Yungang Grottos, located in Datong, Shanxi Province, is another legacy of the Silk Road. Datong, known as the coal capital of China, is six hours from Beijing by train or car, and one hour by air. The grottos are considered one of the top three in China, along with Longmen and Mogao.
I thought the city would be incredibly polluted considering it was the coal capital of China, but to my surprise the air wasn’t that bad when I arrived. There were some bad moments however. My last night there I looked out the window and couldn’t make out some buildings I had seen clearly the previous night, so I think maybe I just got lucky.
The thing about Datong that really struck me was the very sharp contrast between old and new. It felt a little like Detroit, also an industrial city with a lot of decay in areas that used to be thriving, but also with some new and shiny areas where tourist development is springing up. Deteriorating buildings stand next to brand new buildings, creating a very interesting contrast. I was fascinated with the town, because the “old” town was completely new and made to look old and classical, while the edges of this “new old-town” were vacant, and partially collapsed. I’m sure this is happening in many older cities across China, but it reminded me of the American Rust Belt, where you can see efforts to rejuvenate dilapidated downtown areas.
The Grottos are located just outside the city. A short cab ride will bring you to the entrance where you buy the ticket. From the ticket office you walk through a newly renovated park area with temples (again, made to look old but obviously very new). My favorite memory of walking through this part was a family wanting to take a photo of my husband with their toddler. As they handed the toddler to him, the baby started crying really loud, prompting lots of laughter for everyone around. The tall, bearded stranger was a little too much for this kid.
After you make your way through this area you come to the start of the cave complex. These caves were in the best shape of all the Buddhist cave complexes we visited that summer and I gathered there was quite a bit of restoration being done to some of the larger Buddhas. Actually, that is what made this complex different from the others, the fact that it had so many large Buddha statues, as well as intact caves surrounding these Buddhas. Like Majishan in Tianshui, there was still quite a bit of color in the frescos, including the many apsaras.
Along with the renovated caves, there was a whole section of smaller caves further up the hill that were very much decayed. You could make out the figure that would have been a Buddha, and the niche carved out for it, but there was no detail and no painting. After seeing all there is to see you exit the grottos and can take a nice walk back to the entrance. There is also a museum that had a bit of English but was closing as soon as we got there, so we had to rush through. I had come to Yungang later in the day, and felt a little rushed trying to see everything. It would have been nicer to spend a whole morning or afternoon at the complex, since it is so large and quite pretty.
Where to Stay
I can’t recommend enough the Garden Hotel, located right outside the Old Town in Datong. When researching where to stay, I looked at hostels and hotels. I decided to splurge a little bit, mainly because the hostels there had bad reviews. When I say splurge, it’s nothing like my recent splurge in Singapore, but rather a China-level splurge. By this I mean I paid $50 a night, and was basically staying at a 4 star hotel. That is the perk of travel in China. It is quite easy to find amazing hotels (often in more remote, off-the-beaten-path areas) for less than you would pay for a Motel 6 back in the States.
So, was it worth the money? Oh my goodness YES! Aside from being super fancy, with every amenity imaginable in the bathroom, along with robes and an amazing bathtub, it also had a great buffet breakfast that was included with the room rate. The breakfast alone, easily one of the best I have had anywhere in Asia, was amazing. We really looked forward to waking up everyday just to have breakfast.
And it’s not just the breakfast and all the fancy things in the room that made this hotel great. They also have a tourist desk that can help you hire a car, as well as give you suggestions about what to see and do while staying in Datong. There actually are a number of other things to see and do when visiting, making it a great place to spend a few days and really maximize that amazing breakfast.
Where to Eat
You probably wont start feeling hungry until much later in the day because if you stay at the Garden Hotel you will end up over-eating at breakfast (or maybe that is my Americaness coming through). When you do, take a short walk into Old Town and find Fenglinge Restaurant. There is no English name outside but you will easily recognize it by the large number of people waiting outside, and the grandiose façade of the building. There are also many statues outside, and if you walk by at night on the weekends you will see lots of people waiting. I recommend either coming at lunch to avoid crowds, or come in the afternoon to make a reservation for dinner. The hotel staff can also call and make a reservation for you.
