Donkey Crossing

Welcome to Donkey Crossing! Donkey Crossing is an on-line account of one Limey and one Yank living one Dream. From September 2006 until the end of 2007, we plan to visit friends and family on five continents and immerse ourselves into various cultures, natural phenomena and ways of life. We hope you enjoy our tales and visit often! Cheers, Jason and Rachel Napoli

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Sacred Sites and Green Scenes: Discovering Shanxi Province

Although we got hooked by the buzz of Beijing, after two weeks we were ready to brave a sweaty, overcrowded train ride to see more of China. Our next destination was Datong, a large city in Shanxi province. Datong boasted most of the urban characteristics of Beijing, including smog, heavy industry and droves of Chinese people, but lacked anything you could call charm. However, we were there to visit two reportedly jaw dropping sights, the Hanging Monastery and the Yungang Caves, so we were unfazed by Datong's lack of aesthetic appeal.

This Datong entrepreneur had a charcoal grill welded to the back of his bike, catering to any passerby with a taste for cheap grilled meat.

We first visited the famed "Hanging Monastery", which clung to the side of Heing Shan, a sacred Taoist mountain. We joined the crowds gazing upwards at it from Jinlong Canyon valley, marvelling at the precarious structure, shored up with wooden stilts. It didn't look entirely stable, but we were not dissuaded from venturing into the sacred site to explore.

The "Hanging Monastery" from solid ground below.

Originally, the monastery was built further down the side of the cliff, but the whole structure was later raised up, out of the way of flood waters. While we had every confidence in this unusual feat of engineering, we did wonder why nobody was keeping track of the number of visitors walking around the monastery. Surely there is a maximum capacity? Evidently it wasn't reached while we were up there.

One of the monastery's many stilted temples.

Back on the bus, we headed to the Yungang Caves. The man made caves, chiseled out of sandstone cliffs 1,500 years ago, contain more than 51,000 statues of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas as well as musical instruments, dragons and pagodas. The caves are a favorite with pilgrims and visitors alike, and have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This cave features a 'Thousand Buddhas' motif, with each tiny Buddha statue carefully carved and painted.

The giant Buddha pictured here resides in one of the oldest caves. The holes in the stonework once held wooden pegs onto which a clay covering was applied. The clay and pegs have been victims of time and the elements, so only the holes remain.

Cave 18 is one of the most memorable, containing this stunning crowned Bodhisattva. The stonework is incredible, and this cave has been beautifully preserved.

These pilgrims place three lighted incense sticks in front of a seated Buddha.

A few moments by the lily pond after a long day of monastery & cave exploration.

Back at our extremely Chinese hotel in Datong, we signed ourselves up for foot massages. Jason was looking forward to having his feet rubbed by a young Asian masseuse, and seemed rather surprised when a burly masseur with a squint sat at his feet and started rubbing. My masseur was even scarier - a middle aged pot bellied Chinese gentleman, wearing a white vest, boxer shorts and flip flops. The two chatted and joked in Mandarin throughout our 'treatments', but certainly put plenty of effort into their thorough massaging. Every so often we heard them moving phlegm around the back of their throats, and expected them to spit on the floor, true to Chinese form. They refrained from doing so until after the massage, which we thought was rather polite.

After about 30 minutes, our masseurs turned their attention to our shins, calves and hamstrings. The leg massage turned out to be more of a battering than a soothing rub - not ideal for legs still recovering from a strenuous hike along the Great Wall. In fact I was so taken aback by the heavy handed leg hammering technique that my foot shot towards my masseur's throat, completely involuntarily. Thankfully it didn't reach him, and nor did a string of expletives I suppressed by biting my lip. He must have got the message though, as he didn't spend more than 30 seconds on my tender legs. In spite of the leg hammering finale, the experience was well worth the $5 each we paid for it.

The next day we boarded a bus bound for Wutai Shan, a region of five holy peaks. The 'short journey' turned into a seven hour ride due to bus breakdown. While the bus was being fixed, we made friends with a lovely young Chinese couple, which more than made up for the delay. By the time we reached Wutai Shan, having driven through miles of stunning misty mountain scenery, the bus breakdown was all but forgotten.

