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So much to see away from the crowds

Source: China Daily Time: 20 08,2020

Natasha Jardine­Binstead

Chinese people have a good understanding of their country's natural, historical and cultural treasures. They plan family trips to these special sites over school holidays, sometimes saving up for a lifetime to make sure they have experienced the ancient wonders of China.

Foreigners, however, usually have a very narrow view of what interesting sightseeing this vast country has to offer. Many tourists opt only for visiting areas of the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace in Beijing, which are always teeming with excited crowds of both foreigners and Chinese. These are indeed iconic places but those looking for a fuller and richer traveling experience should include places in the heart of China too.

I was indeed one of those foreigners that had before seen the famous attractions in Beijing when visiting China. I did not possess the knowledge of the lesser publicized, yet astonishing landmarks. Luckily however my family and I were able relocate to Shanxi province in 2018. My husband and I were both employed as English teachers at Shanxi University in the capital city of the province, Taiyuan.

The university invited us on a trip to Datong, Shanxi province. What we encountered on that trip was surprising, illuminating and remarkable in equal measure. We were treated to some exceptional sights that I believe not many foreigners have traveled to or have even heard of.

The highlights for me, remembering that we were accompanied by our 5-year-old son at the time, were definitely the Hanging Monastery or Xuankong Temple, the Yungang Grottoes and the walled city of Datong itself.

Xuankong Temple is a sight that leaves you breathless. The ancient wooden-structured temple cleaves onto the sheer cliffs of Mount Hengshan. Looking at it from the ground, it appears to defy the laws of gravity. Exploring its narrow walkways from the top terrifies and enlivens your soul.

The temple is over 1,500 years old and it is magic to behold. It is also a sight so few outsiders to China have ever been privileged enough to gaze upon.

The Yungang Grottoes is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are 252 caves with approximately 51,000 carved statues of Buddha. The caves date back to about 1,600 years ago. We spent most of the day there walking through the sprawling grounds and admiring the abundant artifacts on display. The caves are extensive and labyrinthine and the carved statues are elaborate and detailed. One gigantic Buddha towers above guests at 17 meters. There he sits serenely, in the cool shade of his cave smiling peacefully. I feel truly honored to have visited this historic place.

The last leg of our trip was spending time in the city of Datong. It is a city as noisy and busy as any major city in China. It brims with modern China's unstoppable expansion and its intensive neon commerce. Yet, this metropolis incorporates its past into its present. A break from the bustle can be found by walking on the historical wall that still stands and snakes through the streets. It silently cradles the old city in its embrace while anchoring new generations to their history. Datong is a city certainly worth seeing.

I will always be grateful that Shanxi University took the time to show us a different China and open our eyes to parts of Shanxi's treasure trove. I sincerely wish more foreigners have the opportunity to adventure into little known places in China. Datong is a fascinating area to begin that sort of adventure. I look forward to visiting more of the incredible Shanxi, which is now my home.


The writer is a South African  working at Shanxi University.