The day’s plan hinged on me finding the Datong CITS office. We only have a day in Datong and wanted to do as most people do – see the key sights and take the night train out. In my research, I figured the best deal in town was to get the CITS Datong one-day trip to the Yungang Grottoes and to the Hanging Monastery. The tricky bit was locating the office and the fabled Mr Gao who runs it. From my research I knew vaguely which direction to search. My plan was to leave the family in the railway station’s waiting room while I went in search of the office. But unfortunately once off the train, we were ushered through an underpass and then an exit that led us out of the station completely. So this was 6am, bitterly cold and we were standing in the large neon-lit square fronting the railway station not sure where to go.
As we stood around uncertainly, several men bundled up in heavy jackets approached us: “Hotel?” “Taxi?” I waved them off a bit distractedly as we discussed what to do next.
I decided it was best to just find a hotel near the station, get a cheap room for a day and bundle everyone in while I got on with my plan of hunting down the CITS. There was a hotel attached to the station and we went into the lobby. But for reasons now that I do not recall, we decided against taking a room there and headed out again into the cold.
Once out in the open square, a man detached himself from the cluster he was in and came forward. It was dark and the red neon was casting a weird glow so I could not see his face clearly. But then he spoke in impeccable English: “May I help you? You look a bit lost. I am from CITS Datong. My name is Gao.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. In a moment when I was at a loss for good solutions, the answer to everything just stepped right up. Call it providence, serendipity, whatever. I just thanked God fervently for this fantastic chance encounter. Because what are the chances?
I think I must have been so overcome I babbled like an idiot for a bit before saying something stupid like: “Mr Gao! Wow! You are just the man I am looking for!”
We asked how he came to be standing in the square that morning and he said this is what he usually does – he picks up foreign travelers who look a little lost and offers his services. We followed him back to the CITS office.
It was not far from the railway station but let me say that I was now more glad than ever that we met him! In the dark, the streetlamps were few and far between, I would have missed the tiny handwritten sign that pointed the way. Plus it pointed down a dark scary-looking alleyway with rubbish and dirty snow piled high on the side. Even if I had seen it, alone, I would not have gone down that alleyway. Which dog-legged down to another tiny carpark square to the Datong Hotel. The CITS office is down a corridor away from the lobby. See how many twists and turns?
I now admit my plan to locate this alone at 6am in the morning is really pretty foolish and risky. Best to email him or call him before you go to arrange for him or someone to meet you at the station exit. If you’re heading for Datong, leave me a comment/message and I’ll give you his cellphone number.
We agreed that we would take the one-day tour that came with a driver and a minivan, an English-speaking guide and lunch. This would start at 9am and bring us to the Yungang Grottoes and the Hanging Monastery before returning around 6am. It cost us RMB100 per person for the excursion. Meanwhile we decided to take a room in the unremarkable Datong Hotel where CITS was sited. This was for us to leave the bags and to have a place to come back at night while waiting for our night train out to Pingyao. The room cost us RMB271 which was really not worth the money but worth the lack of hassle.
Meanwhile, breakfast called! Mr Gao’s assistant had turned up by then and led us across two major roads for a 10-min walk to a noodle restaurant for some handmade and hand-cut beef noodles.
I do not have a good impression of Datong. It is a town whose success is fuelled (literally) by coal mining which may or may not have been responsible for the thin layer of black grime that covered the city. The area we were in looked poor and grungy. Big trucks rumbled past belching black smoke on roads that were mostly potholed and covered with a layer of grey or melting snow. We walked past grim apartment buildings that looked like grey concrete Lego blocks peppered with graffiti. Strings of wires and cables were strung haphazardly across the blocks. The public spaces were dirty with litter everywhere. Even as the sun rose in the early morning, the air looked hazy and brown. It all combined to give the town a very sad, depressing air. I was glad we were not staying longer.
We got stares from everyone the minute we walked into the restaurant. I guess this is because we look Chinese but speak English. Plus we had a nice English girl with us who was joining us for the tour. I collated everyone’s orders. I think each bowl was about RMB5 which makes it less than a dollar back home. The ladies serving us were curious about us but helpful and warm.
The noodles are all made on site in the kitchen, not unlike how you make soba or udon actually. Each bowl came with a side dish of pickled cabbage. The noodles were not evenly sized or cut but had a firm bite to them. Coupled with a beefy stock, it was not half bad. Rough and ready, a workman’s breakfast which was hearty enough for a morning. The kids finished their noodles quickly – any meal that had noodles in there would be right up their alley.
After breakfast we trudged back to the CITS office. It was very cold and we just kept our heads down and kept walking. The sun was a blurred orange ball amid the brown hazy air. The apartments flanked the road. A large number looked empty. Dirty and dusty windows stared blankly and impassively at us as we passed.
Datong is certainly not a place you would fall in love at first sight with. But it boasts a fair number of world-class sights that are mostly out of the city and that to me, is worth the journey here. I just wouldn’t make it more than one day or at the most, one night’s stay.