Monday, August 05, 2013

Back to Datong, 27 years later

Waiting for the hard seater train, August 1986.

August 1986 – While waiting for our visas to be processed for Mongolia and the Soviet Union to return to Europe via the Transsiberian train we used the time traveling to Datong in Shanxi province. Hard-seater night train, crowded with workers and families, a long ride at the rhythm of a slow train marked by the recurring clearing of throat and spitting. The result of which is then just rubbed on the floor with the shoe soles (sadly no spitting pictures from the train ride but the sound of spitting survived in 2013 Beijing’s hutongs).

June 2013 – It is a working weekend for the Chinese as they will have Monday and Tuesday off for the Dragon Boat Festival on Wednesday. A good weekend to travel. We take our car (hardly used and almost rests in peace in a giant underground parking as cycling is much faster in inner-city Beijing), get onto the highway and are in Datong three and a half hours later. Hotel is reserved. No worries.

 1986 above and 2013 pictures below 

We first go the the Yungang caves, Buddhist caves dating from the 5th century. 27 years ago, we took a public bus to get there and there was nothing but the caves. Now, there is a huge parking area, a visitor welcoming center, a new temple, LCD displays, the ubiquitous stainless steel railing to channel tourists in and out and, of course, the ever present food and souvenir streets. The caves are as beautiful as ever, more have been excavated, some are closed due to maintenance and construction work, but their grandeur and mystic appeal is as ever. 
Datong with its bell tower (1986 above and 2013 below)

Datong is just another big Chinese city, although one with a great past. Now, rows of middle-height rectangles and high-rises dot its centre. And as many Chinese cities, it is a huge construction site. A special one. Datong is rebuilding its ancient city wall. And is building its old town. The few remaining alleys, already crumbling in 1986, are now so derelict that they cannot be saved. So the new old city is going to be nice and neat. With shops, restaurants, and a few historical things in between. The old tiled dragon wall of the former Ming palace is still there. The mosque has been enhanced with new towers, renovated, so that it is difficult to tell what is old from what is new. As we want to visit one of the old temples, it has been so renovated Chinese style that it looks new. In short, Datong is gearing up for welcoming a massive influx of Chinese tourists.
 Constructing New Old Datong in June 2013.
... ancient Datong characteristics? 
August 1986 – Our guidebook is mentioning a hanging monastery some 50 km from Datong. Unfortunately, there are no busses to get there, no taxis either, and also no private cars… We are lucky enough to meet a group of French tourists with a few spare seats in their bus, and we can join. On the way to the monasteries, we stop at a very old wooden pagoda. And the locals also have their attraction of the day: us!

June 2013 – At the hotel, we show the 1986 pictures of the pagoda and ask people where it is and what its name is. No one seems to know. The very talkative older ladies at the nine-dragon tiled wall will recognise it and tell us at once: Mutawooden pagoda in Yingxian. Around 60 km from Datong, easy to combine with the hanging monastery.

The nearly 1000 year old fully wooden pagoda can be seen from far away, owing to the thunderstorm of the previous evening that has cleared the air from its ever present coal dust. The city has changed a lot, and we no more gather the whole population just because of our presence there. We buy tickets, channel in through the stainless steel railings and arrive… in 1986. The courtyard has not been filled with shops and souvenir stands, and the pagoda has not been over-renovated. As a matter of fact, it is not in a good shape, its wooden structure cannot carry people any more and the second, third and fourth floors we saw 27 years ago are now off limits for visitors. We show the 1986 pictures, and have soon around us all the people working there. They are so fascinated by the old pictures (a young guide even takes pictures of our pictures) that we are even allowed to take pictures of the big Buddha.

 1986 above and 2013 below.
People watching us in 1986 (below)
 The view from the Pagoda onto the city in 1986
 The main street of Yingxian in 1986 (below)
Inside the Pagoda (2013 below)
... and in 1986 (what is now closed)

Due to the clear weather, the way to the hanging monastery is very nice (it rained 27 years ago and it took us 4 hours to get there from Datong). Unfortunately, the hanging monastery has lost its mystical clout. There is now a big road on the other side of it, a huge parking lot and too many new structures to reach it. These structures all make it appear very small, and lost on its cliff.  

The road is mostly used by big trucks transporting coal. So we decide to go and see what’s on the other side of the tunnel. Shanxi at its coal best (or worst)… Hengshan, the holy mountain is gearing up for huge tourist influx with the unavoidable new cable car being built. As for the villages along the road, they are so derelict and dirty, with coal heaps everywhere that they do not welcome to stay. The damage on the environment is dramatic. And what the coal mining has not managed to make ugly, a huge highway in the middle of the valley does. 

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