Datong China Travel Guide
Datong, China is not very far from Beijing, but for some strange reason, nobody knows about it. I don’t know why, because two of Datong’s attractions have been featured in TIME magazine yet still, somehow it has never caught on. It was never on my radar, either until we recently had to cancel a portion of our original China itinerary and we needed something to fill the space.
Our original plan was to take a train up into Mongolia and stay in a yurt and ride camels in the Gobi desert and horses in the grasslands. Alas, it was still under snow in April. We were understandably disappointed…
… until we arrived in Datong! (We actually visited Pingyao and Datong in place of Mongolia, and both were seriously amazing!) Once we caught our first glimpse of all that Datong had to offer, any residual disappointment disappeared!
You’re going to take one look at all my photos (below) and you’re going to move Datong, China to the very top of your bucket list, I’m sure! There is no other place in the world quite like it.
5 Unique Things to See in Datong, China
1. The Hanging Monastery
Also known as Heng Shan Monastery, because it hangs 160 feet above the ground on the cliff side of Mount Heng (Heng Shan), the Hanging Monastery was built over 1500 years ago, during the Northern Wei Dynasty.
Here’s an fascinating fact: the Hanging Monastery appears to be built atop stilts attached to the cliff, but the stilts were actually added later, to support the hordes of tourists inundating the site. It was originally constructed without the pillars, and they can still be removed without affecting the Hanging Monastery!
The Hanging Monastery was built by a monk to serve as a travel stop or a way station for people passing through the remote area. Because Chinese travelers were reluctant to enter religious places not of their own religion, the monk thoughtfully included all three prevalent religions — Buddhism, Taoism and Confucionism — in the monastery.
That’s why you’ll find statues of Buddha, Lao Zi and Confucius side by side (check out the video below) in the largest of the 40-roomed monastery — so travelers of all religions could rest there. What a considerate monk!
When I researched the Hanging Monastery prior to our trip, I was a little worried that it looked dangerous for my little ones. The Chinese don’t seem to care how potentially dangerous things are or how many ways you could sue them. However, my worries were completely unfounded.
The railings around the exterior walkways of the Hanging Monastery are short, but they were tall enough for kids who are being watched over and yelled at by an anxious mother. I wouldn’t turn my kids loose to run and play here.
The ladder/stairways were steep and narrow, but they were harder for me to navigate (I’m tall and had a huge backpack) than for my kiddos. I’m also not afraid of heights. A person with acrophobia might have a rough time.
I read that the Hanging Monastery is closed during inclement weather, and I can see why. Wind would be pretty scary in that building, and the trail and stairs leading up to it could be dangerous if slippery. Other than that, it’s perfectly safe and only a tad scary as long as you keep an eye on your kids.
The hike up to the monastery is short and easy, even with a bunch of kids. I think it took us under 20 minutes. Most of it is up a stairway carved into the mountain. You do cross a hanging bridge, but it’s wide and stable and so not scary that my kids ran back and forth over it like a herd of elephants, intentionally trying to make it shake.
I highly suggest not going during Chinese holidays, because we went on a non-holiday weekday during April and it felt pretty crowded. I can’t imagine packing more people into such a small space. Many of the walkways are so narrow you can’t pass another person.
Overall, this is one of the coolest places we have ever visited, and we all learned a lot. All by itself, the Hanging Monastery is completely worth the trip from Beijing. Combined with the Yungang Grottoes and the other sites in Datong, a person would be foolish not to visit.
We probably spent about 3 hours there. Be sure to visit in the morning if you want to get the best photos. The Hanging Monastery is completely in shadows later in the day, and your camera will be pointing into the sun. The restrooms at the site were adequate. They have a western style toilet in the handicapped stall.
You can purchase tickets to climb up to the Hanging Monastery for 130 RMB, or just an entry ticket to see the monastery for (I think?) 15 RMB. But I don’t know why anyone would go all that way and not actually walk through the building!
