Once you’ve checked off all the best things to do in Beijing, you may want to see what the neighbouring provinces have to offer. Even though it’s one of the most historically important Chinese cities, Datong is not widely popular among foreigners. Our university organised a short trip to explore the biggest cultural relics in the area, which was the reason I even heard of the city in the first place. Travelling to the Shanxi province turned out to be a highlight of our trip, and I’ve been recommending it since. Here’s how to plan a short trip from Beijing to Datong in case you’re still unsure and looking for a push in the right direction…
How to get from Beijing to Datong
Beijing and Datong are approximately 350 km apart. With direct flights between the two cities being few and far between, road transport remains the most reliable (and affordable) option.
Until recently, this route was only serviced by normal-speed trains that took around 6 hours. The introduction of high-speed and bullet trains shortened the travel time to 2 hours. Ticket prices vary depending on the class or type of seat, with overnight trains being particularly popular among the locals.
We had no choice as the university hired a designated coach driver for the duration of our summer camp. The drive all the way down to Datong took approximately 4 hours and was comfortable for the most part. Unfortunately, I have no way of telling how it compares to the experience of taking a public long-distance bus.
From my observations, the driving culture in China is a little… erratic to say the least. On our way to the Great Wall, I witnessed a honking battle between our driver and another one that got in his way. It went on for a good couple of minutes until the other guy eventually gave in and reversed.
On that same trip, I also watched a bus driver right in front of us attempt to go uphill with the engine panel basically sticking out of the rear. In between prayers, I just assumed he knew what he was doing and hoped for the best. Given what I’d experienced, that bullet train sounds more and more tempting for when I return to China one day…
Where to stay in Datong
As Datong’s main attractions are situated far apart, at least one full day is required to explore the city properly. Again, the university handled the process of finding and booking (and paid for) our accommodation. As they did a pretty good job, I thought I’d say a few words about the hotel they chose for us.
Haohai International Hotel
The university’s accommodation of choice was Haohai International Hotel. This 4-star hotel is located only 15 minutes away from the railway station, which makes it an excellent choice for visitors arriving by train.
Although its exterior is rather uninviting (especially from the back where we parked), the interior makes up for it. When we arrived, there was a full-on wedding photoshoot happening out the front. As we went down for dinner, it turned out the reception was taking place right next door! We didn’t intrude, of course, but it was fascinating to get a glimpse into what weddings look like in another culture!
When it comes to our room, it was really spacious and had all the necessary amenities, including extremely comfortable beds. The hotel offers all guests robes and slippers, which was just what we needed to unwind after a long journey.
Our breakfast consisted of an all-you-can-eat buffet with a wide variety of typical Chinese breakfast items, as well as international options. Both their breakfast and dinner specials were some of the best dishes we had during our time in China!
While I can’t give any insight on the hotel’s pricing, I’ve seen various people online mention that it offers the best value for money. I, for one, wouldn’t think twice about staying there again.
What to see in Datong
Some people claim that in order to examine the history of China, it is necessary to visit Datong. A place of strategic significance since antiquity, it houses various historical and cultural landmarks. Despite being densely populated, it’s still relatively small by Chinese standards.
We’d already somewhat embraced our celebrity status by that point, but our newfound fame reached a whole other level the moment we left the capital. We stopped traffic once and nearly caused a doctor to flip over his desk as we were passing his office. The second he saw us, it was like a light bulb went off in his head. He stormed out, giving Usain Bolt a run for his money, just to get a better glimpse of us. Thankfully, no desks (or people) were harmed during our venture to get an afternoon beer in Datong!
Did you find that last bit surprising, or perhaps a little confusing? I encourage you to read these 10 things you should know before coming to China for the first time, including why you should get ready to feel like a celebrity!
We started our trip on a high note – by visiting the Yungang Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site near Datong. This ancient temple complex is a prime example of early Chinese Buddhist cave art, and the only remaining one of this kind discovered in the country.
It consists of 252 caves and 51,000 statues built at the foot of a mountain range, and stretches for an entire kilometer. These numbers alone are staggering, but it becomes even more impressive when you get to see this masterpiece up close.
All caves and statues have retained their original appearance, with regular maintenance and necessary restoration works in place. These require minimal intervention in the design to preserve the authentic character of the complex. You can also find various standing and seated Buddha statues, both inside the caves and in the open air.
Below, you can see a photo of me sitting in front of one of the statues to give you a rough idea of their magnitude. As the walking opposite of crafty, I find the fact that human hands created these both astonishing and really humbling!
The Nine-Dragon Wall
The next place on our list was the Nine-Dragon Wall in downtown Datong. As the name suggests, it’s a screen wall featuring nine different dragons made of glazed tiles in five different colours. Interestingly enough, these walls can be traditionally found in Chinese palaces and gardens of the imperial era.
Back in the day, it was believed they not only protected these residences against physical attack, but also malicious spirits. Although the palace this particular wall originally used to protect burned down in the 17th century, the wall itself remains in a perfect condition.
Datong’s Nine-Dragon Wall has three counterparts around the country: two in Beijing (in Beihai Park and the Forbidden City), and one in Pingyao. However, at 45.5 metres long, 8 metres high, and 2 metres thick, the wall in Datong is the largest one.
You can also spot Nine-Dragon Walls in several countries around the world: Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, and the US. Although it’s not an attraction I would go out of my way to see, I found the backstory really intriguing!
Easily the most enchanting place was the Hanging Temple situated around 65 kilometres away from the centre of Datong. When travelling across China, you may sometimes feel like having visited one or two temples, you’ve seen it all. I can assure you that the Hanging Temple is unlike any other Chinese temple you may have been to before.
This 5th-century monastery is built into the side of a cliff at the foot of Mount Heng, one of the five sacred mountains of China.
Aside from the miraculous, gravity-defying location, the most fascinating thing are its religious influences. The Hanging Temple is the only existing temple dedicated to three traditional Chinese religions: Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Their teachings are all practiced and depicted in several dozen sculptures and carvings throughout this unique place of worship.
The temple itself consists of 40 prayer halls protruding from the cliff, linked by an inventive system of steps and walkways. You have to queue for quite a while to enter, which gives you more than enough time to be alone with your thoughts.
The fact that this whole structure is supported by 1500-year-old pieces of wood is enough to make you feel dizzy. We didn’t make it all the way to the top, but even so, the views were one of a kind and worth the steep hike. Nature never ceases to amaze me – and when we add manmade wonders to the mix, we get a spectacular attraction like the Hanging Temple. If you’re short on time, this is the #1 place you should visit in the Datong area!
Would you consider visiting Datong? Which of these attractions is your favourite and why?