Asia, Destinations

The Cold and Long Road to Datong

December 2, 2014 • By

Determined to escape the pollution, I set off from Pingyao to Datong early Sunday morning. An English-speaking guide “John” accompanied me for what would be a five-hour drive and believe me at some points it seemed longer but John survived a myriad of questions from me in good form.

John, 26, is single but doesn’t live with his parents. It is rare for Chinese children to leave home before marriage but that is changing. I gathered from John that his overbearing and maybe pushy mother (sounds like most mothers) drove him to seek his independence sooner rather than later. John learned English at a young age because his cousin, a prominent interpreter, exposed him to the language at family gatherings. It likely helped that his parents as educators surrounded him an environment conducive to learning. He is an avid reader and has been his entire life.

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When I learned John has a brother, I questioned the one-child rule and he explained that his parents “broke the rules” when they had him (he is 7 years younger). The government could have severely punished the parents but instead they were fined. His parents make about $500 USD a month (that is an average teaching salary). John lives with a roommate in an apartment but his parents bought him a $700,000 RB ($120USD) apartment for when he marries (it’s rented for now). While John is in no hurry to marry, he has dated a few women here and there. His last girlfriend came from Beijing, a city where “you lose all dignity living.” It makes me very excited to get to Beijing. It sounds a lot like New York City. I understand why he is no rush to marry after learning that in China the husband’s family must pay the wife’s family between 10,000-RB-1mil RB ($2,000-$200kUSD) depending on the family’s wealth and position. Additionally, the male pays for the wedding. I take back my previous assessment from a few days ago. Chinese women should really push for the big wedding!

As we passed young trees and newly constructed highways and rail lines, John explained there is a lot of new money in this area because the farmers sold their land to the government who in turn sold it to developers. The farmers who sold their land 10 years ago for $10,000RB($2k USD) are probably pretty distraught. That same land is now worth 1 million RB ($200k USD). The construction that is going on in China is truly remarkable. When I mentioned this to John, he said people joke that the national bird in China is the CRANE…the construction crane. He isn’t kidding. For as far as the eye can see, there are cranes soaring in the skyline.

John and I spent some time talking about the government and the direction the country is heading. To protect him, I will simply say he believes the people have seen overall life improvements and that the current government has worked hard to weed out corruption and build a strong economy. In his city alone, four or five of the local government officials committed a crime and went to jail. I told him it was a lot like my city (Chicago). When I asked him about China’s relationship with Russia, he paused and then said, “Nobody likes Russia but we are next to them so have to make it work.” He spoke at length of the hard times the Chinese endured in the 1800s being beaten by the Tibetans, Mongolians and Muslims and that the country really didn’t thrive until the emergence of Communism. The consensus is to most nationals that China is in a good place. After spending so much time getting to know John, the last thing I wanted to do was venture beyond the car and into the rapidly decreasing temperatures but alas the time came to brave the cold.

First stop, the Wooden Pagoda.

The Wooden Pagoda is the oldest and highest wooden structure in China dating back to 1056 and the Liao Dynasty. People in China refer to it as the First Pagoda in the World because of its distinct architectural structure. It’s very similar to how Legos or Lincoln Logs fit together with brackets as it’s connected by tenors and mortises and not a single nail or rivet used. It’s a beautiful display of traditional Chinese architecture something very rare today. Upon entering the pagoda, a large “golden” Buddha statue greets worshippers and the rest of the structure reveals nine levels of which only five are visible from the outside.

We drove another hour high into the mountains to see the Hanging Temple. The Hanging Temple is built into a cliff on Mount Heng, one of the five sacred mountains of China. It is likely a creation of the Northern Wei dynasty from around 386-534 and is the only known temple that combines all three Chinese traditional religions – Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. In 2010, Time Magazine deemed it the “top 10 most odd dangerous buildings.” It’s held together with oak crossbeams and chiseled into ridges of the mountain. From a distance, it looks like it’s simply a carving not something habitable. The monastery is located in a small canyon basin, protecting it from fierce weather elements. I wish the same could be said for me. The minute I opened the car door I experienced such a strong gust of wind I thought I somehow catapulted myself from a mountain range in China to the North Pole. No way I could survive the 30-minute hike across the basin to the temple but I mustered up the strength to run to the look out point and snap some photos. I’m not disappointed. It was worth seeing from afar and much better than buying a post card.

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Freezing, overlooking the basin with the Hanging Temple in the background

A full day of touring and being in the car took its toll on my body, bladder and stomach but alas I arrived for my two night stay at the Howard Johnson in Datong. If you are curious, (I surely was), the HoJo is the same now defunct hotel in the USA. The carpeted floors in my room contained a year’s worth of Chinese hair, the shower leaked to completely flood the bathroom floor and the room temperature stayed steady at 22 degrees C (I require at least 26-30) and the biggest tragedy of all —-no Wi-Fi. Because this trip is about finding the silver lining, the hotel did feature HBO Asia and I enjoyed Fast and Furious (first time), Despicable Me, Jerry McGuire, Newsroom (new episodes of season 3) and BBC, which of course went to black whenever the protests in Hong Kong were reported. Back to what the man in Dali told me on the plane, “This is China Man.”

It will not be lost on many of you that whenever I attempted to search Datong on the Internet (yahoo’s best) “online dating” popped up as a relevant item. There was a television special on “First Look Asia” that reviewed all the online dating tools people are using in China, Japan, India and other parts of Asia. After watching this segment, I want to bring back the age of arranged marriage. I am convinced I would have faired much better under the antediluvian system.

Lastly, I also wanted to set the record straight on Chinese culture in the United States v. China mainly because each of my guides commented on American perceptions of the Chinese – and this pertains mostly to food. To the dismay of many Americans, fortune cookies do not exist in China and the food we eat at home represents only a sliver of what the rest of the country consumes. The first Chinese people in the U.S. originated from Guangzhou commonly referred to us as Canton. It’s located on the Pearl River near Hong Kong and Macau and is the third largest Chinese city. Many “Cantonese” were likely brought over as slaves to build the railroads on the West Coast. While the Cantonese people are biologically Chinese, the rest of the country considers their language and customs foreign. The characters are part of the same system but utilize different pronunciation. The Northerners dialect is harsher and aggressive and the Cantonese language is more singsongy.  They don’t understand each other!

Additionally, Chinese people use their family name first and their given name last so I would be Glynn Kelly or in my guide’s case Loeng Fu. The women do not take the husband’s last name.  John said many families who wish to send their children abroad to school or may eventually move abroad have started naming their children more Western friendly names for example, his cousin named his daughter Kai Lee. John thinks it’s very funny when he meets Americans Chinese tourists because they start the journey saying they are Chinese and end the trip saying they are Americans (who just look Chinese). I guess that’s the same as me saying I am German and Irish and then quickly admitting I’m nothing of the sort (except I am definitely OCD like the Germans).

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