Our hotel arranged three taxis for us, to drive us around all day and wait for us at each location. It was only about 1000 RMB (~$150 USD) and it was so nice to have the hotel make all the arrangements so we didn’t have to explain each location or where we were headed next. I know there are buses, but they involve a transfer as well as a taxi ride at the end, and with such a large family it really was no cheaper than just hiring taxis for the day.
The Hanging Monastery was about an hour away from Datong by car, out into the desert where someone has planted huge, non-native, monoculture tracts of thirsty trees. I’m talking miles and miles of evenly spaced trees, all exactly the same species.
You won’t understand until you’ve been to Northern China yourself. Once you visit, you, too will be scratching your head.
There are gigantic, half-dead, monoculture forests planted all over this edge of the Gobi desert. Someone (I looked it up because, yes, I’m that nerdy) apparently told a high-up Chinese communist that they could stop the desertification of the area by planting millions of trees.
As a permaculture farmer myself, I can tell you that desert reclamation is possible, but not like this.
Millions of the same species of non-native trees is not a natural ecosystem. And now hordes of insects, (different tree varieties are susceptible to different insects — so a huge group of the same tree species is exceptionally vulnerable) coupled with the fact that these thirsty, non-native species were planted in such an arid and constantly polluted climate, are decimating all the trees.
The Chinese painted the trunks white up to about 4′ to try to stop the voracious insects. So all these huge, half-dead, monoculture tracts of trees have white trunks. It’s very odd.
Sorry for that tangent, I just find Communists to be so perplexing and I always want to make sense out of things. My mind is very logic based. So I stew over strange things and have to google my questions and find answers, and then I share them because I’m a homeschooler and that’s how I operate. I live my life in teaching mode.
Anyway, if you are planning a trip to China, you should definitely make room on your itinerary for the Hanging Monastery near Datong! Hopefully, the strange forests will still be standing so you can be awed by them like I was.
2. Yungang Grottoes
The Yungang Grottoes, in Datong, China, were carved by Buddhist monks during the latter half of the 5th century. There are over 250 caves and niches filled with over 50,000 statues carved from the sandstone mountain!
I’m a rabid DIYer and I can’t imagine undertaking that project!
The statues housed deep in the caves and niches are in good condition, right down to the paint in the most interior caves. Some of the exposed statuary has been damaged by the elements, but luckily steps are being taken to preserve the carvings and to repair damage that has been done.
It’s interesting how the carved areas inside the caves, but not far enough inside, have also been damaged by the elements. It looks like sandstone, and the area is subject to frequent sandstorms, so that must be the reason.
The photos below show two sides of the very same column, situated probably 20′ inside a cave, but with nothing between the columns and the cave opening. The smoothish side is oriented toward the cave opening and the carved side is oriented toward the cave interior.
Remember how I said I’m a homeschooler and I live my life in teaching mode? I couldn’t let that little geology lesson about erosion slide by, ha, ha! My kiddos thought it was interesting, too, and it led to further questions and learning.
See the wooden structure in front of the cave entrances? Those are modern structures, built to protect the caves behind them.
We took a bus to the grottoes. Public buses in foreign countries are always a cultural lesson all by themselves. You always hear about how oriental cultures revere the aged, but we found the opposite to true in China.
They revere children. Elderly people would offer my children their seats on the bus and the metro. Young adults would push and shove their way into seats, ignoring the elderly and female. But most everyone would give up their seat to a child.
And you so rarely see children in public. When you do see a child, he is most likely being escorted (and pampered) by a small army of adults (two doting parents plus 4-doting grandparents). It must be because of the long-standing 1-child policy.
I hope it will be otherwise, but a child raised like that in the United States would become a nightmare. It will be interesting to watch Chinese society evolve.
Boy, I’m full of tangents today! Back to the grottoes, because they are worth so much more than my tangential pontifications.
You’ll walk through a huge precursor to the grottoes themselves, which are worth a stop. Men dressed as mongolian warriors can teach your children archery, or you can try your hand at other mongolian-style weaponry.
