Treasures of China’s Heritage:Touring with the Global Heritage Fund (Sixth of a Seven-part Series) Taiyuan and Datong
In anticipation of a return to China, I’ve been revisiting my past travels to the country. Some of my best memories of the “Middle Kingdom” include my nine-day tour of historically significant sites with the Palo Alto-based Global Heritage Fund (GHF)—an organization devoted to supporting underdeveloped rural areas worldwide.
DAY 7: HISTORIC SITES ON WUTAI MOUNTAIN
Leaving the ancient walled city of Pingyao, we continued further north to explore an amazing and unique set of historical sites on Wutai Mountain.
Our bus left Taiyuan for Wutai Mountain (Wǔtái Shān), also known asQingliang Shang, the highest point in northern China.
Wutai is one of China’s Sacred Buddhist Mountains, composed of five peaks capped with plain terraces rather than wooded forests. (Its Chinese name means “five terraces.”)
THE TANG DYNASTY FOGUANG TEMPLE
Global Heritage Fund’s Jeff Morgan warned us, “You might cry when you see the temple. I cried. So did others.” Then he added, jokingly, “Perhaps it was out of relief that the long drive was over.” We understood, after riding in a chilly bus for five hours.
According to our guide, Foguang Temple, erected in 857 C.E., is the mystical 2,000-year-old cradle of Chinese Buddhism.
AN AUTHENTIC COUNTRY LUNCHEON
Upon our arrival at the complex, we were served an authentic country lunch in a small room in one of the temple’s halls.
FOGUANG TEMPLE EAST HALL
We next visited the East Hall of Foguang Temple, whose conservation is being spearheaded by GHF. The hall is considered one of the most architecturally significant wooden structures in China. Before it was discovered in the l930s, archeologists believed no Tang Dynasty architecture was extant.
The Great East Hall is a single-story, symmetrical structure. It’s supported by gigantic sets of columns topped by an elaborate bracket system called dougong, which dates back to 770 B.C.E.
A unique feature of ancient Chinese architecture, dougong consists of a structural network of joined brackets and supports that connect the columns to the roof frame. The pieces fit together without the use of glue or nails. Over the centuries, dougong structures were built with ever more complex interlocking parts.
Inside Foguang’s East Hall, behind iron gates, stand life-size clay Buddhas and Bodhisattvas carved during and after the Tang Dynasty.
It was our good fortune that the temple staff opened the closed gates and allowed us to enter and view the works of art up close rather than from behind a barricade.
I was moved by the buildings themselves, so simple and so strong, and by the idea that they’d endured over so many centuries, tucked away within their spectacular mountain surroundings.
As an art and culture buff, I felt incredibly lucky to actually see a wooden building dating back more than a thousand years to the Tang Dynasty, a significant period in Chinese art, culture, and international trade.
We endured another four-hour bus ride to reach Datong (“big harmony”), the second largest city in Shanxi Province. Along with the surrounding area, it is considered a sacred place.
A capital of the Northern Wei dynasty, Datong was an important defensive point against the invading Mongolians from 386–494 C.E., when the Wei court moved south to Luoyang.
We were there to visit the Yungang Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its giant Buddha carvings and sculptures.
We were happy to arrive at the lovely Garden Hotel. Modern and well lit, it offered amenities in every room that included a mini bar, a basket of fruit, a desk, plenty of power outlets, and Chinese-designed furniture and lamps.
DAY 8: ANCIENT CULTURAL SITES IN DATONG
THE DRIVE TO YUNGANG GROTTOES
Our first stop of the morning was the famous Yungang Grottoes, considered a “classical masterpiece of the first peak of Chinese Buddhist art,” according to UNESCO.
This is a dilemma that many cities face: Tourism brings in revenue, but too much traffic is detrimental to the attraction that draws the visitors. According to a March 2014 article in the New York Times, the grottoes receive between one-and-a-half to two million tourists a year—up from half a million less than a decade ago. With a rising Chinese middle class with the means to travel and interest in their own culture, this number is sure to grow.
THE YUNGANG GROTTOES
No buses are allowed into the protected area, so we were dropped off a ten-minute walk from the entrance gates.
WOODEN PAGODA OF YINGXIAN COUNTY
We drove south for an hour to get to our next stop: Yingxian County, home to Sakyamuni Pagoda, the oldest and tallest wooden multi-story structure in the world. It was built in 1056 C.E. during the Liao Dynasty.
HANGING TEMPLE – AN ARCHITECTURAL GEM
After another hour-long drive through rain and snow, we arrived at the spectacular Hanging Temple, or Xuankongsi.
Once again we were astonished, this time by the sight of an architectural feat dating back more than 1,500 years to the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534 C.E.).
Seeing the temple frosted with snow and without getting jostled by crowds made our visit particularly wonderful. I’ve since learned that a three-hour wait surrounded by hordes of tourists climbing the steps is typical. I have to wonder if all of that activity might weaken the structure to the point where some day it will be no more.
In my next post, I share my experiences on Day 9, the last of the trip. The group returns to Taiyuan for a visit to the Shanxi Museum of relics and art and a relaxing afternoon at the ancient Jinci Temple before returning to the U.S.