One of the most exciting destinations in China is Datong, in Shanxi province. Datong, in Chinese terms, is a small city with over three million inhabitants. It is surrounded by mountains on three sides. You can reach Datong from Beijing by car (4-5 hours, depending on the traffic), by bus (4.5 hours), by train or plane. We went there by car for a weekend and found a lot of amazing places to enjoy. It was not easy to decide where to stay. I always try to carefully select a hotel, even for a weekend trip, to avoid unpleasant surprises. As always, I had looked at many travel blogs and websites. I look at some 50 best Asia blogs as well. We wanted to stay in the center of old Datong.
In a hostel
Our final choice was… a hostel. Pipa Laodian Inn is much more of a hotel than a hostel. It is clean, beautiful and recently renovated, with a lot of wooden decorations inside. The first floor has rooms with tatami beds, and the rooms on the second and third floors have Western beds. We had the best accommodation for 60 Euros. They were terrific duplexes with very comfortable beds. I should add that this hostel was one of the most stylish I have seen in Chinese provinces.
At the reception area of the hostel
The staff at the hostel spoke some English, but they were very professional in using translation apps so that they could be accommodating and answer our questions. The breakfast in the hostel is served in a tiny place on the ground floor. It is mostly a Chinese breakfast, but they also serve bread, jam, boiled eggs, and some fruits. Try to arrive early, as the Chinese are great eaters and they are the main guests at the hostel.
The hostel is very close to a fantastic Chinese-style mosque and not far from a bell tower. It does not have parking for guests, but they can arrange parking in a nearby underground car park. The address of the hostel is Suite B2, South of Qingyuan Street, Datong, China.
From this hostel, you can walk to almost all thee attractions in old Datong. First of all, visit the Grand Mosque near the hostel. A plaque there states that the Muslim religion dates back to 628 AD. The layout is similar to one of the Chinese temples, except that you will find Arabic inscriptions in the mosque. You need about half an hour to wander around and enjoy the serenity of its courtyards.
A view from the Drum Tower
We also visited the Drum Tower. The entrance fee is 10 RMB, and it provides an impressive view of the city if you climb some very steep steel stairs. Some people might find them difficult to descend. The Drum Tower has a collection of old drawings and pictures. The tower is near the Garden Hotel. We also found and visited a Catholic Church which was in quite a neglected area. The church is quite interesting to see. We also visited the Shanhua Monastery, with its impressive architecture. It has very few visitors. The entrance fee is 50 RMB, but it is worth paying. It is near the South gate of the walled city area, and has nice paintings and wood carvings. The address is Southwestern, Urban Area. Visiting time is 7.00 a.m. – 5.00 p.m.
The Huayan Temple of Datong is very beautiful. The entrance fee is 65 RMB, and we also hired a guide for a small amount. The Temple is mostly reconstructed, but has impressive architecture; it is a large building complex, and you will need around an hour for the visit. The address is Daxi Street, Urban Area.
Datong old town
While walking in the old city of Datong, we noticed that many of the renovated buildings were empty and waiting for new business owners. It is very obvious in the evenings, as many of the windows were dark. Nevertheless, it was great to wander around. The locals are very hospitable and will even accompany you if they are unable to explain how to get to where you want to go. On the first evening it was raining cats and dogs, but we wanted to find the most famous restaurant in the city. The old city’s streets were flooded and slippery, but it gave Datong a strange, wet atmosphere.
In the restaurant
We finally got to the Fenglin Ge restaurant. They don’t take bookings, so they give you a ticket and you need to wait your turn. We had almost one hour to wait, so we went for a coffee in a surprisingly lovely coffee shop just across the street – Mancat Coffee in Building 8, Xiaonan Street. Phone +863522831222.
In the coffee shop
It serves decent coffee, is cozy and has a small shop that sells sweets. After one hour, we finally got into the restaurant, which is enormous, with many tables. The waiters do not speak English, but they have a menu in English, so it was not complicated to order. We selected local dumplings with meat and vegetables, braised lamb, and stewed vegetables. The food was good and portions rather generous. Fenglin Ge restaurant is within walking distance from the Pipa Laodian Inn. The address of the restaurant is: Xiasipo Street. Phone +863522059699.
The Screen of Nine Dragons
The Nine-Dragon Screen (or Nine-Dragon Wall) was built over 600 years ago and is the oldest and largest glazed screen in China. It was built for the 13th son of Zhu Yuanshang, the first Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. It is three times larger than the one in Beihai Park, Beijing. It is 8 metres high and 45.5 metres long, and consists of nine flying dragons, with a golden dragon in the center. There is a pond in front of the screen. In many blogs it is stated that the reflection in the pond adds to the screen, but during our visit the pond was dry. Near the screen there is a small souvenir shop. Admission fee is 10 RMB, opening hours 9.00 a.m. to 4.50 p.m. The address is 18 Dadong Street. Phone +86 3522054788.