Beyond that, cross a bridge and walk through the enormous Buddhist temple. You’ll see so many temples in China you won’t know what to do with another, but this temple has fantastic architecture and it’s huge. Keep walking and you’ll find the grottoes you came to see.
They are incredible. Words are insufficient. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
There are a few other interesting things to see around the grottoes, so keep looking around. We saw a Chinese puppet show and a little cemetery and got to ring a school-bus-sized, Chinese bell. I suggest reserving at least 2-3 hours for this site and bringing lots of water and a snack to keep your kiddos happy. There is definitely enough of interest to keep them busy!
Don’t miss seeing the Yungang Grottoes in Datong, China!
3. Datong, China City Walls
The wall has been completely restored, so you can circumnavigate all of Datong, China atop the city wall. Each gate has a little bike rental shop. We had so much fun riding bikes in Xi’An that we decided to do it again. This time we rode in the evening and watched the city lights come on.
We girls decided to share this nifty vehicle.
My 5-year-old, Lizzy, climbed in the basket in front, anticipating an exciting ride. Three of us pedaled behind her for all we were worth, but we still crawled along at a snails pace, with Lizzy yelling, “Faster, faster, this ride is so lame!”
So we took turns running behind the vehicle, pushing, which was actually really hard work because the vehicle was heavier than it seemed and the brick paving was uneven. For some reason, the whole situation was hilarious to us, and we couldn’t stop laughing, which didn’t help.
The three of us were exhausted by the second gate (it’s a whole lot of miles from gate to gate) and we were WAY behind the rest of the crew, so we traded the vehicle in for two more tandems. We eventually caught up to them when they started worrying about us and stopped and waited.
No matter which mode of transportation you choose, it’s a lot of fun to see the city from atop the city walls! It seems like it took us about an hour and a half to get all the way around. There was no charge to climb up on the city walls, and it was 110RMB per tandem bike rental (2 hour limit) and double that for our fancy pants vehicle.
4. Nine Dragon Screen
You’ll see many of these screens around the exterior of building entrances. Outer spirit screens were often status symbols, in addition to being used to shield entrance gates against evil spirits in traditional Chinese architecture.
Spirit screens stem from the belief that evil spirits cannot move around corners, so the spirit screen blocks them from entering through the gate they shield. They were constructed of various materials and decorated with symbols of luck and good fortune, like the dragon.
Nine-dragon, richly glazed, carved stone screens like this particular screen were usually only found in imperial palaces and gardens. This one was previously located across the street, but when the building was torn down the Chinese dismantled it piece by piece and reassembled it in it’s current location. Isn’t it beautiful?
5. Walk the streets.
Datong has a unique architectural style similar to the wattle and daub, timber-framed style of medieval tudor architecture, but with an oriental flare. We saw beautiful buildings like this in the immediate vicinity of Yuyuan Gardens in Beijing, but these seem to be the style in this Northern region of China, rather than the exception to a different style. They’re very striking!
Datong also has row after row of narrow, non-paved, packed-earth, streets, lined by buildings with roll-up doors in the front, like small garages or storage units, that house restaurants, stores and other businesses. These are much less picturesque, but nonetheless delicious and interesting. We always look for muslim family restaurants because my kids will always eat a big bowl of la mien homemade, hand-pulled noodles, piping hot with shaved beef.
We also ate repeatedly at this fancy, dumpling restaurant. They served an interesting dumpling, different than we’d ever seen before, made fresh to order.
Many of the residential areas behind the touristy areas look like the photos below. My sister (who lived in China for over 10 years) said that they just build things very poorly (most especially all of the modern skyscrapers) and then instead of renovating or restoring them they just knock them down and resettle the residents.
Many of the modern buildings are built so cheaply that they look decades old after 5 years and centuries old after 20 years, at which point they are knocked down to build anew. They don’t even bother with repairs during the interim.
