Datong Experience

Most of you may or may not know that I recently went on a trip to Datong, in northern China. Datong is in Shanxi province, the literal translation of which would be ‘Western Mountains’. And I discovered that that’s a very apt name for the province. There are mountains all around, and the air is of the fresh & bracing variety which makes you believe that the world was born only yesterday.

Datong itself is on a plateau, and its air is cold, but not exactly fresh and bracing. This is because some of the largest coal mines in the world are located in and around Datong. And the town itself is quite uninteresting. It resembles any other industrial town in India, only slightly less shabby and infinitely more disciplined.

However, what it lacked in scenic beauty, Datong made up for in hospitality and it’s cuisine. The local people are warm and welcoming and it delights them if you can speak a few Chinese words. The food is lipsmackingly delicious. Yes…you read it right! Authentic Chinese food is palatable! This trip was, fittingly enough, my initiation into Chinese food. At first I poked and sniffed at the food, appalled at the idea of having to eat what lay before me. But I soon learnt that most of the assumptions we have about Chinese food are quite misleading. They cook their meat till it’s very tender, they do add spices and their food is not flavourless! A few dishes that I really enjoyed were Steamed Bun with Bean Paste Filling, Peanut Soup, A kind of coiled, deep fried bread made of wheat and Pork Skin cooked with honey and lemon.

There were other things on the menu, which may have been delicious, but I wouldn’t have touched them even if you’d paid me. These included Donkey’s Meat, Dog Meat, Shark Fin, Live Sea Cucumber and Bird’s Nest Soup.

The places of interest around Datong are many. We visited only three of them – the Hanging Monastery (a fragile-looking structure that is deceptively sturdy), the Scenic HengShan Mountain and the various temples dotted across it’s sides and the Yungang Grottoes.

The Hanging Monastery was OK. It’s interesting to look at, but getting inside is a major pain in the neck, chiefly because of the sheer number of visitors it gets. You’ll have to wait in line, since they allow only 80 visitors at a time into the Monastery. This is because the Hanging Monastery…well, hangs. It’s an ancient structure and the authorities definitely don’t want to take any chances.

The Scenic HengShan Mountain was wonderful! There are temples there, of course, for those who’re more culturally inclined. But what’s really special is the view from the mountain. It’s simply breathtaking!

The Yungang Grottoes would’ve been very, very interesting, if it hadn’t started raining. The sculptures are wonderfully detailed and some of them are magnificent. Indians will find this place particularly fascinating, because of the obvious Indian influence on the art here; there are even sculptures of Vishnu, Shiva and Vajra.

But as I said, it started raining and everyone rushed into the caves for shelter and it got too crowded to take any decent photographs. We returned to Datong in a bit of a bad mood after that.

However, rain or no rain, I had a fun two days. It was wonderful to finally get out of Shanghai for a while and see some ‘real China’.

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