The scenic green valleys around the five holy peaks of Wutai Shan

Arriving at Wutai Shan with Jia Jia, one of our new Chinese friends. His wife, Yu, took this photo.

Our accommodation in Wutai Shan turned out to be even more Chinese than our hotel in Datong. In fact, the management of the Wtshrine Hotel were so unaccustomed to foreign guests that the check-in process took over an hour. The language barrier proved to be just about insurmountable throughout our stay, and in spite of some creative and valiant attempts on our part, our communication efforts basically failed. Concepts including, but not limited to, "this toilet leaks, please fix it," "we need sheets on the bed," "our room is filthy," and "please deduct the deposit we paid from our bill," were returned with blank looks, whichever way we tried to convey them.

Breakfast also proved to be an interesting event at Wtshrine. Each morning we were served a typical Chinese breakfast of pickled cucumber rind, millet porridge, fermented bean curd with chili sauce, steamed buns, deep fried dough sticks and eggs hard boiled in brown water.
To be fair, what our hotel lacked in amenities it made up for in authenticity. We truly felt like we'd made it off the beaten path. Furthermore, the gorgeous mountainous area of Wutai Shan exceeded our expectations. We spent our first day there exploring some of the holy buildings and soaking in the atmosphere.

Pagodas at Shancai Dong, one of the many temples in Wutai Shan.

This stupa at Tayuan temple is Wutai Shan's most distinctive monument to Buddhism. Along with hundreds of pilgrims, we spun the prayer wheels at the base of the stupa.

Sedan chairs are available for hire for those who fancy playing Emperor for a day, or just don't feel like walking.

One reason for venturing to Wutai Shan was to hike into the hills, beyond the reach of China's ubiquitous crowds. After an hour of climbing uphill, the sound of horns being honked in the village began to fade, and we were finally alone, for the first time since arriving in China. We savored the peace, quiet and solitude as much as the breathtaking scenery.

Prayer flags can be seen all over Wutai Shan, even on remote hillsides. We were very fortunate not only to find solitude, but also to see blue skies. At this time of year, visibility is notoriously bad, but an early morning downpour cleared the skies for us.

This stupa is located on a particularly pleasant peak, overlooking the village. It was a great place to pause and reflect.

Sanquan Temple sits serenely on a hillside surrounded by beautiful wild flowers. With such a stunning setting, it is not surprising that Wutai Shan is considered a holy place for Buddhists.

After a couple of hours of hot, hard hiking we reached a summit, from where we could see all five of Wutai Shan's famed holy peaks, and the temples on top of each of them.

We exchanged pleasantries with three locals on our way back to the village. At least, we extended some pleasantries to them. We have no idea what they were saying to us!

After our hike, we feasted on spicy tofu, bamboo sprouts, fried rice, steamed greens, chicken with potatoes and Tsingtao beer. We managed to procure everything on the table using a bizarre mixture of sign language (including the chicken dance), pointing and, of course, big smiles.

Bon appetit!

Stay tuned to Donkey Crossing for the final installment of our adventures in China.


Blogger kelly said...

I would do anything for a re-enactment. The brown water...was that perhaps tea? My sister said the same thing was basically given to her every morning where she stayed in China. A far cry from baked beans, sausages and salmon...

5:03 PM  
Anonymous Andy Montador said...

Mmmmm.... Pickled cucumber rind. Intesresting. I'm just tucking in to my Friday lunchtime treat - a bag of chips. Ohhh they're good. Coming home soon, Rach?

Andy x

6:41 AM  
Blogger Matt said...

From brown water to holy temples on mountain tops...China as a land of contrasts? How much are these holy sites in use, and how much do they seem to be tourist attractions? Looks like there's a bit of both.

By "typically Chinese," especially as it applies to hotels, seems to mean "pretty crappy" in Jas-and-Rachel speak. Perhaps we could get a ranking of hotels from your journey? A Donkey Crossing Top Ten (or Bottom Ten, depending on the mood).

5:26 PM  

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