We’re in Datong, on our way to Beijing, and we are in love with China. It’s a lot of things we didn’t expect…Until you’ve been to China, you can’t understand what a global powerhouse this country will be, how friendly everyone is, and how amazing their historic sites are.

Everywhere we go, we are quite often the only foreigners around. We’ve seen few other foreign tourists, likely due to the fact that it’s not high season yet. That means things aren’t overrun by tourists, we often have sites nearly to ourselves. But we also attract attention. Whether it’s curious stares or wide, gregarious smiles accompanied by shouts of HULLLOOO! — in our experience, everyone — from hotel staff and cab drivers, to people on the street and police officers, everyone we meet has been super helpful, friendly, and honest. There have been many, many opportunities for people to overcharge us or rip us off, or whatever. Instead, when we pay too much, or offer a tip to servers and taxi drivers, people assume we don’t understand the price and try to give us money back.

But the most curious thing? Everywhere we go people stop us and point at their camera, not because they want us to take a picture of them, but because they want to take a picture with us. To be clear, these are not people we’ve interacted with in some way who then want some kind of memento of the interaction. These are just other domestic tourists or random locals on the street that wave at us, say hello, and then motion to take a photo of us with their family or friends. Pulling out their cell phone, they stand close and throw their arms around our shoulders, and their friends then snap photos with the foreigners. It’s very sweet. But it’s a bit strange. We feel like celebrities. We walking down the street, waving, smiling, saying hello.

We left Wutaishan two days ago. We could easily have spent a week there. With over 50 temples peppering the landscape, there’s a lot to see. It’s an ancient place, high in the mountains in Shanxi province. Buddhist monks have been living there continuously for more than 1500 years, so the place has a distinctly spiritual feel to it. Mixed a little with domestic tourist kitsch.

On our last day in Wutaishan, we set out early to see the Guanyin Cave. A very special place, both the 6th and the 13th Dalai Lamas meditated here. It was on our list of places to visit, and we had really hoped to see the cave itself, not just the temple at the base of the mountain. It’s a bit out of the way and since we’re here in the off-season, we were pretty much alone when we got there. About six Chinese visitors were there at the temple at the bottom of the cliff-side cave, and the local monks were helping them with their prayers and offerings. But we made our way straight up the steep steps carved into the cliff that led up the mountain to the cave. After about a 15 minute climb we arrived at a beautiful, simple set of wooden doors… Locked doors.

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Our hearts sank as we realised that because it was off season, the temple saw few visitors and the cave was kept locked.

Bummer. We sat at the top of the steps for a time just enjoying the view before we reluctantly headed all the way back down. Back on the ground, the main temple itself actually looked closed — deserted — and Karen made a joke that it would be pretty weird to end up locked inside the empty temple by accident, ha ha ha…

As we were leaving, though, Scott sort of made hand signs to a man who appeared suddenly after cleaning up one of the buildings, asking him about the locked cave temple and whether we could get in. At the same moment, three monks entered the temple’s front gate and started taking photos of each other with the cave in the mountain high up in the background behind them. They’d come to pay respect at the cave.

One of the monks went from room to room calling out until a local monk appeared out of nowhere. The man we’d asked about the cave also mentioned something to the monk and pointed to us. Of course, we had NO idea what was going on. We told the monks the cave was locked (with more expert hand signals and pointing, etc.) They seemed to understand. Then they made for the stone steps at the back of the temple that led up to the cave. The man we “spoke” to earlier just motioned for us to follow the monks. So we did.

Up we went. The three of them stopping periodically to chant quietly at different shrines or else take photos of the view. The monks kept smiling at us and seemed pleased that we were also interested in the site. At the top we all stopped and waited for the local monk to come up with the key. After a few minutes, the monk opened the cave temple and we all spilled in.

We felt a little uncomfortable, had no idea whether we were being inappropriate or rude, but then the monks signaled for us to follow them around the back of the cave temple. They had opened a locked metal door to a smaller cave and motioned to us that we were to have something… to eat(?). “No, no. It’s ok. We don’t want food, we have water. Thanks,” we motioned with our hands. But they were insistent, so we went over to them and realised they were taking water from a natural spring in the rock. Associated as it is with the cave, the spring (and the water it produces) is considered sacred and they offered some to us. So we took a sip each and followed their instruction. Then we went around to the cave entrance, they unlocked the cave doors, and went in. The monks were awed by the cave and began chanting quietly for a few minutes while we waited outside and listened. Then they invited us in and helped us kneel, etc. They were teaching us how to do this. We’re not religious, of course. But our meditation tradition is based on the teachings of the Buddha so we have great respect for the monks. We gratefully followed their gentle instructions.

