Buddhas survey their kingdom from windows carved out of sandstone.
Buddhas survey their kingdom from windows carved out of sandstone. Jacqueline Smith

From city grit to ageless serenity

THE Formica benchtops and plastic flowers are the first features that make the train feel like a time machine.

We chug away from the multi-level, multi-sensory malls and multi-lane highways of Beijing and into a barren landscape of dull brick, depleted crops and thin people in 70s clothing. Here in Shanxi province, the townships appear to have been shaded for gritty effect. They get sootier as we move inland. Ah yes, coal-mining territory.

The man in the booth opposite has shadows under his eyes from working around these parts. He sucks on a string of cigarettes and sloshes back a murky tea blend from a jar. Leathered, creased face, cracked hands make him a stark contrast to the polished men in the big city we left behind. You wouldn't see him dragging a dinky suitcase on wheels.

He offers us cigarettes. When we decline, using our best Mandarin, he reaches across for our phrasebook. Suppressing a cheeky grin, he passes it back, pointing to the phrase: "Would you like to dance?"

Outside is a less romantic setting. Shrivelled fields, empty towns and then a row of nuclear-looking pipes sitting right on the doorstep of homes like huge, unhealthy milk bottles. If there was a little more colour in the palette, it could have been a scene from The Simpsons.

Striking as it is for someone from the green pastures of New Zealand to see such feats of human construction, the fossil fuels of this area do not exactly put it on the tourist map.

But in Datong, a depressed city west of Beijing, things are changing, thanks to an enterprising and fairly controversial mayor named Geng Yanbo.

Even on a Sunday, when a psychedelic-pink flashy mob is celebrating the opening of an appliance store, Datong has that bleak, coal-mining look about it. But Yanbo's canny investment sees us tumbling off the train in the city centre and heading for what must be one of the flashest visitors' centres in China, 16km from the city.

The Shanxi Hills, or Wuzhou Mountains to be more specific, are not only filled with precious fuels but also more than 50,000 ancient clay Buddhas.

Past the mayor's fancy lavatories and spacious boardwalk entrance are 45 caves sheltering some of the most intricate and foreboding Buddha statues in the world - hundreds as big as your palm, some as big as mountains.

The largest peer out over the province through windows that have been carved out of the caves. Gosh, they must have seen a lot in their 1500 years.

The Northern Wei, who took control of the Datong area in the 4th and 5th centuries AD, ordered an army of tradesmen to turn this 1km stretch of sandstone into a Buddhist gallery now known as the Yungang Grottoes. Remarkably, the huge structure took just 60 years to complete.

The grottoes have since survived a fire, sandstorms and centuries of wars, but are now a protected Unesco World Heritage site.

Stories differ, but our guide tells us art enthusiasts stole the smaller statues that once filled the gaping holes in one of the carvings.

She says they are now in a French museum. There's only one report of this happening because, she says, criminals are too lazy to go all the way into the mountains.

But for us, the two-day journey was all part of the adventure and we are pleased we made it past the brick, the soot and the chimneys to one of China's most precious places still to be discovered by the masses.

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