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Datong (to, through and out of)

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Soundtrack: 'Hello' - Lionel Richie

Oh wow, what a country!  What a bright, colourful, insanely friendly country!  And this is just after visiting the relatively dull industrial city of Datong. 

After the train crossed the border from Mongolia, the Chinese police came on to the train to carry out their own passport, visa and baggage checks.  They were particularly interested in what books we were carrying, as the Russians had been.  But, as they couldn't read the titles themselves and were reliant on us to point each one out as a 'story' book or a 'travel' book, it is hard to know what they hoped to find unless we were carrying something with a picture of the Dalai Lama on the front cover.  As ever though, I couldn't help but hold my breath a little bit as my copy of 1984 passed through their hands.  Far from being the severe type of people like the Russian police which we had been led to expect, they were very relaxed and friendly, or as much as border police can be while professionally carrying out their duties, at all times.  Checks completed, the train was shunted around and had its under carriage removed as we were adapted back to the standard-guage track size that we are familiar with in Europe.  We tried to sleep through this but the Chinese seem to have no idea how to shunt a train gently so an awful lot of loud bangs and big jolts accompanied our broken dozing into the early hours. 

Waking the next morning, the scenery had definitely changed, even though we were now in Inner Mongolia and so theoretically the geography should have looked similar to Outer Mongolia.  Hills and flats were much more pronounced whilst the roads and urban areas we passed all had a different character to them.  Unlike at any other stage of the train route from Moscow, the night before we had been issued with tokens entitling us to free breakfast and lunch in the restaurant car, so the next morning Christian and I made our way down there at the alloted time.  It might not have been enough for the Queen of England but we got a cup of tea (but not two, when I dared to enquire), two slices of bread, two hard boiled eggs, sachets of butter and jam and a, erm, fork to spread them with.  It was good to see the Chinese try to be welcoming to westerners by providing the cutlery we're used to, but they don't seem to have mastered which implement is used for which task.  We were then back at our carriage in time for me to zip up my bag and depart the train when it pulled into Datong at eight O'clock. 

Exiting the station I passed the Chinese International Travel Service (CITS - they are all over China and apparently vary greatly in their helpfulness) man who chased me out of the building asking if I wanted to go on a tour, telling me what time they departed etc.  I planned to find a proper hotel from my guidebook very close to the station, reasoning that it would be nice to have a private room for a couple of days and that the cost wouldn't be prohibitive for such a short period.  Finding it was a bit tricky as everything, street signs, building signs, are all in Chinese characters.  In fact, your instincts tell you that everything is a restaurant because that is the only time you normally see them in the UK.  So, you have to compare everything character by character to see if it's similar to what you have in your guide book.  I find myself repeating descriptions of two or three characters in my head whilst looking up and down the street looking for matches.  EG: 'running man, box on legs, shopping trolley with aerial . . . running man, box on legs, shopping trolley with aerial . . . running man, box on legs, shopping trolley with aerial'.  I should of course mention that whilst doing this with my heavy bags in the hot morning sun, I was totally bowled over by the sights and atmosphere.  Even though it was just a great number of subtle differences to anything I have ever seen before, they all add up to be mind-blowingly different and I was very starry-eyed with it all. 

After a few minutes, an older man spotted how lost I looked so cycled over to see if he could help.  No language was shared between us, but I was able to point at the hotel name from my guide book and he was able to point in the right direction.  When I got closer, repeating the trick with a girl in a uniform worked well because she worked there so she was able to lead me the final 40m into the back door.  I was able to bag a room but none of my credit cards would work and they wanted payment in advance.  Eventually, the woman behind reception took me outside, waved down a taxi and explained that I needed to be taken to the nearest cashpoint which she assured me was across town, waited for while I withdrew money, then driven back to the hotel.  The ride took about ten minutes each way along one of the main streets.  The traffic seemed to be almost as unstructured as it had been in Ulaan Baatar to the point where it took me a while to work out which side of the street everyone was supposed to drive on, but in a much more relaxed way that made much easier to avoid being knocked down as a pedestrian.  The fare cost about a pound and my driver was stunned when I rounded this up by another 30p.  Partly because, I later discovered, tipping is generally unheard of in China. 

