Sunday, March 31, 2013

DATONG: 02 - One Whole Day for a 600 Year Old Screen


I had to find a destination that is not so far from Beijing. I wanted to go to Xi’an but the travel time is a joke, as well as the domestic flight costs. So, no, Xi’an would have to wait. I settled for Datong. I have not been to Shanxi, and the province is just Beijing’s neighbor, so I thought why not give it a shot? Googling Shanxi, the names of Datong, and Taiyuan came up. I chose Datong because of the Hanging Monastery and the Yungang Grottoes.


The itinerary was another copy of the Amazing Race, or at least something similar to it. I would be landing at Beijing Capital at around 12:10 AM, if Cebu Pacific’s flight would not be late. Haha, who are we kidding here? The first problem to surface was getting out of the airport. It would be my first time to arrive in Beijing in the middle of the night. No midnight buses? According to some websites, there are, but no one would corroborate the information. Fine then, up to me to prove its veracity. The answer? There were midnight buses when I arrived. Given that Cebu Pacific took off late, we arrived at Beijing at quarter to one. After clearing immigration, there it was, a bus to Gongzhufen waiting for me.


Buy a ticket at the booth. The rate seems to be uniform for all routes at 16 renminbi. Looking back I saw a bus headed to Beijing Railway Station where I was really headed to catch the sleeper train to Datong. First problem solved. Less than an hour after that, I was alighting in front of the train station, with scalpers of different kinds waiting to harass me. Of course, if you are a foreigner you could just make them realize that you are before they surrender and conclude that you are just some idiot that will do them no good. Since I was eager to practice my Mandarin, they found me quite amusing and patiently try to scam me for a while, attempting to sell me a 125 yuan ticket for 180 yuan. The end game was still the same; I was the idiot that got away. Or so they thought. Morons.


One woman in particular was friendly and transitioned from annoying to helpful after leading me to the right place where tickets were to be bought and helping me with my rudimentary Mandarin. It is through her that I knew how to say “sleeper train”, information that I later verified to be true thanks to the Pelco application on my phone. She was some sort of scalper for hotel rooms. I do not know how that works, but after eagerly helping me, she just buggered off and minded her own business. Our separation was okay though, no hard feelings. She knew I would not be of any business to her since I was going to Datong that night. Still, it is cool to know that some people would be willing to help even if they got nothing in return. Perhaps, it was curiosity. In any case, I found it rather kind.


So I eventually got to book an overnight sleeper train to Datong, which left at around quarter to three in the morning, and arrived the next day at around past nine, if I remember correctly. The hard berth was okay, although a bit cramped. I was a good fit for the bunk, which means it might be too small for most because I am rather petite. Sleeping with your bag with you is the norm, if you do not trust the other temporary tenants of the train. Who knows! There is a compartment within the same level of the topmost berth, but it would be rather easy for someone to just grab your bag and walk away during one of the many stops. I was just being sure.


I had two days reserved for Datong, because I did not want to be “haggard”. I just wanted to be stress-free, but when you are born lacking street smarts, everything tends to be more complicated. In the end, I just visited the 600 year-old screen on the first day, and spent the remaining hours getting lost and inhaling all the construction dust that made me quickly reach my pollen quota for the month. Hooray me. Now tell me that was not stressful! What I do not like about Datong is how the buses mentioned on Wikitravel seem to be invisible, in particular Bus #3. They said that it would be where the route of Bus#4 terminated. And so I followed Bus #4 around the whole day but there was no Bus #3 in sight. Why do I subject myself to this kind of torture? I guess that is what happens when you have a lot of free time.


To make matters worse, the hotel where I ended up seems to be in the middle of nowhere, and getting from one place to another would always require a taxi ride, which was not that expensive anyway, but still! The flag down rate of taxis in Datong is 6 yuan (around 40 pesos) which increases in increments of 1.40. As my average taxi ride was around 13 yuan, I would still consider that cheap at around 85 pesos, which is just like a taxi ride in Metro Manila. What I liked most about taxi drivers in Datong, though, was how they were a rather inquisitive bunch, which was very good for practicing my Mandarin. I even got to find a taxi driver who practiced his English with me while I practiced my Mandarin with him. Would it not be nice if all taxi drivers were busy doing just that instead of trying to scam you?


And so let us discuss the star of the day: the Nine Dragon wall. Why is it worth all the trouble? Well, because it is 600 years old. It is said to have been constructed during the 1300’s. Rumor has it that the senior citizen selling the admission ticket is just as old, but we cannot find a document that confirms it. As such, it remains to be a rumor. As Wikitravel would tell you, tourists spend around five minutes there, after which they rush to their next destination. It is not that hard to understand why.


The wall is amazing alright, but it is just that. A wall. You can neither ride it nor write on it. All you could do is stare at it and take a picture with it as your background. You can make a difference though. The weird thing is how there is heavy construction around the place, and yet while you are inside the premises of that tourist attraction, everything seems so quiet. Yes, this is the time to relax. Even if you stay for just half an hour that would already be worth the 10 yuan admission price. There is enough space for you not feel claustrophobic. There are a few benches, and given that there are no hordes of tourists coming in, you are guaranteed a good seat.


There used to be a mini pond in front of the wall, but has since been dried up, probably because they could not keep up with the cost of maintenance given the poor tourist attendance. By the way, another reason of visiting this wall is because it is within the route of one of the tour buses originating from the train station. I think we are talking about bus number four. There are three consecutive stops wherein this wall is the one in the middle, preceded and followed by the Huayan Monastery and Red Flag Square, respectively. I hope I got the names right. I did not see the monastery anymore because the admission price seemed a bit steep. Besides, I was going to visit the Hanging Monastery too, and there was simply no need for a monastery overload. The Red Flag Square is, well, I did not get to see it. Or perhaps, I did, but did not recognize it. Every time I would have a taxi or bus drop me off there, all I see is that Wanda Cinema with a KFC on the ground floor. Wherever that Red Flag Square was, I no longer attempted to care.


After an exhausting day  inhaling all the dust particles thanks to all the construction, my sinus was already attempting to murder me by giving me a bad migraine, and so I decided to call it a day and just returned to the streets later and asked a taxi driver to help me find western food, which McDonalds gladly gave me. My first impression of Datong is that of a city bombed a few weeks prior, and just recovering from the disaster. What is with all the construction? There seems to be some sort of mad rush for modernity, but then again this is so China; construction everywhere, an unmistakable sign of progress, indeed.

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