This is freakin' long. You have been warned. Let's do this:
I left Tang Shan by bus at 8am, arrived at the Beijing (eastern) train station at 11:30. It was busy, but not too too bad. No trains to Datong, though. Enter stupidity number one: coming out of the train station, a guy offered to take me to the bus station. He said it was a ways away, so wanted 150 yuan for it. I offered 80 and we settled on 100. The guy wasn't a taxi driver like I thought. He was just some guy with a car. Whatever. He dropped me off at the wrong bus station, also, on the west side of central Beijing. When I got in and they didn't have any tickets to Datong, I was about ready to take a bus or train back to Tang Shan and say screw it. However, a taxi driver took me all of 4 kms to the other side of an expressway to the main bus terminal, and I got a bus ticket there to Datong. It was 12:40 at that point, and the bus left at 1:30.
Finished Dracula on the bus (holy anti-climactic) and got into Datong around 5pm. Had no issue at the hotel, which was across from the train station in the utmost north chunk of Datong. So I checked in, dropped some things off, had some tea, and wandered. Found a nice restaurant near the hotel and had dong bao tze ding (spicy chicken, green pepper and peanuts) and a good qiezi (eggplant) dish that was tangy. Had a beer and relaxed, happy to be in Datong finally after 10 hours of traveling and messing around. Then pretty much went to bed around 8:30pm.
Woke up at 6:30, had breakfast, and tried to find a way to get to Heng Shan and the Hanging Monastery. I asked a random local bus driver, and he wrote out instructions for me to get there, taking local buses. I jumped on the first one, and a woman who'd said hi to me the day before was sitting across from me. She asked where I was going, and told me to just walk a few dozen meters to the Old Station and get a long-distance bus from there, Heng Shan being 65 kms away. It's funny how much depends on random chance and kindness from locals. I took her advice, paid 27 yuan and hopped on.
There were three Canadians sitting right behind me. They were from Toronto and had arrived on National Day, thinking it was only a one-day holiday. Whoops. So I talked to them the whole trip. The countryside was gorgeous - rocky, with glacier defiles. The houses were mostly built into the hillsides. (that's not a great picture example... but I wasn't fast enough with my camera to get the really good complexes.)
Two hours later, winding through the foothills of Heng Shan, we got there. The bus was going on to Wutai Shan and Taiyuan in the south, so I was the only one getting out. It was pretty chilly up there - definitely an autumn morning. The Hanging Monastery was a good first expedition for two reasons: 1) it was 65 kms away and as buses travel (especially over mountainous or hilly ground) it took an hour and a half, and 2) the sun had just risen over Heng Shan (left)... the lighting was perfect. The sun shone through a spur in Heng Shan, putting the monastery in perfect illumination. Also, by seeing the Yungang Grottoes second, the caves/grottoes were wonderfully lit by the mid-afternoon sun. But I'll get to that.
Admission to the Hanging Monastery was 60 yuan, well worth it. The monastery itself didn't hang too high off the side of a mountain - maybe 150-200 feet up. The temple is of ingenius construction: pillars supported those parts of the temple that jutted out from the rock, and the rest was rooted into the rock by virtue of half the rooms being in the rock itself, as well as with thick wooden beams. That's not to say my fear of heights didn't kick in, standing on 200-year-old walkways of stone and wood, looking over a railing that is supported by slender poles, and climbing steep, narrow iron-studded stairs.
I bought something in one of the shops, then got a taxi to Hunyuan, the nearest town 3 kms away. Got on a bus heading to Datong, and that was that. That took two hours... to go 65 kms. I was let off at some random bus depot, and crossed the street to have lunch (it being 11:30). I went into a Chinese fondue place. I don't know what the official word(s) is for that style of restaurant, but basically they bring you a big soup dish that is set on a burner. It has two soups in it - a spicy one and a milder one. Then you order what meats you want, and you're given an array of garnishes and sauces, and you cook it all up yourself however you want. Rice porridge (really good) ended the meal.
Around 1pm, I went to the long-distance bus station again, and for 25 yuan, hopped a bus to Yungang Grottoes, a world heritage site. When I got on, everyone tried to talk to me. Once I told them I was Canadian, they went off on their Bethune praising. That guy is way more famous than he ought to be. I think the Chinese government uses him to epitomize Canadians in order to maintain strong associations to Canada in the minds of the Chinese. A girl seated in front of me wanted my phone number for some odd reason. Her boyfriend then proceeded to yell at her. Weird exchange, anyway.
The caves/grottoes were fucking amazing. Most of the grottoes, statues and carvings were over 1,500 years old, having been built between 460 and 495 CE. The details and sheer quantity of details were staggering. At 'infamous' Cave 20 (the central "cave" - the front section of the roof had collapsed in the Liao dynasty) I lit incense and said a prayer for Poppa, whose ashes were being scattered the following night.
I wandered around there for two hours, until about 3:30, just taking my time and really enjoying everything. I hopped a local bus back into Datong (which I should have taken to get there in the first place), got off at some random stop, and took a taxi to the old part of Datong where the Jiulong Bi (the Nine Dragon Screen) was located.
Jiulong Bi was cool, but it was just sort of there. A wall enclosed it, and 10 yuan got me in. One woman was there, at a table at the back. I snapped numerous pictures, then sat down and did some writing under a tree. As I was sitting there, a few others came in, so I helped them out by taking pictures for them so they could all be in the photos. I spoke with one family for a few minutes, the grandmother taking especial interest in me and trying to translate through her granddaughter and son-in-law. Very nice people.
