Beijing-Datong: Part 2

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We meet our guide, Nancy, in the hotel lobby and we head out to the van and driver we have hired for the day. Do you remember that we brought a carseat with us on the six hour train ride? Unnecessary. It is unnecessary because the van has no seat belts. I was hopeful, since our van in Beijing has them. So I settled in for our 1 1/2 hour ride wrangling a squirming three year old on mountain roads. The scenery was beautiful, as we travelled through farms and valleys to the mountains. My mother would not have been comfortable on this ride. There were not really reliable guard rails on the the hairpin curves, and the one that I did see had been broken  from a crash! I practice meditation exactly for moments like these…

Our first destination was the Hanging Monastery, pictured above. I posted this photo so that you can see the relative size and location on the cliff. Monks actually climbed the mountain from the other side, and by hanging down the mountainside, 1500 years ago, built this monastery. Two to three monks would live in it at a time. It is not that big, but has several small temple rooms, and living quarters. The windows were papered with rice paper and at one time had paper cut out designs adorning them.

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Here is what my eldest looked like as she climbed the steep staircases hugging the sides of the cliff. She made the mistake of looking down

It was a wall hugging climb!
It was a wall hugging climb!

After visiting the Hanging Monastery, we climbed back into the car to visit the oldest pagoda in China. Here it is:
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As we walked to our lunch restaurant we walked by a pack of street pups. They were pretty cute! Its been pretty interesting watching the street dogs interact. The hierarchy is clearly there. Street dogs are SMART and TOUGH!

A natural pack
A natural pack

Nancy showed us our lunch restaurant and both she and the driver joined us. I think that this is a pretty standard practice when you hire someone to work for you in China.
The next part of our day was the most disconcerting. I think the driver took a shortcut to drive by the coal plant on our way to Yungang Grottoes.
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All of a sudden the road seemed to disappear and we were driving in the midst of coal trucks at least three deep on all sides. I don’t know how the driver knew which way to navigate through them and the other cars and scooters.
Then we stopped. For about forty-five minutes.

Surrounded
Surrounded

It turned out that a passenger car had some sort of engine trouble. The driver just abandoned it in the middle of the road with its hazards on.
Finally, we arrived at Yungang Grottoes. It was definitely worth the trouble getting there! As a bonus, we were able to see an older clay portion of the Great Wall! You can see it at the top of the cliff in this picture:

These Buddha carvings were commissioned by the government about 1500 years ago. Datong was the capital of China at that time. The government moved the capital because it was thought that Datong was too close to possible invasion from Mongolia. There are forty five caves with thousands of meticulously carved buddhas, varying in size from 2cm to 17m. The entire site had been upgraded with a park at the time of the Beijing Olympics. The government built an enormous three roomed temple for the monks to use to pray, since the grottoes are being preserved now.

Yungang Grottoes
Yungang Grottoes

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At the end of our day, we had dinner at our trusted restaurant, Fen Lin Ge (Feeling Good) again. The next morning Brian took the girls to the hotel pool and I asked the hotel desk clerk for directions to a shop for local gifts. He told me the walking directions to wu market. I set off walking, and after about twenty minutes I saw a Wal-mart right where he told me it would be.

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Beijing-Datong; Our train adventure (Part 1)

temple roof and blossoms in Datong
temple roof and blossoms in Datong

Mr. Shi dropped us and our luggage (two duffels, a carseat, bag of food, and the girls’s backpacks) at the Beijing train station. “Which way to the train?”, we asked. He motioned around the corner. When we walked around the corner, there were crowds of people; in lines to buy tickets, and other lines to get into the station. The staring commenced. We were the only foreigners here. This is not the usual mode of tourist transport. But then, we aren’t really tourists anymore. We are resident card carrying expats living in Beijing.

Once in the train station, the crowds had dispersed into various waiting areas throughout the station. We purchased green tea, pistachios, and raisins as our snack before boarding. We had 1 1/2 hours to wait. The raisins were overly dry and looked questionable, so we did not eat those.

People watching:
A man walked by, cleared his throat and spit on the floor. Moments later an ayi came and mopped the floor. A family came over to pose their toddler son with us for a photo. A man entered the station carrying a sapling tree about five feet tall. This he carried on with his luggage.

Bathrooms: Squat toilets. Relatively clean. Sinks, but no soap or any method to dry hands. Rating: 4 of 10.

