Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Datong - Hanging Temple

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The second and final day in Datong I headed to the Hanging Temple, which is an hour's ride outside of the city. Like the name suggests, the temple is in a constant state of suspension on the side of a mountain. It was built about 1500 years ago, similarly to the Yungang Grottoes, but the temple isn't in the original, crumbling form and has been renovated several times. Considering its precarious position hanging from the side of a mountain, with loads of tourists visiting everyday and the need to support their weight, it doesn't surprise me that it has been fixed up a little.

Hanging Temple (懸空寺)

Temple from a Distance

Wes and Hanging Temple

Temple from Below

Temple Side View

As you can see from the pictures, most of the temple rests on a ledge that has been carved back into the rock. However, some of the walkways and other parts are suspended merely by some thin wooden stilts. Seems pretty safe, especially with hordes of tourists loaded up on the walkways waiting to go through the temple. Because the temple is carved into the mountain, it provides a really nice cover from the elements. When walking around outside of the temple, it was really cold and windy, but inside you couldn't feel any wind and it was a lot warmer.

Stilted Walkway

Stilted Part of Temple

After walking around the areas outside of the temple, I went on the walking tour through the temple. You follow a procession of tourists through a set walking path and go over, up, and back through nearly all rooms, walkways, and areas of the temple. While it only takes a half hour or so, it's really cool to see the temple and the surrounding mountain scenery.

Hanging Temple Up Close

On Top Level of Temple

Wes with Temple and Mountains

Because it is a temple, there were also several interesting religious statues in some of the side rooms of the temple.

I Like the Angry, Blue Warlord on the Right
(This might be something similar to the good angel, bad angel situation. The white statue on the left seems to be advocating peace, the blue one on the right war, and the bronze statue in the middle listening to them, but that's just a guess.)

Black Eyed Statues

I took a bit more time to walk around and take pictures of the temple after the tour. Admittedly, a lot of the pictures look pretty much the same, but you can never have enough pictures and different angles.

Full View of Hanging Temple

Characteristic Chinese Rock Denoting Landmark with Fancy Writing (懸空寺)

After visiting the Hanging Temple, I got on a train back to Hangzhou that same afternoon. That concludes my trip to Inner Mongolia (Hohhot, Grasslands, and Desert) and Datong (Yungang Grottoes and Hanging Temple). It might have taken me three months to finish all the blog posts, but at least I finally got around to it. All told I was traveling for about 8 days and covered over 2500 miles. It was a blast and definitely a side of China I haven't seen before. I went from one side of a rail line all the way to the other side, from Hangzhou to Baotou.

Train Sign Commemorating the Inner Mongolia and Datong Trip October 2009

For more pictures of the Hanging Temple, see: http://picasaweb.google.com/wallred10/DatongHangingTemple#

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Datong - Yungang Grottoes

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The next stop on my trip during the October Holiday was in Datong, which is located in the northern part of Shanxi province, right next to Inner Mongolia. Datong and Shanxi province are mostly known as big coal mining areas and Datong has previously been ranked as one of the most polluted cities in the world, although recently it has been cleaned up a bit. Upon arrival at the train station, I could definitely tell that the city was a lot dirtier and less developed than other cities I had been to in China. At night they didn't have many lights on, so on some streets, even in the downtown, it would be almost completely dark. The hotel I stayed at was one of the few reasonably priced hotels I could find, but unfortunately it was close to the train station. Whenever I went outside I would constantly get harassed by the hawkers and other people who normally lurk about train stations in China, offering rides in unlicensed cabs, selling crap, or anything else. Something else I noticed was the large number of guys just peeing on the streets or right out in the open. You might see that here and there in other parts of China, but in Datong it was literally all over the place. Needless to say, my impression of the city itself is pretty poor.

Despite all the negatives, Datong has two big tourist attractions that make the visit worthwhile. The first is the Yungang Grottoes, or sometimes called the Cloud Ridge Caves. The grottoes are around 1500 years old and contain thousands (51,000 according to wikipedia) of Buddhist carvings, some of which are quite small and others that are huge. It's amazing to think that people were able to build something like that so long ago.

Yungang Grottoes

Grottoes with Buddhist Carvings

Giant Buddha (Notice Man Holding Up the Arm)

Close Up of Small Carvings

Hall of Many Buddhas

Wall of Buddhas

Big Buddha

Large Section of Grottoes with Fellow American Tourist

There were several sections or caves to enter, over 50 in all, but unfortunately in the two best caves they didn't allow pictures. I tried to sneak a few pictures, but got yelled out. Despite my best efforts, the forbidden pictures turned out pretty blurry.

Inside Cave

"Illegal" Picture

There was also a series of smaller "caves" that were basically little squares cut into the stone with small sculptures inside. These were less of a tourist draw and fewer people were there, but you could go and take a closer look at some of them without being hurried along or being crowded by people, which was nice.

Small Caves

At the very front there was a large Buddha that was exposed to the outside world. Apparently, the cave had collapsed awhile back, so now it's out in the open. It was one of the more interesting things to see and also a good chance to get a good full view of one of the Buddhas.

