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The Terracotta Warriors and Horses may have helped put China’s Shaanxi province on the map, but its easterly sister province of Shanxi is the one that has been dubbed the “Cradle of Chinese Civilization.”
A rail journey can be a good way to see Shanxi province’s treasure trove of antiquities. For a great launch pad to view two must-see cultural gems — Yungang Grottoes and The Hanging Temple — take the 6.5-hour train ride from Beijing to Datong, the former imperial capital that is now a sprawling coal-mining city.
Yungang GrottoesSome of the world’s largest stone carvings are located at Yungang Grottoes, which is approximately 30 minutes west of Datong. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001, the impressive spot features marked paths and takes a few hours to explore thoroughly.
Heralded by some insiders as more significant than other grottoes — due to the number of caves (252) and stone sculptures (51,000) — Yungang Grottoes indeed possesses some masterpieces.
Here, travelers will find Buddhist statues that were carved some 1,500 years ago at the foot of Wuzhou Mountain during the Northern Wei Dynasty. The giant Buddhas are standing and sitting; some feature styles from India, present-day Afghanistan and Persia, to name a few influences in this collection of rich Chinese fusion.
Cave No. 12, the multicolored Vimala Bhumi Bodhisattva Cave, has musical motifs, with intricate carvings of musicians and dancers covering the entire cave. Cave No. 5, the Cave of the Great Buddha, features the site’s biggest Buddha, at 55 feet wide and 82 feet tall, with a striking gilded face. Cave No. 20, the White Buddha Cave, showcases the site’s iconic figure of a sitting Buddha, whose chiseled visage confronts the elements.
The Hanging TempleOver by the Jinlong Gorge at Hengshan Mountain, devotion also takes center stage at the gravity-defying Hanging Temple of Hengshan. A multipurpose building built roughly 1,400 years ago, this three-in-one worship center located about an hour south of Datong celebrates Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism.
The construction of the site is the stuff of legends. For this bold undertaking, it is said that a monk miraculously hurled logs over the cliff’s edge, and workers chiseled holes into the rock face and cantilevered the beams together.
The Hanging Temple teeters precariously, as if dangling off the rocky gorge. During my visit, the wind bellowed, and the changing sun painted the temple in soft palettes. To make their way up, visitors cross a riverbed via a footbridge surrounded by low-lying scrub tufting the massive gorge floor as the four-story structure looms above.
I ascended a rocky staircase until a wooden temple appeared, greeting me with burning incense and holy relics. I bypassed a curio shop to resume the climb — this time on narrow steel steps studded with worn steel balls. Gripping the step above, I ascended and found knee-high rails, the only thing holding visitors back from the abyss as they peruse rooms of worship. The temple is open daily, weather permitting.
Despite the passage of time, erosion, political upheavals and looting, Yungang Grottoes and The Hanging Temple are architectural masterpieces and world treasures for mankind.