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Magical grottos and harmonious temples: The Real Shanxi

By Nick Walsh | | Updated: 2016-11-08 15:10

Sometimes the cold facts fail to convey much about the essence of a place.

Shanxi province's second largest city, Datong, is a third tier city of 3.3 million. It was China's capital for three separate dynasties but more recently it's been regarded as its capital of coal, and was once known as the most polluted city in the Middle Kingdom.

On paper, it may not seem like an obvious choice of destination for Laowai looking to escape the bleakness of the bustling metropolises they call home. But as seasoned travellers know, sometimes it's the places you least expect to wow you that make the strongest impression. And Shanxi is just that kind of place.

"History Everywhere, Stories Everywhere"

Renowned as a living museum of Chinese cultural heritage – or as a passionate local guide describes it, a province with 'history everywhere, stories everywhere' – Shanxi has the undeniable atmosphere of a region steeped in antiquity.

This is no more apparent than in two of its most popular (though relatively unknown by Chinese standards) attractions, Yungang Grottoes and The Hanging Temple, both within a drive from Datong. Considering 'Datong' means 'harmony', both locations offer aptly harmonious insights into China's cultural heritage.

All in the Details

The Yungang Grottoes is a UNESCO world heritage site comprising some 250 caves etched into Wuzhou Mountain's fragile sandstone.

The beautiful images and statues carved into the walls and ceilings of the caves tell the story of the young Shakyamuni Buddha and are considered masterpieces of early Chinese cave art.

But to the discerning eye (or with the help of a knowledgeable guide) the intricate imagery also reveals subtle references to the leadership of the Northern Wei Dynasty. It makes for some fascinating insights into how Buddhism was harnessed as a political tool after its introduction into China from the ancient North Silk Road.

While you could spend hours decoding the subtle double meanings inscribed in the Grottoes (and I suggest you do so if you get the chance), you don't need to be a history buff to appreciate the striking figure of a Buddha standing some 17 metres tall before you.

Like the most impressive wonders of the world, Shanxi's most alluring attractions don't require the weight of historical context to make an impression.

These are sites that speak for themselves.

Harmonious Balance

The seamless balance between nature and architecture struck by The Hanging Temple is awesome in the true sense of the word. Built into a stark cliff face, the temple appears to be suspended in mid-air, hanging a gravity-defying 75 metres above the ground.

The sharp angles of the structure merge seamlessly with Mount Heng's jagged cliff face and afford breath taking views of Jinlong Valley for those brave enough to climb the narrow paths to the top.

The temple also offers a rare snapshot of China's three traditional religions in harmony as one of the only existing temples combining elements of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

Since its initial construction in 491, the temple has undergone extensive reparations, while thankfully retaining its original splendour. When you are dealing with sites as ancient as those found in Shanxi, conservation is key.

It's encouraging that one of the province's key figures, former Datong mayor and now Taiyuan mayor, Geng Yanbo's philosophy of development in the region is to "Let the old remain old and turn the new into newer".[As cited in the Global Times. ]

If carried out with care and good taste, this approach will continue to do well for tourism as Shanxi attempts to wean itself off the heavy industries it has relied on in the past.

Magical Shanxi

Shanxi's lesser known sites are no less impressive than its two major attractions.

Yingxian Wooden Pagoda, for example - a 67-metre-high tower built in the Liao Dynasty without the aid of a single nail (go figure!) - inspires a jaw dropping reverence for the ingenious handiwork of its architects.

Set against a backdrop of lush countryside and mountains, it's the marriage between nature and architecture that really makes Shanxi unique.

Just a couple of hours by plane from Shanghai and an easy train ride from the capital, Datong is the perfect base from which to enjoy the best of this misunderstood province.

Even just a few days there will cure you of your big city blues faster than you can gobble up a bowl of the region's signature knife cut noodles (Daoxiaomian).

Get there and let Shanxi work its magic on you.

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