Shanxi Province: Monks and Monasteries

So, after a fairly solid journey leaving Beijing, actually the journey to Datong was a breeze. Direct bus which was fairly comfy and arrived on time, honest taxi driver and a lovely hostel. Fly by Knight high rise hostel, if anyone’s interested. It ended up being fairly steep at £30 a night for a twin room… Not including breakfast which was a bit of a kick in the teeth! The staff member however was, whilst excruciatingly shy about speaking English, very helpful and phoned up to sort out a tour the next day.

Unfortunately travel is always a bit of a balancing act. When I booked various aspects of my trip I definitely didn’t leave enough time, and re-scheduling of my forthcoming North Korea tour meant I had about 2 weeks in China… Much as this is somewhat insufficient I have the issue that my visa entry will expire on the 10th October, therefore if I pushed the NK tour back again I would be trapped in North Korea! (Slight over-dramatisation however I’d have to wrestle with the fiendish Chinese transit visa requirements). Therefore this meant that China was always going to be a bit whistlestop, since Sarah also has a tight timescale to get to South Korea for work… 

There are buses around the various sights near Datong however their timings do not coincide, especially since we are now on “winter” timetables. Therefore we ended up having to pay a faintly extortionate fee for a car and driver to ensure we saw the sights we wanted, and also avoided having to come back to Datong, maintaining the push south towards Chengdu.

Nonetheless, a very pleasant driver he was, supplying us with various treats during the trip such as apples and water and, following a request for a lunch stop, directing me to the best pork buns I’ve ever tasted, from a roadside stall (10p each too!).

We started our day’s festivities at the Yungang Caves, a few kilometres outside Datong (But an hour or so due to the stupid traffic lights and volume of honking muppets on the roads). These date from the 5th Century and are staggering in their scale. Row after row of intricately carved Buddhas, some slightly sterile reconstructed temples (Why do they do this?) and a posh visitor centre.

 

One of the largest caves in Yungang

Moving on, we hit the road again to again tangle with Datong’s clouds of motorised muppets, and headed south into the mountains to see the Hanging Monastery.

A staggering feat of early engineering, these buildings cling precariously to the valley walls. As it stands visitors are still allowed to crawl around the entire monastery, although I’m sure there will come a time when safety considerations will prevail and it will be stopped…

For now though, it’s a vertiginous funhouse. I particularly enjoyed walking along the outside catwalks with the rotten-looking guard rails significantly, and I mean significantly, below my centre of gravity #tootallforAsia.

A short person by the wooden rails… These were somewhat rustic and barely came up to my knees. 50ft down…eeek

Back on the road with the light fading, our destination was Wutai Shan, a monastic enclave in the mountains. Heading further south from Datong, and the road gets steeper and windier. Our driver had called ahead to the guesthouse and had sub-contracted the final few miles to a local driver, changing over at a toll booth. Whilst this turned out to be a perfectly amicable and sensible arrangement it was nonetheless a little nervewracking to have two Chinese men apparently negotiating over our future and exchanging money on a dark road… We survived.

Wutai Shan, fully non-English environment

I might have made up the term. But I think it’s genuinely the first time I have been in one, and it makes life really…bloody…difficult.

Generally, wherever you are in the world, someone will speak a little bit of English. A couple of words even, to light the way. China is a bit of an exception- Even in Beijing you’ll be lucky to get anything. However, the reception as we walked into the Zhenghue Full Vegetarian restaurant and rooms was quite remarkable. Not a flicker… Having to entirely sign “we would like a double room for a night” is a real test of humour and invention. Friendly, nonetheless, but exhausting… Sarah started to question the £5 extra charge on the bill (Which turned out to be a key deposit) however I just grinned and handed it over in complete ignorance and slight terror.

Nonetheless, it was a really nice place with a lovely room. We managed to persuade the staff to stay on to make us a little food, which was where problem 2 arose.

Contrary to what anyone might think, vegetarianism is on the whole a very strange thing to the Chinese. This has led to hilarious situations in which Sarah has tried to explain her strange preference to be repeatedly offered chicken… Not meat, see? Even innocuous-looking foods tend to have meat snuck into them somewhere- Even the pumpkin roll we got from a bakery for lunch was, upon close inspection, studded with tiny pieves of ham. Completely pointless ham, but ham nonetheless.

The Zhenghue Full Vegetarian regarded mince as an acceptable sauce-filler in a tofu dish. Sadly, Sarah went a bit hungry that night.

Morning dawned, and the lovely lady from reception decided that she needed to be more hospitable and came to our room several times bearing varied gifts such as toilet roll, wash kits, glasses and towels. All on separate visits. She also gave us a lovely send-off to the bus station on the last morning with a graciously declined offer of free breakfast, bead bracelets and the obligatory foreigner photo for their album:

 

  

 Wutai Shan bus station 

 Wutai Shan is utterly inundated with temples. It’s a big tourist spot however mainly for the Chinese market, we were the only Westerners I saw in two days there. The temples and monasteries are all still “working” though, with crowds of young novices making their way around the town and worshipping at the various locations.

 

It’s a beautiful setting but, as with all tourist trap towns, a deeply unlovely collection of restaurants, hotels and 59,000 stalls full of tat. We haven’t found China as cheap as it is reputed to be so far, everything seems to have a bit of tourist tax added on, however we avoided the ridivulously over-keen touts literally running after us down the stret and found a quiet restaurant full of locals and with a handy picture menu on the wall to point at. 4 quid between us for lunch, a beer and a peach drink. Ideal.

Suitably refreshed we headed towards one of the hilltop temples to have a gander. We rejected the £5 cable car as being dangerously extravagant and tried to book a horse, but failed since the horseman was up the hill. News of our enquiry must have got through though as we had a man on horseback relentlessly pursuing us from then on despite us being halfway up already, and therefore there being no point in riding.

The way back down from the top provoked some of the most persistent and plainly ridiculous selling thus far. A man walking up holding cages of gerbils insistently thrust them at us several times. Because that’s clearly what all Westerners really want and need. A pet gerbil to ease the lonely train nights. His colleague selling racoons was similarly keen we should welcome one into our lives. We did not.

All in all, Wutai Shan was a good stop-off. The next morning we boarded the bus to Taiyuan for the next leg of our journey…

Next stop, Pingyao Ancient City.

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