DATONG, China — On the train from Beijing to Datong, I began to wonder if the capital's metropolis stretched the entire 175 miles between the two cities. I'd bought a "hard seat," the equivalent of a coach ticket, to watch the countryside unfold outside the window for the 61/2-hour ride. At first the route looked like any other out of a capital city, an undistinguished corridor of housing and small enterprises, but here the suburban sprawl went on and on. Then we were climbing and roaring through a succession of mountain tunnels. We emerged into a barren early spring landscape of empty farm tracts and leafless trees, all in shades of brown. We were on the outskirts of Datong, a major industrial and coal-producing center on a high, arid plain in Shanxi province, with 2 1/2 million inhabitants.
As you would expect in a centuries-old city, Datong has a couple of minor historic treasures, but its main attraction is 10 miles west: Yungang, a cluster of Buddhist grottoes filled with 1,500-year-old statues and carvings.
I have been coming to China for several years, researching a book, and I love all of it for its beauty and the fascination it holds for me. Datong would not be in the first category; it is all concrete and covered with dust. But my research had prepared me for that. So, while I did not see any part of the city I could describe as attractive, I felt perfectly comfortable, even as the only foreigner wandering around the northern sector where I stayed.
My old, trusty Lonely Planet guidebook had advised that someone from the CITS (China International Travel Service) would be waiting at the exit of the railway station, as they wait for all foreigners coming by train; evidently I was the only one that afternoon.
Jin Wu Gao greeted me, and I followed him to his office. Before I knew it, he had assigned me to a hotel, booked a car and driver for my tours outside the city and arranged for my train ticket back to Beijing. I obligingly paid him up front, and ...
Wait a minute! I am an extremely independent traveler. Ordinarily I do not make reservations but go straight to the hotel I have chosen from my guidebook, then ask for the discounted room rate. But Gao was self-assured and inspired confidence, and his price of 160 yuan ($19.83) per night was the discounted rate, so it seemed silly not to go along with his assistance.
We set off for the hotel he had chosen, some blocks from the railroad station. As Gao walked with me, pulling my luggage along behind him, he stopped by a man working outdoors on a sewing machine. The strap on one of my bags had come loose, and the man fixed it. The cost: one yuan, or 12 cents. Life is simple.
In the morning I decided to move to a more convenient location, and chose the Hongqi Hotel near the railway station.
The Chinese hotel rooms I've stayed in tend to be similar, if not identical. The Hongqi was clean, modern, comfortable; my room included a full bath and a television.
Yungang, in the Wuzhou hills west of Datong, is one of the world's great repositories of artistic spiritual expression. Here, in the 5th century, thousands of laborers and sculptors carved more than 51,000 bas-reliefs and statues of Buddha and other religious figures from the rock face. The largest statue is 55 feet tall.Buddhism was introduced into China from India around the 1st century AD, and the carvings at Yungang clearly were influenced by Indian sources--Shiva and other Hindu deities can be seen--as well as Byzantine and other cultures. In 1903 a Japanese academic drew attention to this sanctuary of Buddhist art, initiating an era of scholarly interest. Unfortunately, the attention also brought theft and desecration; roughly 700 images are missing.
The caves are dug out of a stretch of hillside more than half a mile long, one beside the next, all facing south. A wide, well-kept promenade in front gives access to the 21 (out of 53) that are open. In the off-season there were only a few knots of Chinese tourists sharing the late afternoon (the prime viewing time) scene.
I am not inexperienced in the matter of large Buddhas or Buddhist caves, having seen them here in China as well as in India and other parts of the Buddhist world. And I spent considerable time at the Getty Research Institute before leaving Los Angeles, studying photographs of Yungang in order to be aware of what to look for when I got there. But nothing prepared me for the enormity of these statues.
Most of the caves can be entered, but waist-high wood barriers stood in the entrances to numbers 11 to 13. I leaned in, peered up and literally recoiled; the size of these giants was astonishing.
I photographed the two I was most taken with. When I had the film developed, I saw that I had cut off their heads. But at least I left the statues intact.
Many of the niches were empty, scooped out like soft-boiled eggs. Nagel's Encyclopedia-Guide China reports: