Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Ripping Adventure

During this trip I've been trying to flee Winter by cleverly oscillating north and south depending on the seasons, however I don't think I'll escape the start of Winter here in China. As we got off the train at 7am in Datong our breaths were visible in the crisp morning air (something I haven't seen for some time now) and it's still only September! Datong is probably the largest coal-producing centre in China, with Shanxi province extracting fully one third of the country's 900 million tonnes of the black stuff. You guys may be wondering whether I have suddenly developed a new interest in heavy industry, but in fact Datong is also the site of the incredible Yungang caves. The caves, dating from the 5th and 6th centuries AD stretch along the side of a mountain and are said to contain over 50,000 Buddha statues. OK, most of them are quite small, but a bunch of them stand (or sit) at well over 10m, and some of the caves have even retained their beautiful colours. Not bad after 1500 years and with a huge, ugly coal plant just over the road spewing out its sooty smoke.

Further south from Datong are a couple of little oddities that I found intriguing. The first was the hanging monastery of Xuankong Si, which manages to somehow defy gravity clamped to the side of a cliff face (see picture). There's also a massive wooden pagoda in the neighbourhood that's almost 1000 years old and supposedly made without using a single nail. It would have been nicer though if they had some information about the place in English, as I'm rather anal when it comes to that sort of stuff.

I also had to baptise my brother to the joys of hiking up Chinese sacred mountains and so took him to Wutai Shan (yes that's right, it's time for another Chinese holy hill, but I'm pretty sure this is my last one for this trip). Unfortunately Mark wussed out half way up the mountain and decided to head back down, though luckily I found myself a friendly Canadian with whom to continue to the top. It's a pity really, as Wutai Shan is unlike any of the mountains I've been up in China because it is almost devoid of the tourist hordes that have marred the other ones. The climb was therefore quite enjoyable and the closest I've got to "nature" here. But the best was reserved for the descent, when I had the clever idea of going down the mountain a different way. I should have learnt by now not to have any bright ideas, but some people never learn I suppose. It started off OK when we toboganned along the grassy slopes, though that stopped when I split my trousers down the crotch! Then we found a dry stream bed that we thought we could follow down to the valley, but that soon became overgrown and impassable. Then we had to plough our way through a dense fir forest, getting absolutely covered in needles in the process, before we eventually got back onto the same path that we had ascended! It was great fun, but now I've got to find myself a tailor to get my trousers fixed.

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