Datong

Datong is a small city that shuts down early, so drink in your hotel room and rise early for the sites. For good, cheap fun stop at any of the many chuanr (meat on a stick) stands and chat up the locals. People here are very friendly and curious, as it is still off the beaten path and provides a bit of respite if overwhelmed with the busyness of nearby Beijing.

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By far the greatest attraction of the area is the 1,500-year-old Yúngāng Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These mountain-side caves and recesses are filled with 51,000 Buddhist statues - the largest being a 56-foot Seated Buddha while the smallest is only a few centimetres tall. In addition to the carvings of the Buddha, there are also scenes depicting Buddhist teachings and famous monks. Unlike Dunhuang grottoes, most caves here permit photography, (notably excepting caves 5&6). The entrances to caves 5 and 6 are fronted by wooden temple structures. The cave walls at these entrances were damaged by graffiti during the cultural revolution although the majority of the site is well-preserved. At least you get the impression that the caves are mostly ancient/original and not reconstructed.

Wooden Pagoda is the oldest and tallest wooden structure in China, built in 1056 in the Liao Dynasty. It is located within a Buddhist temple, some of which was rebuilt in the Qing Dynasty. There is an active temple in the back built in 2001. Only the ground floor and the first floor of the pagoda are open to visitors.

Lodged precariously on a cliff-face, The Hanging Monastery is one of the more remarkable sights in China: a complex of 40 rooms linked by mid-air walkways. It appears to be stuck into the side of the cliff, but is actually supported by stilts. There is a '3 Religions Hall' with all of Buddha, Confucius and Laozi (founder of Daoism). Built in 490, renovated several times, most recently in 1900, much of the current structure dates from the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

Huayan Monastery is a large collection of Buddhist temples of the Huayan sect that can be seen in an hour or two. Unusually this monastery faces east, not south. Completely rebuilt in 2010.