Road to Inner Mongolia: Hengshan Hanging Temple, Yungang Buddhist Caves, and driving through Rural China

For the national holiday, we had a long weekend of about five days; all the students planned various trips all around the country, from Shanghai to the Yellow Mountains.  I, along with 30 friends in the program decided to spend the national holiday in Inner Mongolia.  We signed up for a trip through Shaoyuan’s travel agency and early on the morning of the 60th anniversary, we boarded a bus and started our journey.

What would usually be an eleven hour trek to Inner Mongolia was whittled down to just over five hours due to the construction of a new highway directly from Beijing.  Inner Mongolia, the first national autonomous region of China, comprises 12% of China’s land area, not to be confused with Mongolia which is now an independent state which borders Inner Mongolia along with Russia.

We rode north out of the city and slowly the sky scrapers faded away, sinking altogether until there was nothing but an open highway flanked by spanning fields and mountains, periodically interrupted with a looming power plant or factory, billowing smoke into the crisp air.  We stopped for dinner at a small roadside community, now well into the mountains North of Beijing.  As we got off the bus, we came across a local making peanut brittle, a regional specialty made by using a large wooden mallet to pound a peanut mixture on top of a large wooden block to compress it into a thin crust.

Making Peanut Brittle

After dinner, we continued along, with crumbling brick walls and stray livestock of small rural Chinese towns whizzing past us on both sides.  After a few more hours, we arrived at Mt. Hengshan in China’s Shanxi Province.  There, clinging on the steep precipice of the mountain was a mystical temple, suspended in the air for 1,400 years.  The Suspended Temple is an integration of Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian cultures.  It is made of wood and much of the temple is supported by a few skinny wooded pegs which somehow grip the sheer rock face.  To navigate this dangling structure involves climbing through narrow chambers, corridors carved out of the mountain, and across old wooden gangways a few hundred feet above the ground.

The Hanging Temple of Hengshan

From there we set out for the Yungang Buddhist Caves near the city of Datong in the Shanxi province where we stayed that night.  The caves showcase early Buddhist cave art from as early as the 5th century.  This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most famous ancient sculptural sites of China with more than 51,000 Buddha statues and statuettes in its 252 grottoes; the majority of them are severely weathered and those statues outside the caves demonstrate the toll of centuries of wind and rain.

Yungang Buddhist Caves

An artist's still-life of a statue inside the caves

Driving through the developing Chinese countryside was remarkable.  We bound along a dusty road, peering out into the spanning fields, partitioned by ditches and small stone walls, which occasionally gave way to a lonely farmer’s hut.  Without warning, what was merely dirt piles transformed into a primitive median of a well-paved road.  The surroundings took shape into the beginnings of an urban center, and the median sprouted freshly planted shrubbery with interspersed trees.  As we crossed a bridge, I could see an entire skyline of a newborn city before me, hundreds of cranes stooped over as they nurtured the scaffolded structures into maturity.  As we entered, the vigor of urban life was immediately upon us.  We were now flowing within a river of cars, through canyons of steel and cement.  The haste at which this urban metropolis was being born was astounding.  As we passed each boulevard, the newly polished innards of this city were revealed.  Whole avenues were literally being built simultaneously—medians were being filled in as a row of 40 buildings on either side had the last of their windows set in place.  Freshly marked crosswalks directed the eager populace who had seemingly already moved here in anticipation of the cities advent.  Entire blocks of buildings were being constructed, shrouded in advertisements for the grand life that could expected by the future tenants.

A new city skyline erupting from the rural farmland

Even just a day’s drive north of Beijing, the evidence of urbanization, industrialization, and blindingly rapid change China is experiencing was unavoidable.  As we drove, upon a freshly laid highway, through the outskirts of yet another rising city, it was obvious why this country is experiencing environmental growing pains; yet, while seeing this astonishing development first hand offers a more complete understanding of the country’s current needs, I could only help but to think what this city, or the open road that lay ahead, would look like in just another 10 years.

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