Boarding time. It was a long walk to train car #2. (2 hao che xiang) We could have purchased a private sleeping cabin, but chose to travel as most do, in sets of four seats with a small table in the middle. Four tickets roundtrip for this journey cost $60. Six hours each way.

We are split up. Hollis and I are seated across from two gentlemen. One older, one younger. The younger man speaks some English, possibly rusty from school, as he looks embarrassed and checks his phone translator when I ask him questions. Brian and Sophie are with a group of four people in their section. Immediately the older gentleman fixates on Hollis, taking pictures of her with his phone. Then he lets her look at the pictures, and other professional photos of babies on his phone. I ask him if he’s a photographer. Its unclear. He says he likes taking pictures. They are professionally done though. After he takes about twelve photos of Hollis, I tell him that’s enough. Hollis keeps him engaged in chit chat. She is playing with silly putty. He hasn’t seen this before. He asks her name. She asks his name, and he says, “yeye”, which means “grandpa”. Hollis replies, “Beijing Yeye!”. Our little crowd that has gathered in the aisle around us laughs, and the relationship is firmly cemented. Beijing Yeye offers Hollis one of his packaged drumsticks, dyed red, and she offers him jelly beans. Each time we walk through the cabin Hollis is given a gift, a cookie, a free toy, a tomato. More pictures are taken of the girls. Sophie is used to it. Hollis is accommodating today.

Attendants come by with carts loaded with packaged fruit, vegetables, drinks, hot meals, toys, cell phone accessories, etc. Everything is for sale. Men take smoke breaks in the space between the cars. Its tolerable at the beginning of the journey, but after four hours, the car smells like smoke. Every couple hours an attendant comes by with a large trash bag to collect the refuse from our table. Another attendant sweeps the floor under our feet. After three hours, we need the bathroom. We head to the opposite end of the car, away from the smoke. Its not the worst squatting toilet I’ve seen. Rating: 3 of 10. There is an unintentional leak in the sink that actually keeps a steady stream of water cleaning the floor. I am prepared with a little roll of toilet paper (I bought a supply in Target before we came here), and Wet Ones for cleaning hands. (Thanks Mom!)

Beijing Yeye says goodbye. It is his stop. I regret that I didn’t take a picture of him! He has a leather case containing two bottles of wine and the accompanying wine tools. Perhaps this is a gift, or more importantly, for his “guanxi” or connections.

My Mandarin skills seem inadequate here. I struggle to understand the different accents. I rely on my phone for terms and the characters.

Scenery: Closer to Beijing we travel through mountains and river gorges. It is quite pretty, with blue/green water and clear skies. Then we enter the farmland. Farmers tend the fields using hoes. They clear refuse from fields by building small fires. Donkeys help pull loads. We see one tractor in six hours. There are lots of sheep tended by shepherds. Closer to Datong the earth is very dry and there are many ravines and small canyons.
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Finally we arrive. “Dao le”. It is chilly in Datong. As we emerge from the station taxi drivers barrage us to use their services or to take us to a travel agency. Our twenty minute ride to the Holiday Inn costs $2.50. The hotel looks like it struggles with costs. There are ashes in the corner of the bathroom stall and it smells of urine. During our two night stay, the bathroom doesn’t get mopped.
We go to the best rated restaurant in Datong for dinner. It is called Fen Lin Ge, or “Feeling Good”. Dinner for four is $40. It is delicious! The flower dumplings are divine. I order vegetarian dumplings and smoked eggplant. This is served cold. I also order Ma Pao tofu, which is spiced with chile sauce. I can take the heat! Hollis likes the meatballs, as does Brian. Sophie likes the sweet rice, which is molded and has jellied fruit on top.

Flower dumplings in Datong
Flower dumplings in Datong

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My impressions of Datong is that it is cleaner than Beijing. There are hardly any foreigners there, compared to Beijing, although it is a popular business to serve as driver/guides to take tourists to the sights, which are outside of town. It is definitely poorer than Beijing. It is a coal town. Our guide, Nancy, explains that one of the coal factories hires 9,000 people. There is housing right next to it with schools and shopping. My heart goes out to the families that breathe in the coal dust everyday. There is a newer section of Datong with modern buildings and could fit in anywhere in the US. There are several art deco style elements to the city: lamp posts and building details. Datong is about the same size as Chicago. There are skyscrapers, but as a whole, the feel is that of a smaller city.

We are thankful for our beds after the long journey. Tomorrow will be a busy day of sight-seeing!