Travels In China – 8: Road To Datong


 

 

The main reason for going to Datong in northern China is to visit its most famous sight – the Yungang Grottoes. The 53 main caves there contain over 51,000 intricate, ancient Buddhist statues. It takes six and a half hours to get to Datong from Beijing by train.

Datong is the former western capital of the Jin Dynasty (266 – 420 AD) in Shanxi Province of China, separated from Inner Mongolia by The Great Wall Pass. During the Ming Dynasty ((1368-1644), nine frontier towns were established to manage a 6000 km section of the Great Wall from Shanhaiguan Pass to Jiayuguan Pass. Ancient Datong was one of the Nine Frontier Towns, maintaining a 335 km section of the Wall and defending China against the Mongol raiders.

 

A section of the Great Wall near Datong snaking over the mountain tops

 

There are about twenty non-bullet trains from Beijing to Datong everyday taking over six hours to cover the 370 kilometres between the two cities at a top speed of 160 km/hour. Major stations along the way are Xuanhua, Zhangjiakou, Chaigoubu and Yanggao. Simple Chinese food is available on the train. The ticket costs $8 per person.

 

 

We took the morning “normal” train to Datong. Beijing railway station was crowded and security was tight. Passports were checked, baggage scanned and bodies searched. The train was packed.

 

We sped through the urban sprawl of Beijing and into open country with corn fields and orchards. A  mountain range was crossed where lower slopes were covered with solar panels. At Zhangjiakou, there was a glimpse of the Post House Fortress from the Ming Dynasty, the largest well-preserved post house in China. Nancy, the tour guide from Wendy Wu handed out bread rolls, pastries and sweets for lunch. We drank Changyu, a dry red wine from a grape originally believed to be of European origin, and similar if not identical to Cabernet Franc.  It has since been proven to be genetically identical to Carménère. The wine is made by Changyu Pioneer Wine Company in Yantai, Shandong, China’s oldest and largest winery, founded in 1892.

The Post House

It was dark when we reached Datong. The railway station had neither escalators nor porters. We walked down a steep staircase to a tunnel, dragging our luggage, and then panting up another steep staircase to the foyer of the station. A coach drove us to our hotel in central Datong. “It is an early start tomorrow to visit the Grottoes” Nancy said. We sighed.
It had been a long day. The six-and-a-half hour train journey was tedious.

Impression

The “normal” train to Datong is no joy ride. The Bullet Train or flying would be much better options. You could also take the sleeper train in the late evening and arrive in Datong in the morning in good time to visit the Grottoes and the Hanging Temple before proceeding to Wutaishan for the night. In any case, you should bring your own food and drink for the train. Travel light or you will have grief with heavy luggage at Datong station!

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