adventures in the people's republic of china and beyond

Saturday, June 09, 2007


Yungang grottoes

(Previously: 10 hours in Korea)

After my 10-hour scramble in Korea, it was a relief getting to Beijing and hearing Chinese voices around me again. The airport bus was pretty straightforward, although agonizingly slow in the 5 PM traffic. I hadn’t done much research on how to get to our hotel in Beijing, figuring I was too tired to take a bus and would just get a taxi to take me there. Unfortunately, no taxi driver knew where our hotel was other than the general direction it was in. After an hour and a half lugging my pack in the hotel’s general direction and getting lost, I finally found the place – which was certainly the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in, period. There was even a separate tap for drinkable water!

Rebecca enjoying Quanjude's Haidian branch.

The next day, we saw some old friends and had a special treat –a dinner at the Haidian branch of Quanjude, the most famous Beijing duck restaurant. To be honest, I can’t tell the difference between Beijing duck prepared in the four restaurants I’ve tried it in. They were all delicious. Quanjude was so crowded that they actually asked us if we had a reservation when we went in, and we had to wait to get a seat - first time that’s ever happened to us in China! But the atmosphere was nice and the duck was good.

In addition to the duck, Quanjude has a huge selection of fresh fruit smoothies.

You eat Beijing duck by wrapping up some meat and skin along with onion and sauce in a crepe-like roll.

We spent the rest of the evening in our old haunt, Be For Time Teahouse(避风塘). You can drink hot tea if you want, but the main reason people go there is for bubble tea – fruit-flavored milk tea with tapioca pearls. Besides bubble tea, they also have ice cream and a whole variety of other nice drinks. For 17 kuai, you can go in, sit around, and order as many drinks as you want!

The grandeur of Datong station.

From the teahouse, we headed to Beijing West train station and on to Datong. It was hard seat, and only for 6 hours at that, but still the most uncomfortable train experience I’ve had in China.

Breakfast in Datong eating buns. Here, Rebecca's drinking seaweed soup, a typical accompaniment to buns.

Datong, our stop on the way to Xi’an, is a mid-sized coalmining town in Shanxi province. As we stepped out of the train, we were greeted with one of many large communist propaganda banners, which the town seemed to be full of. The typical huge public square in front of the equally proportioned train station was filled with all manner of aggressive train ticket touts who would not stop following us.

Datong city hall - the banner on the left reads "Guiding our thinking is the theoretical foundation of Marxism-Leninism", a quote from none other than the big M himself.

The transportation situation in Datong seemed pretty dire – standing room only on all the trains to Xi’an for the next four days. Although you can at least sit on newspapers between the train cars if you have a standing ticket, and even try to upgrade your seat if you find the conductor, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this method. Stumbling into a huaba(话吧, telephone bar), I decided to try calling CITS(China International Travel Service – a government-run travel service not unlike the Soviet Union’s Intourist). as a last resort. As if they would know anything – they have been unhelpful and useless every time we’ve tried them. However, after explaining the situation, the CITS guy jovially suggested that I buy a long-distance bus ticket to Xi’an. He also said there were many trains to Taiyuan, a bigger transportation hub, and from there it would be easy to get a train to Xi’an, as well as visit Pingyao, which we’d had plans for but cancelled because we were too tired.

A busy Datong intersection.

Having settled on bus tickets we headed for the main draw of the city, the Yungang grottoes. We followed Lonely planet’s directions and took bus 4 from the train station to Xinkaili and then waited for bus 3 to the grottoes, before realizing they had established a new bus line 3-2 that went straight from the train station to the grottoes. The Yungang grottoes, built over 800 years ago, are a massive cave complex carved into the cliff walls around Datong. Inside the caves are thousands of Buddha carvings – some tiny, some huge. The art in the caves is impossible to express in words – personally, I think it’s one of the most memorable places I’ve been to in China. My pictures don't do the caves nearly enough justice(especially the ones taken under low-light conditions!) but hopefully they can give you an idea of what the place is like.

Coming back from the grottoes, we strolled around Datong a bit, admiring the Ming dynasty glazed dragon wall (which we had all to ourselves since there were almost no other tourists), and enjoying bingzhou, a cold shaved-ice treat in a bowl covered with syrup and all sorts of berries.

A cheerily decorated coal mine we passed by on the way back from the grottoes.

The Ming dynasty Dragon wall.

A refreshing icy treat.

As we got on the bus to Xi’an, I realized why the tickets had been so expensive(250 yuan each, including a 24 yuan commission and a 1 yuan insurance) – it was a sleeper bus (see pictures for explanation)! We spent the 14-hour drive to Xi’an in relative comfort, watching soap operas and Korean movies played at excessively high volume on the flatscreen TVs.

On the sleeper bus.

A Datong power station.

On the road to Xi'an.

Datong travel tips
Time: Datong can be done as weekend trip from Beijing(1-2 day trip). From the train station, it takes about an hour to get up to the caves.
Cost: Writing this a month after the fact, I can't really remember, but 500 RMB per person should be more than enough for train tickets to/from Datong, admission tickets, and food, provided that you don't stay the night there.
Getting there and back: There are lots of night trains from Beijing to Datong that take 6-7 hours, but this is because of distance. In retrospect, I would take a bus that left in the morning - I can't imagine it taking more than a few hours. From the train station, take bus 3-2 all the way up to the Yungang caves (the final stop). If you are heading on to Xi'an, be aware that both seats and sleeper bunks will be booked up for days - the best bet is to head on to Taiyuan to get a train, and see Pingyao if you have the time. There's also a sleeper bus in the afternoon that takes 14 hours to get to Xi'an - it's comfortable, but expensive: 250 yuan if you book it through CITS.
What to see: The Yungang grottoes, of course. There's also the hanging temple, which is a bit further away from Datong, and the Ming dynasty dragon wall, which is worth a look if you have some extra time to spare.
What to eat: I'm not too familiar with Shanxi eating, but I did notice lots of places selling 刀削面(daoxiaomian), which are relatively wide noodles with meat(usually beef), eaten in a broth or "dry."

As always, comments are appreciated.

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I want a sleeper bus. Or just a big pink comforter, that would work.


Once again, your pictures do give justive to the majestic caves there. My family and I are following your travel, so keep up the good work.

Ray Kaighn


I found your blog after searching for "gelukpa." I have found your pictures rewarding and beautiful. Well done, very well done indeed.


TJMPF, thank you so much for leaving a comment on my blog! It really means a lot to me to get some feedback from readers. Once again, thanks for your kind words!


You are quite welcome, I have something of a silent interest in Tibetan society, and am particularly interested in traveling there someday. Regrettably, I am tied down by my research, and hardly have time for a holiday, but your photo's have given me a grandly satisfying experience, and what's more a tantalizing dream to expect when one day I do visit PRC.
Thomas JMP Franich, PhD.


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