Although not the prettiest of China’s cities, Datong in Shanxi Province is still another great place for the international traveller who wants to explore away from Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Datong has a long and rich history; a border town, is has been an important strategic place, situated on the edge of the Mongolian grasslands during the Northern Wei period. It first rose to prominence as the capital city of the Tuoba, an ancient Turkic-speaking people who rose up and united the nomads in northern China under a federation. They converted to Buddhism and eventually became Chinese.
Datong has some wonderful sights to offer the traveller. One of the first stops here should be the beautiful Huayan Temple. This temple is separated into two complexes and was constructed in the Liao dynasty by the ancient Khitan people. Unfortunately, time has taken its toll and very little of the architecture from this date has survived.
The upper temple (Shang Huayan Si) is an active monastery, the main hall dates to 1140. It is one of the largest Buddhist halls in China and you can listen to regular lectures from the Buddhist monks on how to cease suffering.
The lower temple (Xia huayan Si) is a museum, housing some beautiful artifacts dating to the Wei and Liao dynasties. The back hall was originally built in 1038 and is the oldest building in the city.
The Nine Dragon Screen (Jiulong Bi) is another great place to visit when in Datong. It was constructed in the Ming dynasty to serve as a temple’s spirit wall, preventing evil spirits from entering and causing troubles inside. It is 8m high, 45m long and 2m thick, and is a beautiful example of ancient Chinese craftsmanship.
If you love Chinese temples and have already seen Huayan Temple, then visit Shanhua Temple (Shanhua Si). This flamboyant temple dates back to the 12th century, and contains five central Buddhas and beautiful statues of heavenly generals.
If you go a little outside of Datongn, you will find some amazing cultural attractions. Visit its section of the Great Wall of China – this is not the brick and stone wall that dates from the Ming dynasty. Instead, it is from much earlier dynasties and is made from tampered earth. Although it is not as pretty as Ming Wall around Beijing, this is the authentic Wall and should not be missed.
You can also hike along the Great Wall and visit some wonderful historic forts and ruins along the way. Desheng Bao (‘Achieving Victory Fort) dates from the 10th century and can be found about 43km north of Datong.
The Yungang Caves are a must-see when visiting Datong. These beautiful grottos began construction in 460 CE and are the earliest examples of Buddhist iconography in China. They are different from the Buddhist carvings found along the Silk Road (the Magao Caves in Dunhuang) because the Tuoboa were trying to portray a sense of ‘Chinese’ about them, to assimilate themselves in the Chinese society they ruled.
The most beautiful and impressive Buddhist statue here depicting the Wei emperors can be found in Cave 20 which portrays a seated Sakyamuni, standing 14m high, with a standing Bodhisattva next to him. In Cave 8, you can see some wonderful Hindu gods (Vishnu and Shiva) as guardians of the entrance with phoenixes or Chinese peacocks.
16km west of Datong, the Yungang Caves can be reached by taking a number 3 bus which will take about 30 minutes. Alternatively, you can join a tour which will also take you out here.
Datong has a very small airport, about 20km east of the city, with flights from Beijing daily and Guangzhou three times a week. There are three bus stations which can take you wherever you need to go. You can also visit Datong from Beijing as a day or overnight trip on the train as well.
Like Beijing, Datong has big air pollution issues due to many reasons; sulphurous pollution, sub-urban slag heaps and contaminated groundwater. As stated, Datong may not win first prize (or second or third for that matter) for its beauty, but nevertheless, there is a certain charm and a sense of pride about her past that keeps tourists flocking to this wonderful ancient city year after year.