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Experience Datong Reborn

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Anyone who’d visited the city of Datong in northeastern Shanxi province a decade or so ago would have reported on a crumbling old town blighted by smog. Much of the city’s architecture would have constituted Mao-era square brick tenements. The coal industry was the only thing turning the wheels of the economy.

Datong was not always a frosty, dusty, half-forgotten place. In fact, the city has well over 2000 years of settled history. Founded during the Han dynasty near the Great Wall pass that led to the Mongol Steppe, it flourished as a stopping off point for camel caravans moving their wares to, or from the Middle Kingdom.  For over a century it was the capital of the Northern Wei, which flourished during the Southern and Northern dynasties. It was during this period the marvelous Yungang Grottoes, home to a staggering away of Buddhist carvings and statues, was constructed. The city found glory again in 1115AD as the capital of the Jin Dynasty.

In an effort to rekindle this ancient capital’s glorious past, investment has poured in in recent years to clean up and straighten up old Datong for sightseers. The city walls and towers have largely been rebuilt and are now free to cycle or walk along, while various historical sites, like the centrally located Drum Tower, have been awarded a well-deserved makeover. Tourist stalls have set up shop alongside Shanxi delicacy restaurants while new hotels have opened their doors to a new generation of visitors. Only a few hours by rail from Beijing, and with the high-speed rail line to Taiyuan nearing completion, Datong is finding itself on a growing list of tourist itineraries. Here’s what to expect from the old coal town turned tourist hotspot.  

Huayuan Monastery

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Just off Fanggu Street, the Huayuan Monastery is Datong city’s largest and most elaborate temple complex comprising some 66,000 square meters. It comprises the Universal Brightness Hall, the Grand Hall, the Bhagavad Sutra Hall and Huayuan Pagoda, which you can climb (as long as you wear regulation slippers) to enjoy soaring views of the city. Set amongst beautifully maintained gardens the temple is said to date back to 1038 and the Northern Liao Dynasty, though over-enthusiastic refurbishment means you can almost smell the varnish. 

Shanhua Temple

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Though half the size of Huayuan, Shanhua is older, dating back to 713 and has retained a lot more character, having evidently been more sensitively renovated. Fronted by a five-dragon screen, the Main Gate is actually an entrance hall of the temple, which contains Four Heavenly Kings statues. Inside, The Hall of the Three Saints is central to the complex and fine example of Jin Dynasty wooden architecture. At the rear, The Mahavira Hall is the biggest hall in the temple grounds and a unique example of Liao Dynasty architecture undamaged by the warfare that periodically blighted the region.

Nine Dragons Screen

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A ten-yuan entrance fee wins you entrance to a small park that houses 45m-long relief comprising 426 glazed tiles that depict – you guessed it – nine dragons. Other than Datong, only Beijing can claim such marvels from the Ming-era, though Datong’s flour-clawed Dragons suggest the city was the seat of a prince, not the Emperor (whose dragons possessed five claws). The palace the screen was erected to protect was, alas, destroyed in the fifteenth century. The multi-coloured flying serpents might have failed to ward off evil spirits, but the remain a beautifully preserved art piece of the era, which, when view in the narrow pool set before the relief, appear to move in the rippling water. 

Fine Foods

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Shanxi cuisine can be on the stodgy side; noodles doused in vinegar accompanied by potatoes and mutton. But the Fenglingge Shaomai restaurant, near the Huayuan Monastery, seeks to contradict Datong’s quick-and-easy culinary reputation with a Ming-themed restaurant par excellence. The temple-style décor is entirely rebuilt on the location of an eatery Empress Dowager Cixi is said to have dined when she fled Beijing in 1900. Whether you buy into the myth or not, you’ll certainly be buying some fine local "Jin" delicacies including the shaomai dumplings, which are made in such a way as to resemble a flower. Other fine treats include walnuts in wasabi sauce served with red beans and cold, home-style mixed vermicelli. 

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About the author

Thomas grew up beneath heavy clouds in the South Wales suburbs. After reading too many books, he decided to see for himself what this weird world had on offer. Now an itinerant traveler, writer and photographer usually lost somewhere in East Asia, he prints his musings in a number of notable publications and has contributed to several guidebooks including Rough Guides China and Dunhuang: A City on the Silk Road. When he's not wandering, he can sometimes be found practising mandolin in Beijing.


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