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The best of Datong in 96 hours

Zhang Xingjian

China Daily/Asia News Network

Datong, China  /  Fri, June 29, 2018  /  05:09 pm
The best of Datong in 96 hours

Yungang Grottoes in Datong, Shanxi, China. (Shutterstock/Meiqianbao)

When talking about travel to Datong city, what first comes to mind?

Most travelers at home and abroad will probably respond with the Yungang Grottoes, Hanging Monastery and daoxiao noodles, also known as knife-cut noodles.

As the capital during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534), Datong city has remained a cultural hub with rich historic resources and cultural heritage for centuries afterward.

Many locals told me the city was born long ago from a broken wing of the mythical phoenix, which is why Datong is also known as the Phoenix City in China.

Datong is one of China's 24 famous historic and cultural cities announced by the State Council, and stands as the only ancient capital city beyond the Great Wall. About 100,000 years ago, the Chinese forefathers settled in Datong, leaving behind many cultural relics, such as those found at the Paleolithic sites of Xujiayao and Qingciyao.

Boasting clean air quality and historical significance in China, Datong was named one of the "Top 10 Sports and Leisure Cities in China" in 2015 by the China Sports Federation.

At present, the cultural hub has one national 5A and five national 4A scenic spots, the top two designations by the National Tourism Administration, along with more than 30 historical and cultural sites under national government protection and 300 sites under provincial and municipal government protection.

The Yungang Grottoes, an imposing collection of Buddhist sculptures chiseled on a mountain slope that extends about 1 kilometer from east to west, is one of the four famous treasure houses of Chinese grotto art and has been on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list since December 2001.

Thanks to great support from the Datong Municipal Commission of Tourism Development and, a Suzhou-based online travel agency, I visited the city from June 23 to 26 to offer you a 96-hour travel guide to Datong, covering many of its must-see scenic spots and must-eat local food.

Even if you only have four days to take a look at the city, the combination of the natural scenery and urban landscapes would make your trip worthwhile.

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Day one: History and culture

People often say that if you haven't been to the Yungang Grottoes, then you haven't been to Datong. Whether or not you agree, the saying does reflect the vital role the landmark has played in the city's evolution.

Comprising 252 caves and 51,000 statues within a carved area of 18,000 square meters, the Yungang Grottoes represent the outstanding achievement of Buddhist cave art in China during the fifth and sixth centuries. The Five Caves created by Tan Yao, with their strict unity of layout and design, constitute a classical masterpiece during the first peak of Chinese Buddhist art.

Situated on the outskirts of the city, the Yungang Grottoes may require a half-day visit during your trip. Be sure to wake up earlier that day and take your beloved camera to record the extraordinary artwork, while remembering that flash photography is strictly prohibited at the site.

In the afternoon, your date with Datong's temples begins, as the city has many with different characteristics.

Huayan Temple enjoys the highest reputation in the city, as it occupies an important position in the history of Buddhist culture and architecture of China.

The temple was built during the Liao Dynasty (907-1125) according to the Huayan Sutra Sect of the Huayan School, and it takes its name from the Buddhist Avatamsaka Sutra, which is Huayanjing in Chinese.

In the temple, visitors can appreciate 31 completely preserved statues from the Liao Dynasty. One of the Buddhas, with a chubby face and graceful body, is known as the "Venus of the East".

The Shanhua Temple, which offers free admission, is another place to discover Chinese Buddhist culture, as it represents the largest existing monastery with a complete architectural layout built during the Liao and Jin (1115-1234) dynasties in China.

There are more places to visit in Datong, including early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) sites such as Fahua Temple, Yuantong Temple and the Nine-Dragon Wall, a spirit screen to ward off ghosts that's also the largest existing glazed wall in China.

As darkness falls, the best place to witness the city at night is on the Datong city wall. Lights on the interval towers are switched on at dusk, creating a surreal and romantic scene. Standing on this wall, one can't help but imagine rows of archers, guns, cannons and soldiers trying to defend the city from invaders.

Day two: Mountaineering

Just look at a map of Shanxi province and you will quickly notice that 75 percent of the territory is mountainous. Anyone with a fondness for mountains can have a great time here.

A popular site among tourists is Hengshan Mountain, one of China's Five Great Mountains and a Taoist site considered sacred since the Zhou Dynasty (c.11th century- 256 BC).

