9/22-23/2010

Full Moon Over Datong

Upon our arrival back in Beijing, we spend a few more days here, but the real treat is when we leave again for Datong.

We are up at 5:30am and board an airplane at 7:15am to fly 1 hour and land in the city that was once the capitol of China. It thus has an ancient and impressive history as well, with the remnants of an old city wall made of packed mud.  It was the outer ‘great wall’ – older but now reduced to oversized clumps of mud here and there strewn throughout the city, in-between present day buildings.

Datong is being renovated everywhere.  Large organized streets, fancy street lamps, wide intact sidewalks, flags fluttering from lamps and we are ushered into a 5 star hotel!!  Wow!  We haven’t been in one of these since the dollar crashed, which means since 2002.

It is the Moon Festival holiday – September 22nd – also Robert’s birthday – and it is the 2nd or 3rd most important holiday after Chinese New Years (in China called the Spring Festival).

Our hotel lobby has a most magnificent display of the goddess Chang-E, the moon goddess, with foods as offerings.  The most impressive food is the carving of 2 watermelons. Scenes of cranes or dragons in dark green etched with the lighter green beneath the outer rind with the background of the pink watermelon meat.  Each is standing on half a watermelon as a base, also designed with swirls in the lighter green beneath the dark green skin.  In another room, there is another beautiful display.  Lights all around – this one with several crane figures flying above.

Across our fancy hotel is the largest standing temple complex in China and we are told it is being renovated and closed.  From the outside, it is magnificent: we see a red wall around numerous wooden structures with those wavy roof tiles peaking above.

The full moon will be out tonight!

Hanging Temple and Wooden Pagoda

First we visit the hanging temple or monastery.  What is a hanging temple?  Well, it is  several very fancy wooden temple structures, those wavy roof tiles and all, hanging on the side of a mountain!  Built in 491AD, it hangs over 50 meters above the ground, but we learn the present floor is another 50 meters above what used to be the floor of a river, now gone after thousand of years and now silt and sand.  The builders climbed from the other side of the mountain and hung down from the top to build the temple.  Amazing.  Chinese are amazing…

You may wonder – how could a building like this withstand the winds and storms of so many years? Wooden crossbeams were two-thirds inserted into the rocky cliffs as the foundation, while the rock in back became its support. The mountain cliff curves forward on both sides shielding it from the wind; the top curves forward as well, shielding it from rain and snow; and the mountain across allows only 1 hour of sun a day.  Brilliant, eh?  The temple includes sculptures and artifacts depicting Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism therefore covering all 3 main philosophical influences in China.  Now I know why my dad wrote his book about all 3 of these and called it ‘The Chinese Mind’. There are 40 halls and cabinets, which contain about 80 sculptures made of copper, iron, terracotta, and stone. The features are vividly carved and we are amazed.  All of this by manual labor!

Then another hour’s drive to the Wooden Pagoda.  Another amazing feat and the oldest and tallest wooden pagoda still standing in China, albeit at a slight slant now. Built in 1056AD, this wooden pagoda is nine stories high – five we can see with four hidden inside. The Wooden Pagoda was built with all kinds of different brackets – which means no nails or rivets at all! Yet, it stands despite violent earthquakes and intense thunderbolts we are told.

But the evening holds another wonder for us:

Moon Festival

We are surrounded by celebrating families, all reunited for this important holiday.  They get 2 or 3 days off (tho we find out they have to make up for it by working the weekend!).  Lights are hung everywhere with fireworks going off in several locations in this one city.

Several of us go to the temple across the street which is open after all and it is gorgeous, all lit up with colorful lights beaming through spraying water – this a modern water fountain in the center.  Hanging above the dragons spouting water is the full moon on this amazingly clear night.

Datong is where there are over 54 coal mines!  The air was suppose to be absolutely awful.  We have noticed all the empty river beds due to the coal mines using up all the water and the underground water level is lowered by 50 meters!  But it rained for 2 days prior to our arriving and the air is clear and the sky has been bright blue all day.  Coal mines are closed for the holiday.  Now the night provides magic for us.  The full moon is smiling clearly at us all and we recount the story of Chang-E flying to the moon and becoming the Goddess of the Moon.

We walk toward music and find ourselves at the Red Flag Square.  There are many things going on – cotton candy, toss the rings over several items laid out on the sidewalk, throw the baseball into crock pots, circles of friends playing hacky sack with their hacky sacks of feathers and metal rings, and on the main stage is a Chinese Opera going on – the actors with full face painted masks, costumed, wonderful stylized movements and singing with a 12 piece Chinese orchestra.

The air is clean, the weather is a perfect 68 degrees and the full moon still hangs brightly above as the entire city- in fact all of China celebrates the Moon.

We are so happy we’re in Datong for the Moon Festival.  It is a stroke of good luck, as well as a great way to celebrate Robert’s birthday.

Yungang Grotto

Another feat awaited us the next day.  Carved into sandstone mountains, caves were made and thousands of Buddhas carved into the walls, the ceilings, and in the middle stand giant carved Buddhas.  Even the history of his life is carved into the walls.  In all there are 51,000 stone statues and 53 caves.  These marvels were started in the year 450AD.  They are huge until Datong was no longer the capitol and then the cave carvings became smaller having lost the Emperor’s funding.  We artists know that one in America!

Foot Massages and Changed Lives

We have a few hours before taking a train back to Beijing.  What should we do?

Well, we’re storytellers.  Can we ever get enough?  We go to a park and find a place to sit and story swap.  In time, a few brave Chinese gather to watch and listen though they can’t understand. But we are a diverse group of Americans attracting attention.  Even we are privy to Chinese karaoke singers – one on her cell phone at the same time, butnever missing a beat when it was her turn to sing the duet opera!

As the hour for leaving nears, we first treat ourselves to 70 minute Chinese Foot massages!  An overnight train ride back to Beijing with a moving hole to pee in on train tracks is suspect for comfort.  So we salve our souls, and besides, we need it with all the walking we’ve been doing not to mention the fact that the train leaves at 11pm and we arrive painfully at 5am the next day! The foot massages were heavenly and helped us to survive the short hours of sleep.  But sleep we did, albeit off and on, on the ‘not so bad’ lulling chug-a-chug of the train.

We now have only 2 days left on our tour.  Many are ready to return.  It has been a long journey filled with wonders to keep forever.  And we have not only gained a lot, but given a lot.  Besides in Gengcun, our Datong guide named Xiong Huan, aka Nancy, says even in her old age (and she’s a young 23-year old) she will remember us.  We have changed her relationship with her mother for we have told her the generation gap she described to us needed repairing.  We told her one day she would have children and did she want her children to stay away?  We told her how important it was to hear her parents’ stories before they died.  She went home and her mother exclaimed “Why? You are so different. What happened?”  And she told them about us.  Her mother gave us a gift and exclaimed that if we ever returned she wanted to be on the tour with us!  She is grateful and we’ve helped mend a relationship that will change lives.  How many of us wish someone had told us when our parents were still alive and heeded its message?

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