five sacred peaks.
This was not the hanging monastery we had set out to see, but something much grander that we achieved with sweat, quivering muscles and smiles from strangers.
It was breezy at the top, and I twirled around in exhilaration, taking in 360 degree views that spanned mountain ranges and neighboring provinces, unobstructed by human development. I can almost imagine what it was like as caravans of traders traveled from here along the Silk Road centuries ago.
We kept an eye on the clock, realizing we needed to return to the parking lot before evening came unless we wanted to spend the night on the mountain. We headed down, making more friends along the way.
In the U.S. such strenuous hikes might lure outdoorsy types who spend half their paycheck at REI, or at least weekend warriors and fitness buffs. Not here. From a four year old girl carrying a pretty red purse to a hunched over octogenarian, they climbed up the mountain. Sporting dressy pants, parasols, flip flops, cozy slippers, sequined tops and warm sweaters despite the upper 70s heat, our fellow hikers looked more prepared for a shopping trip or lounging at home than an adventure in the wilderness. They put us to shame with their level of fitness, earned from a car-less lifestyle where carrying groceries, cycling to town and climbing stairs in the subway were part of their routine.
Not wanting to chance it with another crazy driver, we took a public bus back to Datong, thanks to a friendly young couple who helped us buy tickets and find the right bus.
We travelled on small country roads, passing farms, stopping for passengers and taking our time. $3 and 2 hours later we arrived back in the city and caught a cab to the airport.
I’ve climbed high peaks in Mexico, trekked up hills in Nepal, visited Alpine mountain tops in Europe and seen some splendid wilderness in the United States. I found something special in each of those places. Being in nature (in the mountains especially) feeds my soul like nothing else. Maybe I feel closer to God because I’m high up on a mountain. Silly, I know.
But there was something different about this trip, about these vistas, about this mountain top that will stay with me. Perhaps it was the sheer adventure of getting there, navigating everything on our own without a tour guide, or not realizing we had just summitted a sacred peak until we saw the marker. Or the strangers encouraging us on the way to the top, surprised to see two foreigners in their midst. Or the freedom of a 360 degree view after being hemmed in in Beijing.
I’m not sure, but I loved it, and I’m hooked. There are many peaks to climb in China. I’ll let you know which one is next.
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