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ZEISS Photography Award 2018 open for submissions.
Shanxi Province, Datong.
Yungang Grottos is a UNESCO World Heritage site just outside the city of Datong. While you can catch a bus directly to the site you may want to consider a taxi. While the bus is significantly cheaper, it also take longer to get there. Plus, finding the bus stations/stops might be a challenge. Well, for us it was, we didn’t notice any obvious signage or anything indicative of a bus stop (like a numbers), also we didn’t notice any bus station like building. Anyways, if you can afford the time it is much cheaper by public transport. If you choose to go by taxi, you can either go one way (probably cheaper initially) or the taxi driver may offer you a higher price and then will wait for you in the parking area until you’re done. This may be better because your fare is already negotiated and you won’t get ripped off by the second taxi taking you back (I haven’t had experience with that, only read reviews saying fares are higher on the return trip because the drivers know there’s no other option for you). Also, since payment is made when you return from the outing, you’re guaranteed a ride back. From Datong Hotel, front desk got us a taxi for 200 yuan (this is a bit on the steep side, I think). The ride was roughly 40 minutes driving fast. Remember to take a picture of the taxi, driver and license plate so you can find the guy easier when you’re done at the Grottoes.
At the Grottoes, you get dropped off at the parking area and you have to walk into the “scenic area”. There are street vendors with drinks and stuff, as well as people (quite aggressively) trying to sell “discount” tickets. Not sure what the deal is but if you can understand whats being said maybe you can get a deal. We did buy drinks from street vendor. I picked Pepsi, at least what I thought was Pepsi. You can see it in the photo but the coloration was a lot lighter than in the photo. I threw it out right after the photo. From the parking area roughly 50 meters away you’ll see a traffic gate/building structure (the background structure in the photo). Go through the gates and keep going straight! Right after passing through the gate/building there is a way to go left with lots of stuff to see, restaurants etc. That’s the exit plaza. To get to the entrance where the ticket office is, keep going straight, you’ll see stairs. Going up the stairs the ticketing office is in the building on the left. Tickets were 125 Yuan. If you like postcards, don’t crumple the ticket because you can tear off the stubs and the remainder is a postcard. We got there at 13:30 and they closed at 17:00. We barely finished it. We could have spent more time looking at things the last hour but we rushed the grottoes knowing we’d run out of time. Not knowing that there is a park area and that the exit was a ways off.
The first section after you buy your tickets and enter the “Grottoes” is a plaza of sorts with temples, a pagoda, some stone art. You’ll pass an Art Gallery too. After getting past all of that, you’ll cross a bridge before getting to the Grottoes section.
The main paths are pretty much smooth and easy to walk. For the grottoes that are higher, there are wooden stairs and platforms built for access. Inside however is a mix. Some have wooden walkways, some do not and some caves were empty.
There is temple on top of the cliff (was under repairs at the time) accessible by an almost hidden (by trees) stairway path. The view from up there is pretty cool and you can see how big this “park” really is. Behind this building is a path that goes somewhere, being pressed for time we didn’t venture that far. Some of the caves were enclosed for their protection, some of which were unavailable for entry.
Like I said earlier we almost didn’t finish the Grottoes section, but we for sure didn’t get to see most of the park area because we got picked up by an extended golf cart and taken to the exit area because we wouldn’t make it on time for closing. We had to pay 5 yuan each for the ride. If you can’t walk the entire grounds, you can take the tour cart. It doesn’t go into where the actually caves are though. You may want to budget a bit more time if you like to take lots of photos (like me) because some of the closed areas may be open when you go and also for the park area after the grottoes area. There were games and stalls and stuff.
Once you exit the grottoes, the exit plaza has a whole bunch of stalls for you to buy souvenirs. Lots of cool stuff, remember prices can be negotiable. I got 20 yuan off just for picking up a silver bracelet after asking for the price. If you plan to buy the black bead bracelets keep this in mind, once you exit the traffic gates to get to the parking area where your taxi should be waiting, there are a lot of old ladies selling those bracelets at 3 for 10 yuan but I got offered as high as 7 for 10 yuan. These old ladies are aggressive! They will put the bracelets in your hand on your arm wherever they can and refuse to take them back. Once you buy from one you will get swarmed. They will prevent you from closing the taxi door even (our driver was of no help in shooing them away) eventually though they gave up.
All in all, in our opinion, the Yungang Grottoes is worth the entrance fee. I think I could spend an additional 3 hours in there. Our only regret is rushing and not finishing the park as well as not trying the food. Although you may not want to if you have nut allergies (specifically peanuts) I saw and smelled a lot of peanuts at the exit plaza area.
For more of my photos taken in and around Datong, visit my Datong Album on Flickr.
Datong Inner City Tourist Attractions
Datong City Wall
The Datong City Wall encloses the original city of Datong. It is quite spectacular to see. This wall is not the original wall, it is a replica which is why it looks relatively new. Still impressive to look at and be on top of! Getting onto the wall is free, you just have to show your ID (passports are fine). At two of the gates you can rent bikes for 60 Yuan per hour and you can return the bike at the other bike stop if you don’t want to ride the whole wall. From what we could interpret, you can finish the wall in an hour. We paid for the hour but it took us two so we just paid the extra hour when returning the bike so don’t worry about going over on time. We stopped a lot to admire views and take pictures and just overall messing around having fun. As you can see in the photo below, the wall is really wide, some parts are being restored and my daughter taking off on the bike when I got off to take pictures of the city below.
