Trans-Mongolian Railway – The best things to do in Datong

by Gaetano
Datong - Pagoda

The journey from Ulaanbaatar to Datong takes more than a full day and requires a change in Jining (Ulaan Chab). The Trans-Mongolian Railway does not pass through Datong, but I planned a stop here because I was too close to miss the main attractions of this area: the Hanging Temple and the Yungang Caves.

Datong is the ninth stop of my Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian journey from Moscow to Beijing. Traveling more south than east, we are still around 6000 km as the crow flies from Moscow. More than 7000 km of railway behind us.

The railway from Ulaanbaatar to Jining is not electrified and travels on a single track. There is only one landscape to see: the Gobi Desert.

Trans-Mongolian Railway - Gobi Desert

Trans-Mongolian Railway – Gobi Desert

Trans-Mongolian Railway - Gobi Desert

Trans-Mongolian Railway – Gobi Desert

Around 9 pm, the train arrives at the border town Erenhot (also known as Erlian) and makes a long stop: all passengers must get off. The track gauge of the Russian-Mongolian Railway is, in fact, different from the Chinese one and must be changed. All wagons are taken to a workshop next to the station, where they are lifted up with giant machinery. Meanwhile, the border guards control the crossing persons and their travel documents.

Only 5 hours later, around 2 am, the passengers can get back on the train. The arrival in Jining is at about 9 am, and departure for Datong is at about 11 am. Enough time to have breakfast and buy a Chinese SIM Card.


Datong in a nutshell


The following is an interactive map. The red pins mark some of Datong’s main points of interest, and the black ones mark the railway station and the Pipa Inn Hotel. Here is where I stayed, and I absolutely recommend it.

Zoom out the map to see the most famous attractions of this region because they are located outside the city: the Hanging Temple and the Yungang Grottoes.

Very important: the geolocation used in China has a different coordinate calculation. Therefore, there is a shift of many meters between the map and the actual position of the GPS. For this reason, unless you use a Chinese application, you need to modify the base layer of my interactive map above and switch to satellite. By doing this way, all the pins are back at the right coordinates, and you will be able to locate yourself looking at the images from above, rather than at your pointer on the map.

Satellite layer

Satellite layer


Must-sees


I arrived in Datong in the early afternoon and chose to immediately reach the Hanging Temple. It’s over an hour’s drive from Datong, much more if you use public transportation. Therefore, the easiest way to get there is by taxi.

When it comes to taxies, there is no general rule in China. In Beijing or other big cities, whoever approaches you and offers to take you to your destination is probably a scammer. For example, at the Beijing Railway Station, more than one driver wanted to bring me to the hotel for 200 Yuan. I paid 56 Yuan with an official taxi instead.

In smaller or less touristy cities it is better to arrange a price with the taxi driver.

A dozen taxi drivers were waiting for me at the gates of Datong Central Station. On my cell phone, I had already positioned the map on my destination, and I showed it to everyone: Hanging Temple.

According to my internet research, the price for the round-trip by taxi should be between 300 and 400 Yuan (in 2019). From the back of the group, a man types 300 on his phone and puts its display under my nose (he will prove to be an exquisite person). I said to him: let’s go!


Hanging Temple


The construction of this temple is believed to have started around 500 after Christ.

Hanging Temple - Datong

Hanging Temple – Datong

The monastery is placed about 75 meters from the ground on a rocky wall and stands on tall wooden pylons.

Hanging Temple - Datong

Hanging Temple – Datong

It is the only existing temple with a combination of three Chinese traditional religions: Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.

The monastery amazes the visitor not only for its spirituality and architecture but also for the surrounding landscape.


Yungang Grottoes


The park can be reached either by public transport (approx. 45 minutes) or by taxi (approx. 30 minutes). Having already a trusted taxi driver, I arranged with him an excursion for the next day.

Compared to the Hanging Temple, the Yungang Grottoes are not so far, but the visit lasts at least twice as much. The location is, actually, a big park with several sculptures, a pond, a temple, a museum, and much more.

 

The caves are carved directly into the sandstones and extend over a length of about one km.

There are here over 250 caves and 50,000 Buddha statues, some of them are only a few centimeters, others several meters high.

Yungang Grottoes

Yungang Grottoes


Ancient City Walls


From what I was able to understand by asking around and looking on the internet, the historic center of Datong is completely under renovation. Honestly, it seems to me that everything has been almost torn down, to be rebuilt from scratch according to classical Chinese architecture.

The historic center of Datong is located within the ancient city walls, which have been recently renovated and house several temples, sculptures, and pagodas. You can take a walk here, starting from one of the four gates (north, south, east, and west).

Ancient City Walls - Datong

Ancient City Walls – Datong

Outside the walls, there are the typical Chinese suburbs skyscrapers.

Ancient City Walls - Datong

Ancient City Walls – Datong

Ancient City Walls - Datong

Ancient City Walls – Datong


Hongqi Square


It stands out for its classical Chinese architecture. Around the square and in the streets around it, there are several restaurants and shops.

Hongqi Square - Datong

Hongqi Square – Datong


Historic Center


Although still under renovation, several attractions can be visited within the city walls. They are mostly located on the central streets that go from one gate to the other, cutting in two the perfect square of the walls. Among the things to see, there are:

Drum Tower

Shanhua Temple

Huayan Temple

Datong - Pagoda

Datong – Pagoda

Now it’s time to go to Datong Railway Station and leave for Beijing, the last stop of my journey. The arrival is expected at around 11 pm.

Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian Railway – All you need to know

Travel arrangementsGeneral Information
Departure stationMoscow
First stopNizhny Novgorod
Second stopKazan
Third stopYekaterinburg
Fourth StopNovosibirsk
Fifth stopKrasnoyarsk and Stolby Nature Sanctuary
Sixth stopLake Baikal
Seventh stopIrkutsk
Eighth stopUlan-Ude
Ninth stopUlaanbaatar
Tenth stopDatong
Arrival stationBeijing

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