Datong

Last weekend I visited the city of Datong, which is famous for its ancient statues of Buddha carved into a mountain, and for a “Hanging Temple”.  I left with Jonathan on the same night that all the other interns left Beijing. The sleeper train was what I had expected from my previous trip to Xi’an.  I awoke from a nightmare about nuclear destruction, and so was happy to see the world was still there, with sunlight streaming through the train window. The train came to a slow stop and we hopped off. Our plan was to see the Yungang Grottoes first, because that was the thing that Will told us would take the longest. The landscape was rather empty, except for the mountain with the Buddhas carved into it. Near the bus stop we found a camel with a yellow ribbon on its head and a man pounding a layer of ground peanut with a large hammer. A piece of this thin, ground peanut was our breakfast. Ahead, there were thousands of Buddhas in caves, from tiny ones the size of one’s palm to enormous ones towering over us.

That afternoon we saw the Nine Dragon Screen, and then had dinner with a couple that I found on couchsurfing.com. They were so very friendly. They told us what cheap hostel to stay in, what bus to take to arrive faster, and even shared their baijou with us. The woman, Tulip, was very interested in learning English, and I think our conversation helped her. Every few minutes her husband would raise his glass for a toast (“Gan bei”!) I also noticed that he tried to lower his glass below mine when toasting – this is common behavior in China, as it represents humility. In the background we heard the waiters scream out something in Chinese every time a customer left.

“It is a Chinese saying”, Tulip explained. “Even if the mountain disappears, the river will keep flowing. This means that, though people may leave, they remain friends forever”.

Halfway through dinner, they overheard that there was a great fluffy Samoyed dog outside, so we rushed out to the entrance of the restaurant to see it. We returned to our table and finished our delicious dinner. Tulip told us how remarkable it was, that the four of us were from such different locations, and yet we had a “fit”: we were sitting around a table enjoying each other’s company. 

The next day we saw the Hanging Temple. We met a Chinese guy that joined us in exploring the temple, but we had to rush because there was not much time.  The three of us took a taxi back to Datong because it was faster (and even with a taxi, we nearly missed the train). The scenery – mountains, plains –  was very beautiful.  At one point the taxi driver stopped abruptly on the side of the road and told us to get out. He led us along a path up the mountain (and we were wondering, what is going on?) and into this house in a cave.  Outside, there was a garden with sunflowers, and shirts on a clothesline blowing in the wind.

A tiny old guy with very few teeth guided us inside, and was very happy to show us around. Apparently he has some special relationship with the taxi drivers. In a corner of the room was a TV with a label saying “From Datong respectful taxi team”. We were very confused, so we said “ni hao”, smiled and took photos. He had flags and posters from all around the world on the walls. Maybe this was a trap for us though, because lots of women suddenly appeared when we left the house, trying to sell us little trinkets and souvenirs.  They were so aggressive, we had to run away and push them out of the taxi because they were trying to get inside with us!

On the train ride back to Beijing we met two young Chinese guys who were in a rock band, and spent four hours chatting with them mostly about music, their aspirations, and our opinions on China and the United States.  The guitarist was eager to learn English, so we exchanged English and Chinese words.

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