With my room obtained I had a shower and a lie-down on a proper bed.  Although it only cost about twenty pounds a night, this was one of the top-end hotels in town with all mod-cons and facilities.  God only knows who designed the drainage system for the shower in the bathroom though.  I'd try and explain it to you if I thought you'd believe me.  The acting and general production values in Chinese television is so laughably amateur that at first I thought I had forty three channels of porn in my room, but then remembered the country's attitudes to the subject and realised that that would be an impossibility. 

I headed out for a look around with the general intention of finding the two Huayan temples.  Again, everything just struck me as incredible, even though a lot of it probably wasn't (Did I have a little Cathy and Julia floating above each sholder?) .  I did notice that a few times total strangers would say 'hello' to me, which seemed slightly odd.  Certainly I didn't see another western face during my two days in the city except for a group of four people who were possibly German at the Upper temple.  Stopping into a cafe, pointing at my phrasebook I was just about able to communicate the message that I didn't eat meat or fish and that, beyond that, I didn't care what they brought me.  It took about ten minutes and three different members of staff but the job got done and everyone was incredibly friendly about it.  My mastery of chopsticks has now got to the stage where I won't starve, but it still seems like a failure to evolve if you ask me.  The Qing dynasty ruled China for two hundred and sixty eight years yet still didn't find the time to invent the knife, fork or spoon.  What were they doing with themselves all day?  Sitting around, playing chess and conragtulating themselves for inventing paper over two thousand years before anyone else?  It is definitely the case though, that part of learning involves accepting that you're not supposed to be very good at it.  As an Englishmen, I am taught to prepare a mouth-sized portion of food at a time, selecting the right size and components from what I have on my plate, arranging it on a fork or spoon for transport, raising it to my mouth which does not meet the cutlery halfway, chewing and swallowing this perfect mouthful, then returning to step one.  Recreating this process with chopsticks can be a frustrating process.  Even once you have the hang of it, selecting a perfect mouthful then transporting it to the mouth on two sticks is often very difficult to achieve.  The reality is that the Chinese all eat like Russ, albeit he doesn't have the excuse of three thousand years of tradition or unavailability of knife, fork or spoon to excuse him.  The plate/bowl is lifted up if necessary, the head is lowered to greet it, and the chopsticks are often just used to push food into the mouth in the way a builder might use a shovel to help put dry cement into the mixer.  I may be forced to slurp a bit, but I'm afraid that I'm unable to overcome my cultural aversion to accepting that such a method is civilised, so sit there picking up the difficult bits individually as well as the easy ones. 

I found the temples and had a look around, and very temple-like they were too.  Not much more I can add to that other than to look at the pictures.  Pottering through town some more and stopping to use the internet, I found myself in another restaurant attempting to order dinner.  By now, it seemed like everyone on the street was stopping to say 'hello' to me.  Even people driving cars would lean out of their window and shout it as they drove past me.  I was such an object of curiousity in the restaurant that it took three waitresses to serve me.  Plus, a group of three people who spoke basic English at a nearby table came over and spent ten minutes helping me order.  While I was eating there was a tap at the window.  When I looked up, there was a girl on the other side of the glass waving at me mouthing the word "hello!"  I wasn't sure it this was ultra friendliness towards a foreigner, the fact that I had red hair, the fact that I had a red beard (no locals had beards) or if it was the result of a government publicity campaign to get everyone to say 'hello' to foreigners during the Olympics.  Certainly, they way they said it then grinned from ear to ear or laughed, suggested that they were reciting some kind of catchphrase.  Old and young, men and women, everyone wanted to say hello to me. 

