Shanxi, China

Yungang Caves This entry records the later parts of our travel in Inner Mongolia and Shanxi.

Our first stop in Shanxi Province was Datong (大同), once the capital of the Northern Wei Dynasty which was founded by the Turkic-speaking Tuoba people. Indeed, Datong has long been the border town between the normadic cultures of the Steppe and the agricultural one in central China, and thus it was once a strategic location. The Great Wall just passes north of Datong.

The main attraction in Datong is the Yungang Caves (雲崗石窟), a site of huge Buddhist statues which dates back to the Northern Wei Dynasty. This means that the caves have a history of over 1500 years. We were greatly excited about seeing things that old, and had enjoyed our visit there. However, one unfortunate thing was that, not too long ago, there was a highway nearby and much of the traffic was coal lorries because the province produces coal. Consequently, the site was once heavily polluted, and I guess the extent of damage to the relics will never been known. After going to Yungang Caves, we visited the Huayan Monastery (華嚴寺), which is located in central Datong and has a 900-year Yungang Caveshistory.

The next day, we rented a car to go to the Hanging Monastery (懸空寺) outside Datong, and had a stop also at the Wooden Pagoda in Ying County (應縣木塔). This was one of the highlights of our trip, as the Monastery was built on a cliff some 1400 years ago. One wonders how the ancient people knew to construct such spectacular architectural works. It was just unbelievable. As for the Wooden Pagoda, it has also a history of 900 years, and it is said that there is no one nail in the few-storey structure.

Our next destination was the Wutai Mountains (五台山), a holy Buddhist mountain region. We joined a tour from Datong, which took us to Taihuai (台懷) where there are a number of important temples in a valley surrounded by high peaks. We visited on the first day, quite in a hurry, the Pusa Peak (菩薩頂), Tayuan Temple (塔院寺) and Xiantong Temple (顯通寺), while we ascended on the second day the Dailuo Peak (黛螺頂) to have a view of the region. Unfortunately, it rained heavily when we decended and we got all wet. Nevertheless, we thought the trip was worthwhile as we had seen so Yungang Cavesmany buddhist temples, each with its own style.

We then left the tour and travelled to Pingyao (平遙) via Taiyuan. Pingyao was a famous business town in Qing Dynasty and is now a well-perserved UNESCO World Heritage with an old city wall. We arrived there at night and settled into a guesthouse with traditional courtyard. It was interesting to us because we had never slept in a traditional Chinese bed before–it was just one big bed on a terrace for all people in the room.

The next morning, we began our sightseeing in Pingyao. The main attractions here are the old houses, shops and government buildings, Ming and Qing styles. As this city was in the past a financial centre, the most famous of the sights is the old Rishengchang Finance House (日昇昌票號) in which there was an exhibition on the history of the finance system in China. However, we were more interested in the Shuanglin Temple (雙林寺) located outside the city as some of its structures date back to the Song Dynasty, or 1000 years ago.

Our trip in Shanxi came to an end, and we flew back to Beijing from Taiyuan. During the time we Huayan Temple 華嚴寺spent in Beijing, we went to visit the Great Wall at Simatai (司馬台長城). This is a incredibly step section of the wall on top of a ridge on the border with Hebei. The scenery was great, and once again we wondered how the ancient people could build such thing. One thing I have to mention, however, was that there were many insisting vendors who followed us all the way high up the wall. Strangely enough, they carried Palms. They told us that it was the government who arranged them to sell things there, and they had to meet certain targets. Their portable computers were for recording their activities. Apparently, most of the money we spent will go to the pockets of the officials.

Before going back home, we also had a tour of the hutongs in central Beijing. There, our driver led us to enter an old courtyard house of a lady who claimed herself being a decendant of the past royal family. Well, she looked physically a bit difference from us so it could be true that she is of Manchurian origin (the Qing Dynasty was founded by the Manchus). She told us that all of her furniture Hanging Monastery 懸空寺in her house had been more than 100 years old. Unfortunately, the fate of this house would remain uncertain as the City of Beijing is now undergoing massive construction for the coming Olympic Games, which means the old hutongs may one day be demolished and disappear.

Interestingly, it was when I was back at home that I found myself so amazed by the amount and diversity of the ancient sites that we had seen in this trip. Certainly, for a nation that has such a long history, it should not be surprising for one to find here and there some pieces of things that are as old. But without the efforts to protect them, they could not have lasted that long.

I think people in the past had done a great job in preserving the heritages that were left to them. Maybe because they knew that they had some responsibility in the long running of civilisation.

Soon, our children will know what role in history we have played.

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