The most famous attraction in Datong is the 51,000 Buddhist statues at the Yúngāng Grottoes, but by far my favourite is Xuánkōng Sì, the Hanging Monastery.
The temple was built 75m up the side of Mount Heng to avoid floods from the snows on the peaks above and noises from below. The mountain also shades the monastery from excessive sun damage. This all seems to work, as having been built in 491 the precariously situated monastery has survived over 1500 years.
The vertical pillars visible in the picture are purely optionaland only put there to reassure visitors that the structure is safe. The real crossbeam supports are embedded horizontally, deep into the mountainside.
The walkways between areas are slatted, allowing the visitor to see the ground below, and the whole structure sways under the weight of too many people.
Other than its position seventy-five metres up a cliff the temple is notable for being the only temple in China to include elements of three religions – Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist. There are forty halls in the monastery, and one of the main buildings contains statues of Sakyamuni, Confucius and Lao-tzu in the same room.
The Hanging Monastery lies at a crossroads between towns and travellers would use it as a place to rest using their journey. In that more religious age, travellers were reluctant to stay in places devoted to other faiths so the Hanging Monastery enshrined the three major religions of China to accommodate more guests.
Hanging Monastery Visitor Tips
Entry fee: 130 yuan per person
Opening time: 8:30-17:30 (winter); 8:00-18:00 (summer)
There are steps everywhere and the monastery itself is navigated via ladders and tiny trapdoors, so is completely inaccessible to wheelchairs and tricky for people with broad shoulders.
Due to its location in a steep valley, if you want to get a good photo you need to be in place roughly between 10 and 11am. This is when the sun clears the top of the valley and there are the least shadows under the temple.
The Hanging Monastery is 65 kilometres southeast of Datong City, and takes ninety minutes by car. A taxi costs around 150rmb or 26rmb for the two-hour bus journey. There are some decent hotels in the neighbouring town. We were put up at the Hengshan Hotel which is a 4* with everything I might need, plus a KTV.
The usual snacks are available in the car park, or the local restaurant serves excessively large and expensive set banquets to travellers who don’t know how to read the menu…