The next morning I went over to the train station to try to buy a ticket to Beijing for the day after.  Initially I walked to the entrance of the CITS office and was again chased by the enthusiastic, friendly guy wanting to take me on a tour.  The station Information desk spoke no English so I was faced with a wall of signs in Chinese and a dozen queues in the ticket hall, each with twenty people queued up.  It took a lot of working out, but I used my guidebook to work out the signs for Beijing West Station, guessed my way through dates and times on the wall and eventually managed to write down what I wanted on a piece of paper, including taking several minutes to carefully craft the signs for my destination.  I neared the front of my first queue when we were all told to go away, I think because the window was closing.  I was in my second queue when a Chinese student called Zhangjie came over and asked if I wanted any help.  She confirmed that my notes on the paper were clear and correct, although when I got to the window she was able to answer when I was asked if I wanted a seat or a bed, even though this sounded like a silly question to me for a six-hour daytime train. 

Afterwards I wanted to go to the Yungang Caves outside of town so headed towards the bus station.  She came with me and used the same bus to go home.  I had a similar experience in Ulaan Baatar one night but realised where that situation was going when she told me she was learning massage.  This, however, was all above board.  As we chatted on the bus, she decided that I needed a guide for the caves so said she would come with me, although her mother was very concerned at this prospect when she rang to tell her.  People were still smiling at me and saying hello on the bus.  When I called a pregnant woman down to take my seat, another girl got up and insisted that I take her seat.  Initially I tried to refuse but when I sat down and saw the faces of the other passengers again, everyone was beaming smiles at me for having given up my seat in the first place. 

By the time we got to the caves, Zhangjie had apologised many times that she hadn't done any research or preparation for the caves to help explain the details to me, a regret she repeated many times for at least the first hour we were there.  In the first couple of caves, a security guard explained everything to her in great detail, which she then faithfully repeated back to me.  Thereafter, there were many tour groups going around following guides with flags.  So, at almost every cave we encountered one of them which Zhangjie would listen to and then pass it all on to me afterwards when they wandered off.  In summary, the caves were generally built around 1500-1600 years ago.  There are few caves that you can actually walk into now, and those that you can generally do not allow photos.  Take a look at the photos to see how incredible they all were.  A five year-old boy came to talk to me in English at one point.  His parents had to help him in between me speaking and him replying, but he still seemed to be doing the bulk of the work and his English was much better than my Chinese. 

Taking the ride back into town, and fielding a couple more shouts of 'Hello' from the far end of the bus, we went to a small restaurant/cafe for some dinner.  It wasn't very salubrious, but it was the sort of place that an uncertain tourist would typically avoid in favour of something plusher, so it was good to be taken somewhere like that with the assurance of a recommendation.  Zhangjie felt that I had done her a huge favour this day by allowing her to be my guide and was very embarrased when I wouldn't let her pay the bill, but when the total evening meal for two people comes to about two pounds, I was hardly breaking the bank anyway.  On my way back to my hotel I stopped off at an internet cafe and was given a machine next to a young Chinese guy sound asleep.  My own PC came complete with its own locust which jumped disturbingly up and down around my screen and bag, resisting all attempts to be shooed away. 

Up early the next day, I had to catch my train at 08:31, but not before I had checked my email in the hotel to see the name and location of my hostel in Beijing.  I got over to the train station where the CITS man masked his disappointment that I didn't want to go on one of his trips by telling me which entrance to use to catch my train.  Oddly, he seemed to think that I needed to be running, even though it was not due to depart for another ten minutes.  Inside the proper entrance, a local man jogged around with me as I tried to find the correct departure lounge
(no, really) for my train.  This was after I had put my backpack through the baggage scanning machine.  These machines are everywhere in China, even just to get into the train station ticket hall or onto the metro, although I couldn't vouch for whether they are just a temporary measure for the Olympics.  I finally got to the departure gate two minutes before the train was due out but this was too late for them so I had missed my train.  Another lady missed it also so I tried to follow her so she could show me where to get a replacement, if this was possible.  She was showing me where to go etc, but in between her getting turned away from the ticket window and me getting turned away, she disappeared.  After standing outside for a few minutes to consider my options and sweat out another litre in the heat, I decided to adjust my notes and drawings from the previous day to buy a new ticket for the next train due out at 12:48. 