When you enter the scenic spot, the smartest way to get a general overview of the mountain is to ride the cable car, which takes just 15 minutes to reach the summit. When you stand high on the mountain range, you can see many temples hidden in secret places, waiting for someone special to arrive.

The highlight of the mountaineering tour is a visit to the famous Hanging Temple, also known as Xuankong Temple, a structure more than 1,500 years old that defies gravity as it stretches across a stunning cliff, supported by oak crossbeams.

This engineering marvel was named by Time magazine as one of the world's top 10 most odd, dangerous buildings. You can hear the wooden floor creak as you enter the temple, making any visit a little scary but certainly unforgettable.

Day three: Modern leisure

Datong's government has strived to build Yudong New District since 2009 through a series of important measures. For instance, most of the key schools and leading hospitals have relocated there to boost the area's growth.

In the future, when people visit Datong, they will see two sides of the city with distinct character -- the old town with historic significance and the new urban city with modern facilities.

To truly discover a city, we must not only experience its past, but gain some insight into its present and future.

At Datong, the city museum is a great place to visit during the day. Datong Museum was built in 1959 and its new pavilion opened in the Yudong New District in 2014.

Covering an area of more than 50,000 square meters, the museum houses a total collection of 70,000 cultural relics and architectural models, showing details of the exteriors and interiors of ancient buildings. The museum has miniature models on display, including Huayan Temple, Shanhua Temple from the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and the Wood Tower of Ying County from the Liao Dynasty.

As Datong played a vital role in Chinese history after a glorious period during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-557), the museum spotlights the city's prosperous past. There are many rare articles on display with historical and regional features, such as mirrors, jade ware, ornaments and weapons.

For the rest of the day, if you crave some thrills or a little fun with a friend or loved one, then Datong Fantawild Adventure should be on your agenda.

As one of the largest theme parks in North China, Datong Fantawild Adventure offers visitors a combination of Chinese culture and state-of-the-art technology, with features such as rushing rapids, a fisherman's wharf, a water zone, flare meteors and 4D image technology.

If you're tired after a day of walking, take a seat and experience the magic of folk arts.

Ox-bone shulaibao, which refers to rhythmic storytelling with a pair of ox scapulas, is one of the folk treasures in Datong. Artists who perform it speak out verses rhymed with three plus three characters in the first line and four plus three characters in the next.

Ox-bone shulaibao is believed to have started before the Ming Dynasty, when people clapped on the shoulder bones of oxen or cows and told tales or jokes in simple verses. The art form was inscribed on the national intangible cultural heritage list in 2014 and has several branches in northern and southern China.

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Day four: A taste of Datong

People often complain about tight schedules during their trips, so many visitors now choose a slower or more leisurely way to travel, where they have one day off without any specific plans. After all, the main purpose of travel is to relax, not exhaust, ourselves.

One of the best ways to unwind is by tasting the local cuisine, which in Shanxi means indulging in noodles, fried flatbread known as dabing and sour flavors, as the area is famous for its locally made vinegar.

Here are three authentic local dishes you should try:

Shanxi daoxiao noodles (or knife-cut noodles)

Shanxi daoxiao noodles, one of the most beloved examples of street food in China, have a wonderful appearance, aroma and flavor unique to the local area.

They are fast and easy to prepare, making them well-suited for getting the most out of a steaming bowl of beef or mutton broth.

Shaved from a block of wheat dough straight into boiling water, these tempting noodles retain their jagged edges and sop up the maximum amount of broth and spicy chili oil.

Fried boiled pork

This pork dish, the most famous of traditional Shanxi cuisine, originated during the Southern and Northern dynasties (420-589) among aristocrats in the southern Shanxi city of Linfen, and then spread to the provincial capital of Taiyuan, eventually becoming a typical restaurant dish during the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Datong copper hotpot

Datong copper hotpot is a tradition in Shanxi province, where food – usually mutton slices and assorted vegetables – is boiled in copperware produced in Datong or pots with meticulously engraved decorative patterns.

Datong has a long history of producing crafted copper pots coated with tin, which is rustproof and acts as a disinfectant, retaining the original taste of the food. Eating hotpot is best during the winter, when restaurants of all sizes serve it up as the winds howl outside the windows.

This article appeared on the China Daily newspaper website, which is a member of Asia News Network and a media partner of The Jakarta Post