Beijing Getaways: Datong 大同
Destination Datong: A Tale of Two Dynasties
Many people are put off by their first impression of Datong, a large industrial city in the north of Shanxi Province near the border with Inner Mongolia. However, those who take time to look past the coal mines, power stations and huge locomotive factory soon discover some fascinating and picturesque ancient sites, remnants of the city's glory days as the capital of two dynasties.
In 386 CE the Turkic Tuoba people took advantage of troubled times in China to establish their own dynasty, the northern Wei, and subsequently took Datong as their capital. Although this was a very turbulent period in Chinese history, the Wei became devout Buddhists, and some important cultural sites were constructed during their relatively short rule.
The finest of these are the Cloud Ridge complex of cave temples at Yungang (Yungang Shiku), and the Hanging Temple (Xuankong Si), both a short distance from modern day Datong.
A second period of greatness came with the arrival of the Mongol Liao Dynasty, also Buddhists, who made Datong their capital in 907. Incorporated into the Jin in 1125, the Liao left a small legacy of statues and some fine temple architecture, notably the central Huayan temple (Huayan Si) and a wooden pagoda (Yingxian Mu Ta), the oldest in China, in the nearby town of Yingxian.
Datong remained important to later Chinese dynasties for its strategic position just inside the Great Wall, south of Inner Mongolia, and the tall city walls date from the early Ming Dynasty.
Most of the sites in Datong worth seeing can be covered in two days. The CITS office just inside the main entrance to the train station offers good value tours to the Cloud Ridge Caves, Hanging Temple and wooden pagoda.
The Huayuan Temple can easily be reached on foot. Another increasingly popular activity (not for the claustrophobic) is to head underground to view an operating Chinese coal mine first hand. The coal mine tour (Jing Xia You) can also be organized by the Datong CITS office - call ahead to book places (0352 510 1326).
A great Datong restaurant is the reasonably-priced Yungang Fengwei Mianshi Guan on Yingbin Dong Lu. Sample the delicious stewed eggplant (shao qiezi), corn cooked with pine nuts (songren yumi), Shanxi hotpot (huoguo) and fried noodles (chao lamian). For an even cheaper option head to the Yungang Hotel opposite for some top jiaozi.
This year check out one of China's rough diamonds - Datong's heritage and handy location make it the perfect Beijing getaway.
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