sábado, 1 de setembro de 2012

To the countryside, Datong

Datong is a city that will be present in some more adventurous guys itinerary. Thus, if you're looking just for relaxation, maybe it's not your best best. Anyway, what brought me there was not the city itself but two UNESCO heritage sites that can be visited in a single day. Since I couldn't take the night train from Beijing, I had to spend a night there... and then the adventure began.
Datong's map location
Datong is 348 km West of Beijing and it's a "smaller" city, however with more than 3 million people. This amount would be impressive anywhere else in the world besides China, and that brings a lot of implications. There are not so many people willing to travel through this area, therefore just a few foreign tourists, not so much services available, etc. Besides, it's a city that basically lives from coal mining, China's main source of electric power. In summary, it's kind of an ugly city, but they're trying to improve it. The most central and historical area is being restored and a fortress wall replica is being built so the tourist potential can be improved.

Challenges in Datong

Still in Beijing I started to face my first problem. I needed a bed for a low price for just a single night Datong. The place appointed by Lonely Planet didn't exist anymore. In the internet I could find places only +200 RMB, not suitable to my budget. So, I found at Wikitravel an article about the city and there this email: 1161189938@qq.com, in which I could book my bed in a recently opened hostel. I still had some issues to solve. After getting to Datong I had to buy my night train tickets to my next destination, Pingyao. At Datong's station I couldn't find any counter that could sell tickets in English. I took my iPad and tried to show something to the teller, translate some words to Chinese but no result. So, miraculously, some students who could speak English came up and helped me. HOWEVER, there was a final issue, there were no remaining seats available in the train, and, in that case, I would have to stand, around 8h, until next morning. Well, I had to face it or put my whole travel schedule on risk and I decided to move on. Then, I tried to take a taxi to my hostel. Nobody could speak English to me and they didn't want to use the taximeter. They tried to charge me 50 RMB at first, but after a lot of bargaining I could lower it to 15 RMB. The fair price, some people told me later, was 12 RMB. AND, STILL, I didn't have everything solved. So I could visit two monuments in the next day in order to catch the night train later I needed to find a group tour, at an affordable price, designed for that. I could book my tour at CITS's local office in Datong, for 100 RMB, just the transportation.

Then, the tour...!

After this hard time securing accommodation, train, tour, yeah, I finally got it to my final purpose, to visit the region. 

In the morning while I was waiting for the tour I had the chance to meet a wonderful couple! David and Vinciane, Belgian teachers who teach Dutch, love to travel and to talk. From Datong to Pingyao and then down to Xi'An we met many times again and kind of traveled together, a rice, and certainly, funny experience!

Nosso tour se juntou próximo à estação de trem de Datong e partimos em direção às Cavernas (Grottoes) de Yungang.

Our group got together next to Datong's train station and then we departed to Yungang Grottoes.

Yungang Grottoes
Yungang Grottoes entrance
These caves are located 16 km Southwest of Datong, were built between centuries 5th and 6th and combine a total number of 252 caves (but just a few of it can be visited) and 51,000 Buddha's statues and statuettes.

The caves are very old and thus reflect an ancient moment in Chinese history. That is quite evident while checking the Buddha construction style. That style is much more closer to what I've seen in Southeast Asia before in Myanmar with human faces and shapes rather than Chinese common Buddha presentation of the fat and "rounded" Buddha.

Some caves had huge Buddha statues, more than 15 m high, others had just a big number of small ones sculptured in the walls. Cave #5, with a wooden protected entrance, it's a real treasure. It's forbidden to take pictures and even if you do the impression won't be as real. I would compare it to some nice churches we have in Ouro Preto area in Brazil, with so many details, sculptures and colors in the ceiling.

One of the main statues
at Yungang Grottoes
The entrance tickets to the caves are quite expensive, 150 RMB per person. I was lucky to find out that my University ID could be accepted (even though it was written in Portuguese) and they applied a 50% discount. Almost all touristic places in China can grant you a student discount if you carry a student ID with photo.

Hanging Monasteries

If Yungang Caves are at one direction of Datong, the Hanging Monasteries are at the opposite side. Therefore it's far and can be expensive to hire a taxi to take you around. The Monasteries were built more than 1,500 years ago in the edge of the cliffs in order to be protected from wind, rain and flood.

Hanging Monasteries seen from the entrance

The Monasteries are really hanged up in the heights, and, in fact, are quite small. The paths are very narrow and protection fences are low. I don't think anyone would accidentally fall but you feel a little bit anxious about the structure stability. The wooden made part it's partially standing at very thin wood piles and part attached to the rock.

The cost to visit the Monasteries is 150 RMB. But, in this case I think it makes sense since it's a very fragile structure and a little bit dangerous so the entrance admission price works as a visitor number control.

The train

Here you can see a picture of David and Vinciane while we ate delicious dumplings and drank some Tsingtao (Chinese beer) waiting for our night train to Pingyao. We did some walking tour around Datong's central area and didn't get so impressed. It really ressambles to movie pictured communist cities, gray, squared and poorly maintained buildings. The efforts to change the main economic activity are welcome.

Vinciane and David
After we had dinner we waited until dark, and I still had a problem. I wouldn't have where to sit in the train, 9h stainding or just sitting in the floor with other people. Then while we were at the waiting hall, some students got close to us and started to practice English. They were very nice and we let the conversation going on. When I explained about my 'standing issue' one of them said he would help me to find a seat and I should always follow him. That's what I did. Well, at the time we would catch the train, David and Vinciane were denied to board. Their tickets was wrongly booked to the next day and so they had to spend an extra night in Datong. So I was taking the train alone with my recently met Chinese friends.

It's worth reading!

We got to the wagon and there were no seats available so I realized I would have to stand anyway. However, my new friend said "You sit in my seat and I will stand". That was an absurd for me, he had met me just 1-hour ago and I replied that he couldn't do that. Then he replied me back "It's my gift for you". Insisting, I ended up accepting his proposal and later everyone could sit. This was one of those moments were preconceptions are destroyed. My experience in Southeast Asia so far would classify Chinese, except for Zhengyu and Eric, as aggressive unpolite people. Well, here's an example that started to dismistify this idea. In my whole trip in China I was very well treated, welcomed and offered critical favors so I could accomplish my plans. With these experiences one can renew its hope in people being good, without interests, no scams, only for the sake of helping other people, even when completely strange to each other. Think...

Next post, Pingyao under rain

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