I killed the intervening time in the same internet cafe.  This time I was not rewarded with a complementary locust but did have one of the attendants reaching over me from time to time to enthusiastically swat another fly.  I stopped into a small rough 'n' ready cafe nearby for some food before the train.  I pointed at the vegetarian entries in my phrasebook with the cher for a while before he nodded and headed back into his kitchen.  A minute later he was back holding up an egg, a tomato, a mushroom, something green and a questioning expression.  I smiled and nodded and he returned to the kitchen to cook it all up. 

This time I got to the station forty minutes before my train and, upon finding my departure lounge, saw that I was still just about the last person to arrive.  An announcement was made and many hundreds of Chinese queued their way through the gate while I waited for the rush to die down with various children coming up to me and peering at me very hard and curiously.  Onto the train I was in a big, long carriage seating about 150 people, all Chinese except myself.  Walking to the far end in search of my seat, I was greeted with amazed grins from everyone I passed.  In my seat, everyone wanted to say hello even though this was the only word we each knew in each other's language.  Talking to perhaps fifteen people with more than that again kneeling up on their seats or leaning over to listen in, I just about managed to introduce myself, explain with the aid of maps and pictures in my books where I came from, explain that I had come by train, explain that I was going to the Olympic games and to offer everyone some of my swiss roll, which was politely refused with much laughter.  Various people borrowed my books to keenly pour over them as the train departed.  Rarely does one person welcome you half as kindly, let alone thirty-plus, and I wish I had taken a picture at this time, but I wrongly figured it could wait.  Partly because the buzz of the moment only lasted for twenty minutes before we ran out of mimes we could make and partly because some people got off at each of the three stops after one, two and three hours. 

I was offered drinks, cigarettes and tomatoes during the ride.  The older woman next to me suggested on more than one occasion that I should be doing acorbatic somersaults across the tops of the seats down the carriage, for reasons that I never did fathom.  She was fascinated by my iPod, which I played her some songs on, and my phone, which got passed around.  It was interesting how she and many other people would eat seeds and freely and style-lessly spit the shells out onto the floor.  More than once an attendant came down to sweep the whole carriage of this sort of mess. 

It seemed at times that there were more staff than passengers on the train, and that was saying something!  Tickets were checked, a snacks trolley regularly went up and down as did a fruit trolley (who wants to buy a sealed pack of seven limes for a train journey??).  A man with a large kettle came to dish out free water at one point and several times police came down to pick out random bags from the overhead racks which the owner then had to pull down and open up for inspection.  Liquid containers were a worry and one man with a bright-yellow bottle was told to take a drink from it to prove that it wasn't an explosive.  My bag was never singled out and I think they regarded its many pockets and straps as much too much like hard work to be bothered with.  Before the first check, but possibly unrelated, a man who I think was the same as grandmeister luggage-checker came into the carriage at the other end and made a firmly-worded announcement ending in a salute.  I've no idea what he said, but everyone within earshot gave him a big round of applause so I joined in for effect. 

I wasn't exactly sure how long this train was going to take but, after slowing down through some lovely scenery of a gorge for about an hour, we arrived in Beijing West just six hours after we had left Datong.  The big shortfall of this station, as I saw it, was that it was not connected to the metro system.  So, copy of the Lonely Planet in hand and one finger in the page with the map, I walked off to the nearest station.  It was profusely hot but walking, metro riding and subsequent walking to the hostel only took an hour.  The hostel itself was down a bit of a side alley with neon signs for establishments offering massages and foot massages along it, which made we wonder what sort of place I had come to.  But remembering again how rare that sort of thing is in China, I figured that they really were massage parlours.  Besides, someone later told me that hair salons are the more normal front from the sex trade here.
Something for the weekend, Sir?  


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Datong, Beijing, Urumqi, Kanas Lake, Kashgar, Turpan, China