Datong: "Marathon Man, Part 2"

Shanxi Province

January 23, 2008

Dear Family and Friends,

My "salad days" and marathon days were over long ago. My knees have wilted. Now I am a take-a-leisurely-walk kind of guy. But in Northern China, I endured another day-long deep-freeze travel marathon, including chilled teeth, iced nose and puffy lips. Why did my lips puff up? My guess is that it only felt that way. In reality, I think my jaw shrank!

Once again, my day began with an 05:00 wake-up call in my hotel in Beijing. (I am so 21st Century. I set the alarm on my mobile telephone.) No shave. No shower. I try to find an honest taxicab driver for the ride to the airport.

In the early morning hours, the Domestic Departures building at the Beijing International Airport is swarming with Chinese travelers on their way home for the Spring Festival. The good news is that the airport handles the throngs with efficiency and dispatch. Next, a ten minute bus ride from the terminal to the plane. Air travel has expanded in China. There are dozens of airplanes parked far from the main building.

The fifty-five minute flight passes over a barren, brown mountain range until touchdown in Datong. As the airplane taxis to its assigned spot, the flight attendant makes her announcement in Chinese. Towards the end of the announcement, everybody gives out a short grunt or groan. Yet, it’s a cheerful groan. Why is everybody smiling? Are they really smiling?

Just for me, the conscientious flight attendant makes her announcement in English: "Welcome to Datong. Please remain seated until the airplane comes to a full stop. Please do not turn on your mobile telephone until the seat belt light is switched off." Then I blurt out my own "Oh my goodness!!!" Here is her punch line: "The temperature in Datong is minus 25 degrees Celsius." She is so thoughtful; she coverts the number: "Minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit." No my friends, this is not a typo: Minus thirty degrees Fahrenheit.

One young Chinese-Canadian lady smiled and said, "Here it is a dry cold so it won't feel so bad." Sure. Sure. That reminds me of the folks who love Phoenix, Arizona where it’s 120F (48C) in the shade. They say it is a dry heat so it's not so bad. Right!

At the hotel I find a driver who speaks a little English and off we go for a ride through the snow-covered mountains on snow covered roads where several cars have skidded into the ditches. South of Datong, our destination is the 1500 year old Hanging Temple, Xuankong Si.

I jump out of the car into the polar Mongolian air. The shocking sight of this temple clinging to the mountainside high above a frozen river brings a big smile to my face. The smile really helps against the cold. Naturally I must cross the river, approach the base of the temple, find the stairs and head up.

The forty buildings and halls of the Hanging Temple are hewn from natural caves in the rock. They are covered with wooden facades and are connected by walkways and bridges. The structures cling to the cliff and are supported by a series of stilts. Inside the narrow buildings are lovely carvings and statues of Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist gods in stone, iron and bronze. In one hall all the gods sit together peacefully.

Close your eyes and imagine the view from the high cliffside temple across the winter white canyon and into the frozen river valley and the mountains beyond.

Back through the mountains, we drive to the Yungang Caves. I would have preferred a long and leisurely stroll here but it's already late afternoon so instead of a slow walk, I must explore these remarkable caves at a good-speed trot.

"Carved into sandstone cliffs, the caves at Yungang are one of China's most celebrated accomplishments of Buddhist art. The assembly of over 51,000 statues was started by the Northern Wei Dynasty in 453 CE to atone for their persecution of Buddhism. Hellenistic, Persian, Central Asian, and Indian influences are evident in the carvings testifying to the many influences entering China via the Silk Road. The statues range in size from the colossal to the minute." *

Huge Buddha statues sit solemnly inside the caves. Some of the carvings retain their original colors. Above the caves are numerous grottos filled with smaller images. No matter how many of these images I see, and I have seen hundreds, even thousands in my travels, I always respond with the same feeling: "The images are so peaceful. They are at ease with themselves. They inspire patience and humility, reverence and calm. If only Buddhism had remained more of a dominant force in the world....."

My marathon day ends with a short sprint back to the hotel. I enjoy a well-earned bowl of noodle soup and the glorious embrace of a cup of hot green tea. My marathon medal is the precious memory of the two new treasures.

Keep on jogging,

Marathon Man

Is there a sauna in the hotel? A Jacuzzi?

* “China.” Dorling Kindersley. London. 2005


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