I took a local bus back to the hotel around 5 or so, and planned to head out the next day (Saturday). From the journal I was writing: "I still need to get a bus or train ticket to Beijing. I'll do that and buy some fruit or something before bed. Should be back in Tang Shan by 1 or 2 tomorrow. Hope I don't have any more issues."
Followed the next day by: "I'm stuck in Datong. [...] There is no way out by train tomorrow, either." Anyway, I headed out Saturday morning at 6:15 to check on train tickets. There was one that afternoon, actually, but it was late and train from Datong to Beijing is not direct. So I went to the bus station... at 7am it was pandemonium, a mosh-pit fueled with people's urgent needs to escape and return home at the end of the holiday.
Short of it was: I was stuck in Datong that day, and possibly all of Sunday as well. I went for a walk to clear my head, and then went for lunch near the hotel. I saw two foreigners in there, approx my age, whom I'd seen at 6am in the hotel lobby. I went over and invited them over for a beer. They were from Sweden, and had been in country for six days, but had been in Mongolia for ten days just prior. They'd taken the Trans-Siberian train in. So chatting with them raised my spirits a bit. I then showed them the long distance local bus station place and worked out that they could get to Pingyao from there by going via Taiyuan. Then we hopped in a pedicab and I took them to Jiulong Bi. The lady in the back of the pedicab had been my server at breakfast that morning, so she chatted with me. Made for a fast pedicab ride. At Jiulong Bi, I split from the Swedes and headed west to try to find a temple (couldn't locate it). We made plans to hook up again that evening.
I took a cab to a third bus stop, thanks to the taxi driver's knowledge of it. I got a ticket for Sunday morning to Beijing and was ecstatic. Truly, I can't express the absolute relief I felt that that night would be my last in Datong.
Back at the hotel, I ended up helping 5 other foreigners (two Germans, a French woman and a guy of unknown origins) translate at the hotel front desk. I had gone down to complain that there was no attendant on the 4th floor. The staff kept gesturing me over because they assumed my Chinese was better than the other guests'. Ended up down there for 25 minutes, helping them with check-in stuff and telling them how to get to Yungang Grottoes. It was cool to meet different folks. The only foreigners I've really met here have been my fellow teachers in Tang Shan.
Went for supper with the two Swedes (can't remember their names) and had a few beers and chatted about travel and different countries. Around 9pm we called it a night. In the morning, I had breakfast, took a taxi to the bus terminal, waited an hour, and headed out. Thus end'eth the chronicles of Datong.
However, I wasn't through yet, though I had thought that I was. There was still...
Beijing. No issues getting to Beijing in the morning, and it was a relatively quick trip. I really love the area around Badaling, to the S/SW of Beijing. There is a really nice section of the Great Wall there, and the mountain passes are just beautiful. (the emergency brake pits are funny, too - inclined gravel pits to drive into if your brakes fail.) It had been a drizzly morning, and the temperature was down. There was mist in the mountain valleys and the peaks were wreathed in low clouds. Just beautiful.
I chatted with an English major on the bus, and she pointed out her university once we got into Beijing. We arrived around 12:30pm, and she showed me where I could buy a ticket to Tang Shan from the bus station. I went in and... meiyo. No tickets. So, experiencing some of the same panic I had in Datong, I headed for a taxi and went downtown Beijing to the train station. Passed Qian Men and Tian'anmen Square. Got a train ticket for 5:30. Excited was I. That gave me about two and a half hours or so to wander. I knew I couldn't get far or see much (not without taxi'ing around, and paying entrance fees, and feeling rushed) so I went to Wangfujing Street, a pedestrian business district.
As I approached Wangfujing, two art design students started chatting with me, and offered to take me to Wangfujing and the two bookstores there. We talked for quite a while, and they had an exhibit in the basement around the corner from the Wangfujing Bookstore, so in I went. It was amazing. Their class has serious talent. Everything from oil paintings, water colour, ink on silk and rice-paper... really nice pieces. I bought one for 100 yuan and talked to them about Chinese history, the meaning of various Chinese symbols (bamboo, the crane, dragon, phoenix, plum blossoms). It was a nice intimate experience.
Then, left to my own devices with an hour and a half left, I wandered up to the other bookstore. No "Black Company" by Glenn Cook. Curses. But there was a digital camera shop next door, so I bought an adapter and a larger memory stick, a 128 meg. So now I can take... 350 or so pictures at a go. Combined with my 16 meg stick, I'm hanging at about 400, so I don't need to be as conservative with my photo taking. Then I sampled some tea from an assortment of tea vendors, and headed back to the train station.
The waiting hall was fairly quiet, for China. When the ticket agent appeared, the mosh-pit formed, and I forced my way towards the front. No problem with a seat (I didn't know they were only selling seat tickets). I sat down with four guys who were going to Tang Shan also, and a guy heading to Tianjin sat down beside me. We chatted for a while, and he showed me how to recognize a bunch of chinese symbols so now I know: people, some, numbers (different ones), wife, husband, percentile, sky, up, donate or give, strength, health, head, hand, kill, no, boxes, big, and small. It was a fun trip. One of the guys seated opposite me had to be a "volunteer from the audience" to help some vendor stress-test a sock. The vendor took a wire brush to it and began to beat on it. It was quite funny. Nice bunch of guys, anyway. At one point, a woman sat down with us and asked me if they were my students. We all burst out laughing. Comraderie is a good thing; language barriers just don't come into play. It's amazing what a shared grin over an inside joke can accomplish in so short a time.
Got in to Tang Shan around 9:30pm, and I was so happy to be back. So that's the story.