After the wall you can continue to walk around and there are plenty of things to see like Temples. All the ones we walked into while looking for the “tourist attractions” were free.
9 Dragon Screen
9 Dragon Screen for all the hype it was, in my opinion, underwhelming. While the size of this wall and the story behind it is interesting the space they had it in was bleh at best. The cost to enter was 10 yuan per person. I thought it was worth it just for being able to see something that old in relatively good shape. Despite the total destruction of the palace it was part of part. There’s even a mini moat in front of the wall although it’s dry and unassuming. Over 600 years old and surviving a sacking or two this palace wall remnant is not in pristine condition (like in the images in the post cards they sell) but it still looks really awesome, it’s reported to be the largest of only 3 such walls in China. There is a gift shop in which the attendees were a bit aggressive, sticking things in your hands for you to see, if you didn’t want it they’d just yank it back.
Walking/wandering around we passed many interesting places, a coffee shop (with an English menu) sites still under construction/renovation. Then we get to a plaza where young people were skateboarding and hanging out. This was right in front of the Huayan Monastery.
Entry fee was 65 Yuan. This place is huge! Lots to see.we took an hour and a half and still didn’t see everything. Almost though. They are pretty diligent in closing on time at 18:30. There is a pagoda you can go all the way to the top and there’s a basement you can go down too. To help preserve the inside, you are required to were slip on covers over your shoes. Also, the stairs are pretty steep and narrow, so mind your shins.
I wished I had more time in this monastery, I really like the “feel” and would really have like to see everything. Well worth the entrance fee! There are monks walking around, some even join the tour groups and add to the stories (I’m guessing as they do a lot of talking). So monks (not just in this monastery) will actually move to a more favorable spot for you to include them in your shot. I found that really awesome! The first few times I was hesitant as I thought maybe it was a gimmick and they’d come ask for a “tip”, but that never happened! It seemed they genuinely wanted to help you get a “better” shot.
Walking around at night was something else! Although really dark in many places, we didn’t feel threatened but didn’t want to leave things to chance either, we made our back to the hotel. Some places only had the lights from the buildings on top of the wall or car headlights.
NOTE: Although I took a lot of time photographing things, I could have taken a lot more. There’s just so many things to see and make images of!
For more photos taken in and around Datong, check out my Flickr Album.
Hong Changyu Inn
Pingyao, Shanxi Province, China.
Hong Changyu Inn is situated within the city of Pingyao’s ancient walls. For clarification, the Inn is inside the walls but outside the no drive zone. This means that you can get front door pick up, drop off service for a fee. My quoted pricing was 48 Yuan for pickup at the highspeed railway, 30 Yuan for the regular train’s station (the one from Datong stops here) and drop off service to Taiyuan Airport was 380 yuan. Shaw, the Inn keeper can converse in English and responds to emails quickly. He’s very patient and helpful. Payment was made in cash at check in (remember to get your receipt, just in case) including security deposit and payment for taxi fare to Taiyuan airport. Check out was smooth and quick. Deposit was ready and returned without hesitation. Breakfast is not included and costs 10 Yuan per person. As a matter of fact, I don’t even recall seeing a restaurant. We didn’t have time to experience it though plus the street food looked way too good.
If you’re into ancient architecture, decor and ambiance, then you can’t go wrong with Hong Changyu Inn. The room we got looked exactly the same as the one pictured when I booked on Booking.com. It had everything I wanted to experience straight down to the stone bed. We didn’t get to light a fire under it for warmth though. The opening to shove in wood/coal was closed off and it wasn’t cold enough anyways. The bed was not as hard as I thought it would be, probably because the padding was pretty thick. Pillows were comfortable, might be a bit too hard for some (don’t worry, it’s not the wood blocks of old). The room and Inn looked a bit too new for the decor (there were some run down looking Inns/Hotels but I didn’t want to chance it). The room was clean as were the sheets, blankets and towels.
There is the usual compliment of toiletries and a sitting toilet but there isn’t a safe for your valuables. Lucky, I always bring my laptop cable lock and looped it around the the ornate brick of the bed and locked the tumbler section inside my suitcase (between the zippers and locked the zipper handles). Not perfect, but better than nothing I suppose. The entrance to the room is unique in the sense that there is a heavy, rattan like mat, roll up curtain (but doesn’t roll up) that you have to move aside to open the door. If you’re wondering why it’s there, its so you can leave the door open for more fresh air and still have some privacy. The door is secured via latch and padlock.
As you can see, the room is small but still ok for a couple or single occupant. The bed is big enough to fit 3 though. If you do stay with more than just yourself, take note that the frosted glass of the bathroom/toilet is not as frosty as the photos indicate, especially when wet. Another thing to note is to remember to take the toilet paper out of the bathroom (and the dust bin) when showering (yes, that’s the roll holder almost directly under the shower head)! Also, for some reason the water tastes weird (but bearable), don’t know why or how. No I didn’t drink it, just got some in my mouth from showering and brushing my teeth.
If you’re visiting Pingyao for the the Pingyao International Photography Festival, this Inn is really close to Feng Yi gate which you need to exit to attend the opening ceremony if it’s held at Feng Yi Park (as it was in 2017). It’s also really close to the main exhibition halls (Diesel building and others). All within 15 minutes walking (assuming you head directly to the destination).
I would definitely stay at the Hong Changyu Inn again next year (if I’m fortunate enough to make it into an exhibition)!
To see more pictures from Pingyao, China, visit my Flickr Page.