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Walnuts (Datong)

posted Dec 10, 2008, 5:31 PM by Pacific Rim
Led by the valiant Judy (our tour guide) and the stoic Mr. Ma (our bus driver), the “Atkinson Norah Jane Group,” (as we were greeted on the train platform) stormed Datong, China. We were ready to take on whatever the city had to offer—be it a beard trim or (another) Buddhist temple.

Our quest through the city of three million began after a six hour train ride from Beijing. As we rolled into the coal-powered city, we weren't sure what to expect. Would Datong feature a heavy Olympic residue, as Beijing did? Would our showers have hot water? And most importantly, could I finally mail that package I had been carting around since Ulaanbaatar?

Datong city, originally a rest stop for camel caravans moving north from China and into Mongolia, has thrived off coal mines in the Shanxi Province over the past decades; a fact denoted by the heavy smog descending upon the cityscape. The city provides 17% of the electricity used in Beijing—an impressive figure when you take into account the 19 million+ that make up the capital. Datong is renowned for their coal, as well as for knife-cut noodles. This delicacy is traditionally made by placing a pile of dough atop a chef’s shaved head, with a knife in each hand, working to the greatest efficiency (I wandered how many stitches one endured before perfecting this technique).

As it turned out, Datong had both hot water and a post office—a Pac Rimmer’s dream. And while the coal industry was responsible for a percentage of the cities success, there is a second face to Datong, and one that didn't work its way into our respiratory system—tourism. It has grown to rival the coal industry, and China is having to rethink its priorities in order to preserve this precious commodity. So there we were, in the city of Datong, with our game face on, ready to visit the Yungang Grottoes and the Cliff Hanging Temple.

Our first full day, we bussed our way out to the Yungang Grottoes. As we drove, I couldn't help but notice the vast amount of faux leopard print riddling the city streets, as Judy told us tales of her home town. She talked about China's efforts to shape the landscape, planting five trees per person each year, trying to transform it into a lusher environment, rather than the reality of it, which closely resembled the barren landscape we grew to love in the Gobi. She told us about the “hot liqueur,” reaching up to about 60% alcohol, so popular in a city with that drops to -20 degrees Fahrenheit in the winters. She explained how too much Buddhism in China has created some social problems in the past, as the best jobs in China have been based out of one of two organizations—the military and working in a Buddhist monastery. When there are more temples, there are more jobs available for aspiring monks, and thus, less people available to work in the agricultural community, as odd segue to the story behind the Yungang Grottoes.

The Yungang Grottoes were originally built during the Northern Wei dynasty, roughly 1,500 years ago. Carved out of sandstone cliffs, there are forty-five caves in all, featuring over 50,000 statues. The largest represent emperors, believed in their time to be living Buddhas. To pray to the emperor was synonymous with praying to Buddha. The largest of these Buddhas, found in the fifth cave, stands at a looming seventeen meters. Signs reading “no phoyography” warned us from capturing the sandstone giant on film. And while we weren't allowed to test this fact, according to Judy, this big Buddha can fit 120 people on his holy lap, and twelve people on one of his feet. On the opposite end of the size spectrum is the smallest Buddha, who clocks in at a mere two centimeters.

Shortly before the construction of these statues commenced, the current emperor felt as though Buddhism was running astray, as women started to take up house with the monks in their Buddhist temples. The emperor reacted out of anger, and killed many of the monks, burning down temples and Buddhist scripture as he went. But shortly after this instigation, he grew very sick, and blamed the illness that eventually killed him on his actions. When his son stepped up to his position of power, he immediately set to work to rectify the situation, and thus the Yungang Grottoes where carved.
It is these forty-five caves that have led China to rethink some of its industrial practices. The first four caves have fallen victim to the ages, or more specifically to coal dust and acid rain, with the wind force finishing up the job. As the Grottoes have continued to melt away in the presence of these various elements, the Chinese government has turned to the large coal fields located very near the Grottoes, focusing on how this coal is transported out of the area. Originally, a national highway passed very close to the Grottoes, polluting the environment and fading the colors of the elaborate statues. That was the case, however, until China established a rule which prohibited trucks from passing by the grottoes, and that highway became the first national highway in China to be redirected in order to preserve a heritage sight.

Of the statues that have withstood the test of time and industry, it is estimated that about 1,400 of those sandstone wonders are missing. Four of which have mysteriously found their way into art museums in New York, a couple others in the UK. Luckily for the other national heritage site we visited in Datong, it wasn't so easily picked up and sold over the black market.

