Dispatch from China: History in a City You’ve Never Heard Of

hanging monastery, datong, china
All photos by Meagan Drillinger

Where is Datong, China? Without a map, I couldn’t tell you. In fact, before I embarked on this tour of Northern China and Inner Mongolia with G Adventures, I had never even heard of Datong. That’s the thing about many cities in China. Because the population is SO massive, there are these cities that lay off the radar that are home to millions and millions of people. Datong itself is home to more than three million people…and I still have no idea where to find it on a map.

We arrived in Datong via rail from Inner Mongolia on Sunday night and checked into a hotel near the rail station. The main purpose for visiting Datong is to see two historic sites: The Hanging Monastery and the Yungang Grottoes. To be honest, that’s really it. But they are both pretty spectacular.

yungang grottoes

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An hour and a half outside of the Datong’s city center is a temple built directly into the side of a cliff, 40 meters above the ground. (It used to be 90 meters above the ground when it was constructed in 491 AD, but over time the river bed rose below it.) The Hanging Monastery uses no support from the ground and is entirely supported by how it was constructed into the side of sheer rock. Inside, it is a house of worship for the three major religions in China: Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism

Closer back to the city is Yungang Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These grottoes, constructed in 460 AD, are a series of caves that house more than 51,000 statues of Buddha carved into rock. The Buddhas range from worn away, barely recognizable lumps, to towering, massive Buddha structures that loom down over tiny people below. It is an amazing experience to see locals light incense and bow down in devotion to these statues that are hundreds and hundreds of years old. The complex of caves is definitely a tourist destination, as there is a public square filled with vendors and shops hawking souvenirs and trinkets. But the real draw are the Buddhas in caves number 5 and 6, which still pop with ancient color. 

Beyond these sites, there isn’t much to say about Datong. It is an incredibly polluted city due to the large coal industry that fuels the population (no pun intended). Westerners are clearly few and far between in this city, as well, I gathered due to the amount of curious stares I received from the locals (or maybe I’m just that attractive. I’m choosing to believe the latter). 


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