If you don’t have a reservation then you have to take a number and wait, which takes awhile since it is a very popular restaurant. So if you are feeling really hungry and tired from a long day of sightseeing, you really want to have a reservation. Fortunately for us a nice couple from Beijing helped us recognize our number when it was called. Otherwise we might have never gotten inside. They also recommended some dishes for us and wrote them down so we could order them easily. We tried everything they suggested and were not disappointed. So, if you are waiting, try and make a friend, they might give you some good tips. And they even have veggie options for my vegetarian friends out there.
The inside of the building is just amazing. You feel like you have been transported back in time to an old feudal lord’s home. The decorations are beautiful, and the walkway into the restaurant is glass with carp swimming below. The building is also massive. We ate there twice (yes, it was that good, and affordable for the ambiance, as well as right around the corner from our hotel), and we sat in two different areas with completely different style. I thought all the decorations were beautiful, from large wood wall art pieces to classical Chinese-style paintings. The ambience and great food will make for a great time there.
Other things to do in Datong
While most people come to Datong to see Yungang Grottos, there is a lot more to see and do. So, to help you out I have created a sample two-day itinerary in Datong.
Arrive by train from Beijing and check into your hotel (again, I can’t recommend enough splurging a little and getting a room at the Garden Hotel). After you have settled, it’s time to head out for a walk through town. Before leaving the hotel, you can ask for help making a reservation for Fenglinge for dinner. Then head to the tour desk to reserve a car for Day 2 (See Itinerary Below).
First, walk to the Nine Dragon Screen (10CNY) and then continue down the street to the City Wall. (*Note this city wall is newly constructed and not in fact the original. The only Chinese city wall that is still standing is in Xian.) When I visited it was still under construction, so I didn’t have a chance to walk on it. You can choose to go up on the wall, or just turn around.
After checking out the new, old city wall, head back towards Huayan Pedestrian Street on Daxi Street to Huayan Temple (80CNY). When you finish that take a stroll down the pedestrian street, eat some ice cream (or wait until after dinner) and people watch. There is a lot to see on the pedestrian street, so I would recommend grabbing a coffee or a beer and sitting back to enjoy the show.
Now it’s dinner time! Head to Fenglinge and make sure to try the dumplings, they are amazing!
(*Note, you could split Day 2 into two days, going to Hanging Monastery, Wooden Pagoda, and the mini badlands on one day and leaving Yungang Grottos for Day 3. It can be done in one long day if you are pressed for time)
In the morning head down to the breakfast buffet. After breakfast meet up with your driver and head to the mini badlands. I can’t seem to find the name of these badlands, but they were recommended for the tour. They didn’t look quite as impressive as the photos but it was still kind of fun. We also only saw a handful of people there, so it’s a nice place to escape the crowds.
Next is the Hanging Monastery. Enjoy walking around the beautiful canyon area and make sure to walk up to the monastery. Even if there are a lot of people the views are great. From here you can choose to go to the Wooden Pagoda, although it wasn’t suggested to us, so we headed to the grottos last. Again, you could choose to spend the whole day at the grottos if you have more time and don’t want to feel rushed.
After exploring the grottos, head back to the hotel, where you can eat at one of the two restaurants in the hotel or head back to Fenglinge for more delicious dumplings and sweet and sour meatballs.
Getting to Datong
The easiest way to get to Datong is flying from Beijing. The flight is a little over an hour, and you can find great deals below $100. Sadly, at this time there isn’t a fast train that links the two cities. The train takes about six hours, but trains depart about every hour. Tickets range from about $8 for hard seats up to $24 for soft sleepers.
Have you traveled to Datong? What was your favorite activity? I would love to hear your experience in the comments below