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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Day 259 - The Hanging Monastry, Datong

china Every now and then, you strike gold...

So, Sam and I are sat in Xian, back off the Terracotta Army trip, which you might know I kinda hated. And we're discussing where to go next. We had a choice. We could go south, see some panda's, but then getting back to Beijing might have been a hassle. We could go to Taian, site of china's most sacred, and scalable, mountains. Or we could go to Datong - outback, dusty, cold and challenging (there's very little tourist infrastructure there apparently). So what do we do - we choose Datong.

Datong is a 6 hour train ride west of Beijing, so after watching the new Willy Wonka film (what's with the sucky ending about finding a family?), we jump on a night train and head north to Beijing, arriving at 6am to the blistering cold of winter. Our connection to Datong isn't for 8 hours, so we head back to our old hostel and play some cards in the warm before heading off on the hard-seat journey to Datong, packed in like sardines into the carriages reserved for locals. Its grim - they smoke on the train, they spit on the floor (after hacknig up half their lungs first - a common occurance in china), the spill noodles on their laps and kids scream the whole way. Its smells SO BAD, and its freezing, and SO UNCOMFORTABLE. Seriously, unless you're going for the authentic travelling experience in china, aviod the hard-seat carriages.

But we made it, and scooted across the street to the nearest hotel and bundled into a dorm room (i.e. 4 beds in a room with no facilities, sharing the staff toilet and showers), where we met a wicked girl who was staying in the same room. She's funny, easy to get on with, and speaks a little mandarin, so the next day we get up early ready to head to the famed Hanging Monastry with her.

Datong boasts two attractions - the first and most respected is its Buddhist caves, caved out of the surrounding hillside and adorned with over 50,000 carvings of buddhas. shocker. that's a lot. The second, and less well-received, is its Hanging Monastry. That said, for 100 yuan (7 quid), you can jump on a tourist bus and visit the caves, the monastry and a jade factory, all in one day, and with the comfor of no chinese people spitting on your shoes and no hassle getting cabs and buses. But we're not here for that. So we wrap up warm, hit the road and start trying to make our way 1 hour out of town to the monastry.

First we're bundled on a bus by a local, responding to our "Xuankong Si" calls (the name of the monastry). We pay up, take a seat, laugh at how easy that was, then get bundled off 3 stops later and pointed down a road. 10 minutes later we're bundled onto another bus, which we suddenly realise is a tour bus and is going to rip us off (it wasn't) so start shouting "TING!" (stop) at the driver and bundle ourselves off. Then we're hassled excessively by taxi drivers, so much so we jump on the next bus, which is a small 14-seater minibus. Its smokey, stinky and tiny. And after paying up and getting comfortable, it stops to pick up half of china. In the end we had 28 people on the bus, sat on tiny wooden stools in the aisles and croching at the front so the driver can see his mirrors. It was mental. And then, a hour later, we're dropped off outside a taxi which offers to drive us to the monastry for 30yuan (it should have been 10yuan - ripped).

But we made it. And this is what we saw...

Perched - literally sliding off - the mountain side is this amazing monastry - stacked in places 3 storeys high and dripping with ancient, religious charm. Its freezing, and we're starving, so we jump into a restaurant (which rips us off AGAIN) before donning our gloves and beginning the small scale to the foot of the monastry.

Now, I love stuff like this. Its old - 1400 years - and yet tourists can still clamber over it. Some of the staircases are held up with mere wedges under the supports, and the whole thing creaks with age as you carefully pick your footing on the hanging balconies around the outsides of the gorgeously adorned rooms of buddhist deities and gods.

My fear of heights kicks in at one point, enough that I want to turn back, but I carry on, edging my way around the one-way system of narrow paths. Its magical, and we're here all alone, except for a group that arrive just as we start our descent. Its charming and captivating, and surrounding by a jaw-dropping gorge and dam, complete with frozen ice flows seeping from holes in the rock. I scoot up the concrete steps lining the side of the gorge to the top of the dam and stare out over the frozen lake.

The return journey is somewhat more comfortable, taking the same cab back to the nearby town and a nicer bus which affords us some sleep. And then its a mammoth internet session to end the day, making use of the faster-than-beijing connection and ability to check my myspace without crashing the computer.

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