A land as huge and old as China is bound to be packed with a seemingly endless bounty of both natural and manmade wonders. But few combine the natural and the manmade quite as impressively as an ancient temple in Shanxi province, in the northeast of the country’s centre, around a six-hour train ride from both Beijing and Shanghai. Truly, you have to see Xuankong Temple to believe it!
Ensconced in a small canyon about an hour and a half southeast of the city of Datong (pop. 1.7 million), it clings about a third of the way (75 metres/246 feet) up a sheer precipice of Mount Heng – shielded from both floods from below and harsh sun and weather from above. This impressive feat of ancient engineering dates back some 1,500 years – initiated, legend has it, by one single monk in 386 CE; over the ensuing centuries expanded/embellished to include 40 halls and pavillions in three multistorey main clusters (two of them connected by a bridge); and maintained by ruling dynasty after dynasty.
Supported by oak beams driven into the rock, it’s notable not just as a remarkable structure per se, but also because it’s the only temple in existence which honors all of China’s traditional religions: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, and its rooms house some 80 statues of religious figures – besides the Buddha including Confucius and Taoism founder Lao-Tzu – in the Hall of Three Religions.
On your journey out to witness this marvel, there are several other striking things to see and do, as well. The most striking lies 16 kilometres (ten miles) west of Datong, at the foot of the Wuzhou Shan Mountains. The Yungang Grottoes are a UNESCO World Heritage Site consisting of more than 1,100 excavations and caves stretching for a kilometre (⅔ mile) along a sandstone cliff and containing 51,000 Buddha statues – a number of them towering as high as 18 m (60 ft) high – as well as rich painting and carving. Built from the mid-5th through early-6th centuries, these are another truly extraordinary testament to the engineering, devotional, and artistic dedication of the faithful some 1,500 years ago.
While you’re here, don’t neglect the city of Datong itself. In the old city centre itself you’ll find, as in many Chinese cities, a Drum Tower – yes, a tower built essentially to house a huge drum at the top, which was traditionally beaten at sunset to signal the close of each day). Built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), this one is three storeys (20 m/66 ft.) high, its interior featuring old and new photos of area landmarks as well as steep, nearly ladderlike, steps you can climb for views out over Datong’s old quarter. One block south of here, the Nine Dragon Screen is an impressive wall of glazed tile depicting golden dragons flying against and backdrop of blue and green, constructed in 1368 as a vanity project for one of the sons of the first Ming emperor; it’s the oldest and largest such screen in China, and bigger even than the one in Beijing.
Along the perimetre of the old town, you can also climb the restored ancient city walls, dating back to the late 4th century, 14 m high and 16.6 m at their widest (46 by 54 ft.), punctuated by four gates and various watchtowers. A couple of ancient Buddhist temple/monastery complexes are also worth your attention: on the city’s southwest side, the Huayan Monastery contained the ancestral temple of the emperors of the Liao Dynasty (907-1125), and the Shanhua Temple, one of its halls dating back to the the Liao and the other two to the succeeding Jin Dynasty (which reigned till 1234)
To get a fantastic overview of local history and culture, and put it all in context, the dramatic new, modern quarters of the Datong Museum on the outskirts of town is 32,000 square m (344,445 sq. ft.), housing more than a million mostly regional artifacts dating back to prehistoric times.
Finally, visitors should take the opportunity to sample some of the distinctive local Shanxi (aka Shan) cuisine, not well known outside this province. It’s famous for pasta, fried flatbread, use of lamb, and tart flavours (especially due to seasoning with its locally produced aged vinegar).