Just 16km west of Datong, the monumental Yungang Caves (云冈石窟, yúngāng shíkū), a set of Buddhist grottoes carved into the side of a sandstone cliff, are a must. Built around 400 AD at a time of Buddhist revival, the caves were the first and grandest of the three major Buddhist grottoes, the other two being the Longmen Caves in Luoyang and the Mogao Caves in Gansu. These are the best preserved, but prepare to be disappointed by their surroundings – the atmosphere has for years been blighted by nearby coal mines, and the benefits afforded by the recent addition of parkland have been eroded by a huge and even more recently built shopping mall. However, it’s still well worth the trip.
Arranged in three clusters (east, central and west) and numbered east to west from 1 to 51, the caves originally spread across an area more than 15km long, though today just a kilometre-long fragment survives. If it’s spectacle you’re after, just wander at will, but to get an idea of the changes of style and the accumulation of influences, you need to move sequentially between the three clusters. The earliest group is caves 16–20, followed by 7, 8, 9 and 10, then 5, 6 and 11 – the last to be completed before the court moved to Luoyang. Then followed 4, 13, 14 and 15, with the caves at the eastern end – 1, 2 and 3 – and cave 21 in the west, carved last. Caves 22–50 are smaller and less interesting.