Let me begin this entry with saying my mother doesn’t always know best. The long underwear that I carefully put aside in New York to ensure accessibility in Chicago for the final packing to China are now sitting comfortably in a warm drawer in another country because my mother said I would not need them. I’ve now spent $200 (because everything in China is ridiculous) on a pair of long underwear. You might think that is excessive and that I should suck it up and weather through but I’m a wimp and 2 degrees Fahrenheit is exceptionally cold especially in a dry climate at 3,400 feet in the mountains. Keep in mind I am sightseeing outside in the crisp air not comfy museums. It’s probably worth sharing that other than the occasional sweater and short shorts (I still don’t understand), the stores are pretty much only selling coats and thick cashmere pants in various shapes and sizes.
I left Pingyao trying to escape the pollution but Datong has a reputation as one of China’s most polluted cities. Coal mining is the leading industry in Datong and China’s third largest company, Datong Coal Mining, is headquartered here. In fact, the pollution is so bad in this area that experts estimate life expectancy is 10 years shorter as a result. The government aims to diversify business by focusing on tourism and machinery but coal is king. There are numerous trucks on the road transporting coal from the mountains to other parts of the country and several coal plants sit on the outskirts of the city. The pollution didn’t impact me since it flurried on and off clearing the air and bringing blue skies and sunshine.
Datong is known as a prefectural city or regional level city, which means it ranks below a province and country. Its population is about 3.5 million people and it’s located in the Shanxi province sandwiched between Inner Mongolia and Hebei provinces. It was founded in 200 BC during the Han dynasty. My guide informed me that much of the city’s ancient ruins were destroyed during the cultural revolution of the 70s when leadership pushed to rid the country of the past—of history. Built during the 14th century, locals razed the ancient city wall in an attempt to erase the past and create a new identity in Datong. That obviously backfired as the city just finished re-building the city wall at an estimated cost of 4 billion RB (about $166 Million USD). On the flip side, Pingyao’s ancient city wall is a leading tourism destination because locals at the time did not have enough money to demolish their wall. Live and learn I always say.
Even though I hate my hotel and I am freezing, I made up my mind that I will never again return to Datong so I must bundle up and get to the sightseeing. After a 40-minute conversation involving one-word translations and finally breaking down and texting my Xi’an guide (she probably regrets the day she gave me her cell number), I hired a taxi driver to drive me to an ATM and the Yungang Grottoes, wait for me while I toured and then bring me back to the hotel. The irony is that the taxi driver spoke about 100 words more than 10 people combined at the HoJo. My favorite thing about the Chinese is that they actually DO NOT SPEAK ENGLISH yet when you ask they respond “yes” or “a little.”
Today, I was surely taped for an episode of bloopers. I asked the women at the front desk if they spoke English. They both replied a little so I said I wanted to hire a car to see the Yungang Grottoes. Lady Desk 1 and Lady Desk 2 had no idea what I was talking about so I said “tour” and “famous” nope –nothing. Then I asked for a map, blank stares again. I managed to translate “cave” in Mandarin and a light bulb went off. If the area is known for the grottoes, isn’t that maybe the one word in English that might be helpful. I guess not.
The taxi driver proved to be my savior. He took me to a great ATM and off we went to the Yungang Grottoes. Created by the Wei Dynasty around 460-494, the grottoes contain more than 50,000 carved images and statues of Buddha and bodhisattva (enlightenment bodhi and being sattva). The carvings are the only remaining connection to the Wei dynasty, a minority group mostly made up of Turks and Mongolians. They are also credited with bringing Buddhism to China.
I would have really loved to wander the caves and grounds for hours but I feared the lack of sensation in my legs meant I had limited time to retreat to the entrance gate. I decided to run. I am not a runner and while that alleviated the pain in my feet it did not help my upper thighs. Thankfully, the exit gave way to a few slightly heated souvenir shops and a bathroom. Once in the stall, I gently pulled down my pants and put my stomach on my thighs to regain feeling (I listened in Brownies – body heat). I know exposing the skin to the elements is not recommended but I was concerned. MOM, WHY DID YOU NOT LET ME PACK MY LONG UNDERWEAR?
The Yungang grottoes are definitely worth a stop but I would have preferred 1.)an English guide 2.) 50F+ temperatures. It was not lost on me that billows of smoke from the coal mines stood in the foreground of a place of great historical importance. The air cannot be good for the preservation of these relics.
After Google translation help from my friend Megan– a service that would make this entire Chinese adventure so much easier–I ventured to the mall to find warm pants. Armed with several ways to describe what I needed, “I need warm pants,” “ski pants”, “fleece pants” (Megan added, “I need to find a husband” and “I have hot pants” for fun), sales people jumped to my aid. One such lady hooked arms with me and led me up an escalator and through an entire floor to the most beautiful pair of cashmere lined ski pants for $680. When I pulled out my phone to calculate the price in dollars, I had three women peering at my phone intensely. The one lady was so close to me she could have rested her chin on my shoulder. It was maybe a bit awkward when I waved them off pointing to the number saying “too much.” I browsed on my own locating the hosiery section and finally purchased a Chinese designer pair of leggings, which will double as long underwear for the time being.
The temperature outside to 20F and I figured I could sneak in one last attraction. I hailed a taxi and showed him a picture of the Huayan Monastery, the temple I wished to visit. The Huayan Monastery is located within the city of Datong – within the new city wall. It’s a massive complex with many different sections all containing various Buddha’s and guardians of the Buddha. It was built during the Liao Dynasty 907-1125 and is the largest and best-preserved monastery of the Liao Dynasty in China. The Emperors during this time period believed in Buddhism and it is thought that the Huayan Monastery was originally the ancestoral temple of the imperial family. During the Ming Dynastry (1368-1644), the temple was divided into two parts: the upper and lower monasteries and both remain today.
Suffering a mild migraine all day, I had been quietly in pursuit of a latte. Convinced a cafe must exist on tourist row of the Huayan Temple area, I pushed myself to suffer through the cold in order to ease the pounding in my head. First loop, I came up empty but after a stop at McDonalds and translating latte I learned I must have missed a cafe. Back on the tourst path, I located a cafe on the third floor of a building. The free wifi it claimed to offer only pertained to locals but I happily sipped my hot and chocolaty mocha with much joy. Again, the little things matter.
One funny thing I forgot to add previously…..
The barista at the cafe offered me a glass of hot water and when I declined he said, “free.” I said no thank you but it reminded me of something John, my guide told me. When he was a child, his mothered served him boiled coca-cola with ginger and dates. When I giggled, he said she would do the same for sprite. That all the Chinese serve drinks hot because it’s a superstition that cold is bad. Mugs of hot water can be found everywhere in China and at every restaurant I’ve been poured a cup of hot water. I thought they boiled water to kill off the bacteria (lots of metals in their water) but I’ll have to delve deeper. Hot coca-cola — Go figure!