On our way back to the hotel that night, after seeing the biggest Buddha lap in the world, we synthesized what kind of city Datong was while waiting for the light to turn green. One of the Pac Rimmers summed it up perfectly when they said,

“You know you’re in Datong when you see a tractor, an Audi, and a donkey all at the same intersection.” And it was at one of these intersections that the Pac Rim group discovered the glories of Chinese walnuts. In some parts of China, it is custom for people, men in particular, to carry around a pair of jagged edged walnuts, which they roll around in one hand until the peaks of the walnut shells wear down, and the oils from their hand turns them from a light tan color to a dark auburn. These trinkets continued to speckle our time in China, as did many jokes about nuts.

I'm not entirely sure where this fits into the story, but it seems necessary to include. The hotel we were staying in while in Datong was quite nice. There was a spa, a VIP room, a tea room, karaoke bar—the works. We weren't there long enough to really appreciate most of these things, but our stay did accommodate one...interesting amenity. A bathroom with a glass wall. So, while sitting on the toilet, taking care of business, one could enjoy a view of the city, watch the morning news, or play a game of charades with your roommate. Luckily, there was a curtain, so the charades had to get cut down to shadow puppets.

Before setting us loose that night to shower in our glass bathrooms or to wander the alley ways of Datong, we were told to meet up at 8:30 the next morning. Lisa Long emphasized the point with a simple threat:

“For every minute you're late, I chop off a digit. Two minutes? Two pinkies.” She joked (I think/hope). With that time in mind, we set off. While some opted for tasty street food and skewers of miscellaneous meat, others took a jaunt around the town to see what there was to see, in an effort to break from the “tour bus routine” that our time in China was becoming. That's when Reed Jessen stumbled across a barber shop with a number of Chinese guys idly standing around. They coaxed Reed in, and after trying to dye his hair black, they settled on giving him a complimentary beard trim (by this point the majority of the guys on the trip were starting to look a little, well, scuzzy might be the best word. Luckily for the ladies, our scuzziness is easily concealed with pants, when necessary. Although the double takes we get from the locals when they realize our legs are hairier than most Asian men’s is pretty hilarious.)

After the beard trim, the men proceeded to take Reed out for dinner and feed him stomach. And quite frankly, any night that ends with stomach and a beard trim is a good night. Well, I presume as much. I've never had to have my beard trimmed.

The next morning, a few of us woke up early to go walk in the park just outside of our hotel. It was 6 a.m., and Datong was starting the day, as people lined the park practicing Tai Chi or participating in some form of group exercise. Others were walking their dogs. After playing with one particularly cute fluffball of a puppy, Kat and I walked by a game of hackysack and were invited to join. So we hacked away with a man in a business suit, two menopausal women, and a guy wearing glasses and sweat pants.  They were sufficiently better than us, but nevertheless we managed to get a few hits in between them laughing at us. Not wanting to lose any digits however, we hurried back to the hotel for breakfast.

As the day wore on we stopped by the Huayan Temple, the Shanhua Temple, and the Nine Dragon Wall, on our last morning in Datong. The sounds of dozens of walnuts clicking together accompanied us as we loaded up the bus and headed toward our next destination—Wutaishan. It was on the way to that little community nestled in the mountains that we visited the Cliff Hanging Temple.

We were assured on the safety of this structure through stories of it having sustained several natural disasters. We were told that 2/3 of the wooden beams supporting the temple were buried deep in the rock and the building itself was steady as a rock. But when you are standing on the side of the cliff looking down through a split in the floor boards at a certain death, it is difficult to feel comfortable. The narrow hallways, the narrow porches, and the narrow stairs all spelled a recipe for tripping and falling to me, so my perspective on the Hanging Temple is probably not the one to heed, given that I descended from the temple as quickly as possible. I will say one thing though, it is gorgeous from the ground, and if you don't have any issues with heights, definitely something to put on the “must see” list.

While I was waiting, safe and sound on a bench on the ground, an old man followed Jeff Pierson (who was limping after a “power knee” incident at the Yungang Grottoes...which I'm pretty sure there are pictures of). He held out a bandaid for Jeff. Jeff tried to explain that he didn't need a bandaid, but the man insisted. Finally, Jeff took it, and the old man, at last satisfied, walked away, leaving Jeff to put a bandaid over a bruise. That moment was an excellent illustration of how, despite what you may think of the Chinese government, their one child policy, or even the heavy coal pollution that settled over Datong, those things are not representative of the kindness of the people who call China their home.

Unfortunately, the two and a half days we spent in Datong did not allot for enough time to try all 200 different kinds of noodles the city offered, or really get to know the city. But, from the walnuts that our group continues to carry, and the photos of that epic “power knee” which resulted in two weeks of limping, Datong is one place we won't soon forget. Oh, and for any concerned parents, no one was late that morning for the bus, so everyone still has all their digits.

(Pictures coming soon)

(Article by Tara)