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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Day 260 - Yungang Caves, Datong

china Thsese dudes are massive...

So, after the hanging monastry (which is only the *2nd* most impressive tourist trap in Datong), we decided to check out the Yungang Caves, a series of 45 caves, 20 minutes out of Datong, that house - get this 51,000 buddha statues. Now, I don't know about you, but the fact that it houses "51,000 buddha statues" means nothing to me. Firstly, I have no idea how many 51,000 is. I mean, 5,000 is ok. I can kinda picture 5,000. But 10,000 and I start to lose track. 51,000 and I have NO IDEA how many that is. Surely its, like, a stupid amount. ridiculous. Anyway, there I am, picturing a set of natural caves on a hillside, loaded with little painted ornamental buddhas. How wrong was i?

We decided on the non-tourist approach again, so after waving a lonely planet (with the chinese symbols for Yungang Grottoes in it) under the noses of some bus drivers, we eventually got on the number 3-1 and headed out of town to a nearby coal mining town. Its kinda grim, and run-down. Much as you'd expect, I guess. But we get off, head past the open brief-cases of buddha ornaments and tacky fake-jade necklaces. and into the deserted park where we're faced by a wall of cliff, dotted with tiny cave entrances etched into them.

We wander to the start of the 45-cave circuit. Its kinda impressive. Not AMAZING. But impressive. The caves are not very deep, but covered in etching of buddhas, dragons, pagodas and important looking dudes. most of the buddhas faces have weathered off by the rain or air pollution or something, so some of them are kinda grim looking. And in the middle of the caves are stone pillars shaped like ancient pagodas. I like it.

And a few more caves like that later, and we're kinda bored. until we find this cave...

Its creepy. and empty. and hollow and scary. and the steps are inviting us to wander in. and there's no one around to stop us, or tell us not to, or save us from the murderers/tigers/spiders that lurk inside. I'm shitting myself. Sam's nervous - but willing. We creep in. To find this...

[check me out, stood at the bottom]

Its enormous right. This man-made cave is probably about 20m high, with a perfect flat ceiling of rock. Its cavernous, echoey. And the buddha, flanked by two smaller dudes on either side, one caught scarily in the sun, peers out of a window in the rock over Datong and the coal-mines. Standing at the bottom, I don't even reach half-way to his knee. Its immense. And all the while, we're creeping around this place like uninvited guests. There's stone-carved corridors to explore, but they're all blocked. so we take the photos and leave. in awe.

Its said that no-one leaves this place unwowed. which is true. Its special. I'm being careful not to gush about it, because it was kinda boring. its samey. The rest of the caves don't differ much. There's small ones...

...there's huge ones...

...there's little ones with THOUSANDS OF BUDDHAS on them (no wonder they racked up 51,000)...

...really knackered ones that look SO wrong...

...and then there's two massive outside dudes, exposed to the elements are rotting as we speak. All in all, its amazing. the work, the effort, the skill. but hey, its like the terracotta army. impressive on paper - a bit lame in the flesh. number one tourist trap in Datong - number 2 for me. The monastry was way better. But maybe just because my life was in danger. i dunno.

anyway, we left the caves and went in search of the Datong "great wall", a segment which hasn't been destroyed yet about 10 minutes from the entrance to the caves. did we find it? don't be stupid. we ask some dude. he shakes his head like we've just asked for a knife to cut our throats. we ask some shopkeeper, who puts down his uzi that he was polishing (wtf?) and calls over his taxi driving mate. we explain - no taxi please - and he points us in the opposite direction to the instructions in the lonely planet. we try both. for an hour. and don't find even a sniff of the great wall of china. which is fine, cos apparently its a rubbish, crumbling mess anyway. and i've already been, so screw the wall.

and as if all 51,000 buddhas got together to kick my ass in some kinda of kharmic-retribution backlash, we ended the day in a horrendous hard-seat night train, getting no sleep with no leg room and no warmth, and ending the horrendous journey trying to find a cab that would take us to a hostel in beijing at 6 in the morning when its -5 degrees outside. which took ages. But eventually we made it into a bed, and for half the price of nights accomdation we slept for 4 hours, cabbed back to the train station and set off on a 7 hour journey to Taishan - home of a massive (and most) sacred mountain in China, which I plan on climbing solo sometime in the next couple of days. i'm mental. damn right.

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