The Hanging Monastery from a distance
Datong is mostly known because of two important places near it. One is the Hengshan Hanging Monastery, built on the cliffs of Mount Hengshan, one of the five most sacred mountains in China. Winding bridges connect the caves and corridors. It was built in 491 AD and was rebuilt and maintained by the Ming and Qing dynasties. It has interesting features of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Unfortunately, during our visit in September the monastery was closed for unknown reasons; no information was provided and Chinese visitors were confused as well. Later I heard that it might be closed for visitors, as authorities want to preserve it. You can take photos and look from a distance, and then visit Mount Hengshan instead. The entrance ticket is 130 RMB, with opening hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is 65 km from downtown Datong. Hotels can help you hire a car with a driver or you can join a tourist group.
A sacred mountain
We liked our visit to Mount Hengshan very much, and had a perfect hike of several hours while enjoying spectacular views and visiting temples. You also can take a cable car instead of hiking (45 RMB round trip). The entrance to the temples was 55 RMB. The Chinese like this place, so it might get quite crowded. You can see a lot of pine trees, exotic flowers, and rare herbs while climbing. Some parts of the stairs are rather steep, but if you persevere you will finally be rewarded with breathtaking views. The mountain is only a couple of kilometers from the Hanging Monastery.
The Wooden Pagoda
Another place worth visiting is the Wooden Pagoda in Yingxian County. You will find it 70 km south of Datong. It is the oldest and highest wooden structure in China. The Wooden Pagoda was built around 900 years ago during the Liao Dynasty. It looks like a five-storey building, but it has four hidden stories, so it’s really a nine-storey pagoda. The building is impressive, as it was built without nails and rivets, and still stands very much intact. You cannot enter the Pagoda, but you can walk around, admire this magnificent structure, and take a lot of pictures. Beautiful gardens surround the Wooden Pagoda. It is a perfect combination of art, religion and architecture. If you visit Datong by train or plane, you can take a regular bus from the Datong North Long-Distance Bus Station to Yingxian West Bus Station and then take a taxi for 5 RMB. The best option might be to hire a cab for around 360 RMB for a day, and also visit the Hanging Monastery at Mount Hengshan. The entrance ticket is 61 RMB and the opening hours are 8.30 a.m. to 6.00 p.m. You need to buy tickets in the building, which is about 50 m before the entrance to the Wooden Pagoda complex. Here you will see a lot of sellers of souvenirs, including small versions of the Wooden Pagoda. After a visit to the Pagoda, we tried to find a decent place to eat, but gave up and returned to Datong for dinner.
And finally, the main attraction of the area – a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001 – Yungang Grottoes. It stretches for about 18,000 square meters from east to west, with 252 caves and more than 51,000 stone figures. If you visit Datong, you have to see it! I have seen many caves in my life, but Yungang Grottoes are really beautiful. These grottoes represent an outstanding achievement of Buddhist cave art in China in the 5th and 6th centuries. The Five Caves are masterpieces created by Tan Yao. The easiest way to get there from Datong is to take a taxi or a cab for 50 RMB. The entire area is well developed and well looked after. After entering you need to walk for 10 to 15 minutes, and you will pass quite a few temples.
They are more modern than the caves, then head over the bridge to the caves area, you’ll want to spend more time there. The caves, which were carved from stone, are a relic of the Northern Wei Dynasty. It took around 40,000 people 60 years to carve these caves. Many of the caves are closed, but you can admire them from the outside. The most famous are caves 5, 6, 16, 17, 18, 19 and 20. You are permitted to take photos almost everywhere.In front of the Grand Buddha in cave 20 you can see people praying.
We were deeply impressed by the genius of ancient artisans.
The carvings in the grottoes, both large and small, are breathtaking. It is difficult to comprehend how, so many years ago, people were able to create such a miracle, which still impresses us today. When leaving the caves, you can go down a small lane that has street food and restaurants. We had a nice late lunch in one of them. The entrance tickets are 150 RMB, and the best time to visit is May-October. Opening hours are 8.30 a.m. to 5.20 p.m. (April 15 to October 27) and 8.30 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. (October 28 to April 14).
We arrived in Datong on Friday evening and returned to Beijing late Sunday evening. To see all the impressive sites in Datong takes a lot of time, but it is very rewarding.