Buddha with Collapsed Cave

Side View

Some People Who Asked to Take a Photo with us "Foreigners"

While the Yungang Grottoes might not be a full day visit, it's definitely worth a trip to the area outside the city to see some of these historical relics. Some of the carvings are crumbling and show their age, but to me that makes them even better than something that has been restored in a poor way and has an artificial look.

After going back to Datong city, we got some lunch at a Chinese barbecue, which is basically an array of different meats, tofu, and vegetables on sticks, including full fish with head, fins, and all.

Chinese BBQ for Lunch

For more pictures, see the picasa album: http://picasaweb.google.com/wallred10/Datong#

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Kubuqi Desert (Resonant Sand Gorge)

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Besides the grasslands, the next major thing to see in Inner Mongolia is the desert. Inner Mongolia is home to parts of the Gobi and other deserts. The desert occupies a large portion of land in that region. The nearest and most accessible section of the desert to the big cities in Inner Mongolia is called the Kubuqi Desert and everyone goes to the part called the Resonant Sand Gorge. To get to the desert, I went to the city Baotou, which is west of Hohhot. Before leaving Hohhot, I made sure to eat one last time on the restaurant street that had a lot of Mongolian and Muslim restaurants. Mongolian food and Muslim barbecue with lamb and spices is about as good as it gets for me.

Restaurant Street with Barbecue

Baotou isn't too far from Hohhot, but it definitely seemed a bit more wild and had less exposure to foreigners. Previously, when I went to a new and strange place, I'd get nervous or maybe feel a bit uncertain about things, but I've learned to embrace it and enjoy it as much as you can. After finding a hotel and booking my trip to the desert, I got a great dinner for the super cheap prices that can be found in the non-major Chinese cities.

Rack of Lamb

Bus Converted to Street Food Restaurant

The next day I headed to the Kubuqi desert. After taking about an hour and a half to two hours drive from Baotou, you reach an area of land that has a quick transition from farming area to sand and desert. I was shocked to see that literally within 100 meters of the desert they were building a huge rail line, which the driver said was mainly for shipping coal. Within the next 400 meter radius there was a huge coal electricity plant. To me it seemed like they were tempting the fates by building that kind of infrastructure right next to the desert. If the desert expanded to the point where it swallowed up the new rail line or destroyed their plant, there would be nothing they could do to stop it.

Coal Plant

Rail Line Next to Desert

People Getting a Ride on an Old Truck

For better or worse, the stretch of desert that they take everyone to is pretty touristy, but you don't really have a choice to go anywhere else. Before you enter the desert area, you can rent these big desert socks that keep sand out of your shoes. While they might not be the most fashionable, they are quite necessary if you plan on walking around much. Much like the grasslands, I had plenty of time to get out and do a little exploring on my own. I had never been to a desert landscape before and it was actually quite beautiful to see dunes stretched out as far as the eye can see.

Kubuqi Desert

My Driver
(He proves the stereotype that northern Chinese people are tall)

Wes and Stylish Red Desert Socks

Driver At Top of Dune

Desert Landscape

After walking around for awhile, I decided to partake in one of the tourist attractions and go on a camel ride. I had never ridden a camel before, so it was a good as time as any to give it a try. I have to admit that the camels were surprisingly docile and easy to ride. I'm not sure if it's because they are just good natured or if it's because they had bolts running through their noses connecting a string of camels together, but they definitely seemed friendly. Whereas the horses on the grasslands seemed to have a mind of their own, the camels just kind of plodded along wherever they were led.

Camel Corral

All Aboard (Notice Bolt Through Nose)

To get on the camel, you would climb on while the camel was lying down, then a Chinese guy helping you would kind of grunt and pull on the camel to get it to stand up. It was a surprisingly big jump to go from sitting to standing and normally the camels would stand up in stages: the back legs first, then the front legs. During the interval of time between when the back legs were going up and the front legs were still down, you would get rocked forward quite a bit, which caused quite a number of Chinese girls to scream.

After all the camels had been mounted in the group, one of the small, weathered Chinese men working there would lead the caravan for a walk around the desert. At first I thought those workers were friendly and helpful, that is until they demanded that you pay them when they took pictures of you on the camel. We rode the camels for about 20 minutes until we arrived at a little zoo, which mostly seemed to contain underfed and tortured animals that had no business living in the desert.

Tour Guide


Wes on Camel

My Friendly Camel

Anyone Heard of Desert Goats?

These Animals Probably Died at this Zoo in the Desert

After the camel ride, I took some more time to walk around and see the desert landscapes.

Desert Landscape with Caravan in the Distance


There were a few other tourist things to do, like a long zip line and a sled down a big dune. Of course everything is overpriced for tourists, so I decided to take the cheaper sled ride and then headed back to the city. Upon arriving in Baotou, I went straight to the train station to go to my next destination, Datong, in Shanxi province. That means my time in Inner Mongolia was over. I really liked Inner Mongolia and enjoyed the landscapes of the grasslands and desert. It was nice to get away from big cities and pollution for a little while. The only thing that might have been nicer is if I had gone during the summer time. During the summer the grasslands would have been greener and the weather a bit warmer. Besides that, it was a great trip.

Here are some final scenes from Baotou and Inner Mongolia:

Man With Donkeys Pulling Cart Down Main Road

Back to Crowds of People at the Baotou Train Station