Don’t let first appearances deceive you – gritty, polluted and unattractive it may be, but DATONG (大同, dàtóng) is the main jumping-off point for two of northern China’s most spectacular sights. The phenomenal Yungang Caves and the gravity-defying Hanging Temple can both be chalked off in a single day, while the latter can be combined with a visit to Heng Shan, one of the five holy mountains of Taoism, or on the way to the Buddhist centre of Wutai Shan.
Datong throws a few sights of its own into the ring, relaying a tale of two non-Han dynasties. The Turkic Toba people took advantage of the internal strife afflicting central and southern China to establish their own dynasty, the Northern Wei (386–534 AD), taking Datong as their capital in 398 AD. Though the period was one of discord and warfare, the Northern Wei became fervent Buddhists and commissioned a magnificent series of cave temples at Yungang, just west of the city. Over the course of almost a century, more than a thousand grottoes were completed, containing over fifty thousand statues, before the capital was moved south to Luoyang, where construction began on the similar Longmen Caves.
A second period of greatness came with the arrival of the Mongol Liao dynasty, also Buddhists, who made Datong their capital in 907. Their rule lasted two hundred years, leaving behind a small legacy of statuary and some fine temple architecture, notably in the Huayan and Shanhua temples in town, and a wooden pagoda, the oldest in China, in the nearby town of Yingxian. Datong remained important to later Chinese dynasties for its strategic position just inside the Great Wall, south of Inner Mongolia, and the tall city walls date from the early Ming dynasty.