Then, we all left and went back down the mountain. They were light and happy after their visit and were taking turns snapping photos of each other, so we offered to take a group photo of them. Then they wanted a photo of us. As we left the temple, the monks offered us a ride (they had a driver waiting in a car). But we smiled, motioned that we were going to walk, and then we all went our separate ways.

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We then explored Nanshan temple before returning to our hotel for a lovely lunch (which turned out to have some of the best food in town given the famous vegetarian restaurant was closed). Despite having already walked about 12 kilometres, we ended our day by hiking the 1080 steps that lead up to Dailuo Ding, a local terrace temple that overlooks the entire valley. It was seriously steep, making our hearts pound with the effort to climb the steps. But the view and photos from the small temple at the top was spectacular and well worth the extra effort.

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Early the following morning, we met our driver for the next leg of our journey: a three-hour drive to Xuankong Si, the hanging temple of Hengshan. This place is amazing. Built in the 5th century, it’s a temple precariously perched on the face of a cliff, held up by bamboo stilts and ingenious architectural tricks.

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Finally, we returned to the car and completed the drive to Datong. We’ll be here until March 28 before boarding a train to Beijing.

As we make our way overland across China, we’ve come to know something that everyone seems to understand intellectually in the West, but it isn’t until you’ve been here and experienced it that you really get it…. This country is serious — SERIOUS — about its future. China is building infrastructure everywhere. While Toronto rings its hands and kills ideas for tiny subway expansions and bike lanes of a mere few blocks, the Chinese are laying tens of thousands of kilometres of expressways and high-speed trains, and modern advanced infrastructure. It’s humbling. We’ve driven through tunnels several kilometres long, and over amazing suspension bridges, and seen high-rise apartments that soar a hundred stories into the sky. We’ve tried to take photos but its hard when you are in a moving vehicle. You’ll just need to visit to see what we mean. The Chinese do things big, in a big, big way. And it’s been like this for a long time. At the Yungang Grottos ouside Datong, there’s a small remnant left of an ancient dam. The dam was built to protect the caves’ carved statues and stone temples. A massive undertaking, the dam was the idea of a local general who feared the river would damage the carvings… so he just had the whole river moved. This was 1500 years ago. Not much has changed.

Datong has an amazing history. Although at first blush it appears to be a nasty, grey, polluted city, it should definitely be on anyone’s short list for visits to China. About a 40 minute drive out of the city is one of the most famous places in China, the UNESCO Heritage Site known as the Yungang Grottos. Also dating from the 5th century, these are exquisite Buddhist statues and stone temples carved straight out of the rock in the side of a cliff. Some of the statues soar over 15 metres in height.

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To get there we arranged a taxi. We were lucky that the taxi driver who showed up to take us was Zhang Zhao, a local Datong taxi driver that has been written about in the New York Times. He’s also the local goto driver and guide for Chinese officials. His immaculately cared-for red Volkswagen Jetta is decked out inside with photos of Mr. Zhang and various Chinese dignitaries and a few foreign tourists. He speaks almost no English, but he is very sweet and is a driving force behind a local taxi driver initiative that will not charge anyone over the age of 69. It’s part of their movement to respect the elderly. Of course, we loved him. Best part was he never tried to up-sell on other tours or anything because as a guide he is of little use to us without English. We took his card — if you plan to come to this city for a visit you should book him.

He took us to the Yungang Grottoes, with a brief stop to see a local Dragon Screen (a more famous one — the Nine Dragon Screen — is not far from our hotel). While Karen took a bathroom break, Scott and he made arrangements for what time to meet back at the car. They traded hand signals and pointed at each other’s watches, but things didn’t get clearer… Finally, Mr. Zhang took out his cell phone and punched in the number 30 and showed this to Scott. At this point, Scott just shrugged, smiled and said ‘Ok.”

Then Mr. Zhang went on his way. Karen asked Scott what time we’d be meeting Mr. Zhang back at the taxi and Scott said, “Well… it may be 30 minutes, but that seems too short, it might be 3:00, but that’s four and a half hours from now, so that seems a bit long; it might be 3 hours? So 2:00? Or maybe 30 o’clock? Tomorrow? Really, not sure.” But once we entered into the site, it was clear that 30 minutes was not what Mr. Zhang meant. Why, oh why didn’t we learn just a little Mandarin before we left? Or, at least, you know, buy a phrase book? Ha. Because we’re stupid, that’s why.

We decided that he’d probably not let us get away without paying, so just assumed (hoped?) he’d be around when we returned…

The Grottos were stunning. We returned to the taxi stand at about 1:00, but Mr. Zhang wasn’t there. So we went back for some lunch. When we returned at 1:30, he was back… yay! We got back to our hotel, said goodbye to Mr. Zhang, then headed out to take a look around downtown Datong and visit a local grocery store for treats.

Its a really nice city. Our hotel is fantastic. And thanks to Ian at China-Journeys.com all our arrangements have been so professionally organized.

More later…

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