Thursday, March 20, 2008

trip to Shanxi Datong

Robina and I went a trip with Chinese Culture Club to visit Datong, Shanxi province. Two main sites we saw were the Hanging Temple and the Yungang Grottoes. Both were impressive cultural and historical sites built by the Northern Wei dynasty (AD460). This dynasty was founded by the nomadic Xianbei barbarians, not the usual Han Chinese.

Along the way, we stopped by a typical Shanxi village on the yellow earth loess plateau. This terrain looked desolate and bleak in our eyes especially since we are used to tropical Southeast Asian rainforests. I had learn about loess plateau in my secondary school geography classes. the loess was formed after the glaciers retreated after the last Ice Age. rocks were pulverised underneath the glaciers to form a powdery yellow dust that blew down from Siberia and collected in mile thick layers all over North China. Now we can see this terrain all along Shanxi and Shaanxi province, as seen in Zhang Yimou's movie "Red Sorghum"
We visited the house of this jolly old uncle. he's 76 years old. His house is dug into the cave side. It's cool and roomy inside with several rooms. but it must be freezing in winter even though it had a heat platform bed, "kang".
outside the cave house was a tell-tale sign of civilisation: a satellite dish. the uncle told us, his daughter works in the city and bought him a TV (plus the satellite dish I think!)
next we were at the Hanging Temple, near Hengshang. it was 1500 years old, propped up on the cliff face by seemingly flimsy wooden poles. an amazing feat of engineering by the Xianbei.
from a distance the temple complex looked unreal, like matchstick models. when you climb up and into the narrow alcoves and stairways, we could really appreciate the hardships that the monks and taoist priests had to endure. even in the early spring weather, the lashing winds was still very cold and definitely not a place to spend a winter especially if you have a fear of heights!
we stopped to visit a Ming dynasty fort called Victory Fort or "Desheng Bao". the fort was used to house the garrison that guarded this section of the Great Wall. The ancient wall was on the ridgeline overlooking the fort. there is now a village inside. most of the people we saw were the old and the young; the adults must be working in urban areas.
We visited the village school with 60 students and 3 teachers. conditions was very basic. some students from other villages stay in the school itself. the grade one kids were cheerful and curious. as usual there must be one mischevious boy around.
the highlight of our trip was at Yungang Grottoes, which befit its listing as an UNESCO World Heritage site. many of the statues, carvings and painted reliefs were breath-takingly beautiful. this huge outdoor statue of Buddha reminded me of the destroyed Bamiyan Buddha in Afghanistan.
Some of the painted carvings still look brilliant despite being more than 1000 years old and the grimy smog from the nearby coal mines. Check out my photos at flickr.

Apart from leaving behind these two magnificent monuments, and some tombs in Northeast China, the Xianbei people no longer exists. Right from Emperor Xiaowen of North Wei, who started the Yungang grottoes, he insisted on a sinification policy. All Xianbei must change their surnames to Han Chinese surnames. They must speak and dress like Han Chinese. A handful of barbarians from the North could not hope to govern the Han massses. Before long the Xianbei was absorbed into the sea of Han Chinese. Maybe their genes and some physical features still live amongst Shanxi people.


At 11:01 PM, Blogger Sivasothi said...

Very interesting account! Probably freeze there in winter!!

At 11:48 AM, Blogger Su Yin said...

What an amazing trip - I was awestruck by your photographs which complemented the text. One of the must-see places on my list of many must-see places!


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