It’s a constant cycle of building cheaply and destroying, instead of building high quality and maintaining, and renovating when needed. Everywhere you look there are piles of rubbish and buildings coming down and buildings going up. You often see entire blocks of vacant, unfinished, concrete skeletons of skyscrapers.
In order to get the most out of any trip (but especially when you’re homeschooling or worldschooling, like we are) it’s important to leave the tourist areas and see the real, behind-the-scenes, where-people-actually-live, honest and raw China. Just so you know, China is extremely safe. Even while walking back streets (even at night) we never once felt unsafe.
You have to be wary of taxi scams, but we never once experienced pickpocketing attempts or anything even remotely questionable. In fact, I left my wallet in the back of a taxi with thousands of reminbi inside, and realized only after the taxi pulled away. I chased after it and he pulled over to the side of the road to let me grab it. Whew! Not only are you safe, but your belongings are safe.
One interesting thing we saw off the beaten path was a whole neighborhood of 20′ shipping containers made over into tiny homes. Not cute ones, though — strictly utilitarian. I’m a creeper, I know, but I was just so curious about the inside of those shipping containers that I made every effort to see inside as we walked past.
Each of them seemed to have a set of bunk beds and a small table with an electric wok, plus assorted belongings. I didn’t see any women or children, so it may have been temporary housing for construction workers, since there seemed to be a lot of construction in the area.
Just one street over from our hotel was the beautiful area pictured below. It looked brand new, but was built to look old. They seem to be trying to replicate the picturesque, old-fashioned, Chinese-style shopping streets we enjoyed in Pingyao, right down to their use of identical, grey bricks. Maybe they’re hoping to increase tourism that way.
The main street through Datong was similar to what we’d seen all over China. It was wide and modern, and lined with retailers of all types, but each store blared out it’s own music onto the street, seemingly competing with neighboring stores to see who could be the loudest. It really just made you want to hightail it out of there, haha!
We stopped at McDonald’s for ice cream (you can order from a window right on the street) and everyone loved the delicious grape ice cream in grape-flavored waffle cones! That is definitely a trend McDonald’s in the United States should pick up!
How to get to Datong, China
Datong is about 6 hours from China by slow train or 1.5 hours by bullet train . The train system in China is absolutely fabulous, and easy to navigate. We took a sleeper train just because we enjoy them.
We took taxis from the train station to our hotel. The city has a good bus system, but we were tired and had all of our luggage with us. The bus system in Datong is very good, though.
Where to stay in Datong, China
We booked our hotel using trip.com, and you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get, especially if it has no reviews. Since we booked at the last minute, we just took what was available. When we walked in, my kiddos were sure that we must be staying at the ritziest place ever, since there were beads hanging across the doorway.
When we got up to our rooms, their suspicions were confirmed by the sparkly, gold toilets with more buttons than a universal remote. They immediately took turns enjoying the plush, heated toilet seats. Never mind that we were sleeping on kangs which are masonry platforms (prevalent in Northern China) heated during the winter by fires built beneath and spread with a thin mat for sleeping.
After examining our rooms and trying out the brick bed, I vaguely remembered their website saying something about kang beds. But, being unfamiliar with the term, I assumed it was an especially prestigious mattress brand. Why else would they brag about it?
Nope, it just meant we were sleeping on brick beds. Further, the bathrooms were made entirely of glass, which is actually a very Chinese thing, so we’d see it many times before. They literally just place glass partitions in a room with a toilet and shower head inside.
Luckily we had three rooms, so we could empty one room entirely to be the shower room when the need arose.
I’m not complaining, because we actually have very fond memories of that hotel. It seems like the weirdest situations always end up the most memorable. I heartily recommend the Memory Inn despite its oddities, because why wouldn’t you want to sleep on a traditional kang while in Northern China? Why not get a real taste of the local cultural flavor?
And nobody should miss out on sparkly, gold toilets.
Wherever you decide to stay, I hope your trip to China is amazing! Be sure to check out all of the other amazing places we saw in China!
What is your favorite place in China? I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments below!