Driving along roads lined with grimy trucks loaded with
coal, you eventually arrive at the Yungang Grottoes (Yungang shiku) with some doubt. The affects of man's occupation of the Datong area is noticable in so many ways, from the fumes of black sooty smoke that plumes from factory chimneys, to the crowds that litter the streets and trample the paths. The Yungang area has, not just recently, seen the worst and the best of this human inventiveness.
The grottoes lie 16km west of Datong, dug out of a sandstone cliff that is a part of the large Wuzhoushan Mountain range. The long stretch of caves was a masterpiece comparable to the ancient Egyptian pyramids, taking 40,000 workmen many decades (453-493 AD) to finish the majority of construction. In its golden days Yungang was about 15km long, and it still remains one of the better grotto complexes along with Dunhuang's Mogao Grottoes, Luoyang's Longmen Caves and Tianshui's Maijishan Grottoes.
However, man, and nature made their mark. The ravages of time, mismanagement and anti-Buddhist movements all worked against the caves. In more recent years it was the Cultural Revolution (1967-77), that was party to the removal of a small number of Buddha heads, and the natural pollution, coating the statues with coal dust and grime, that has further reduced the beauty of the place. What remains of the sight is a one kilometer stretch containing 53 caves...
But what a stretch! There are a total of 50,000 statues within, including variations of Buddhas, Boddhisattvas, Apsaras (Buddhist angels), birds and other animals. Some are impressively detailed, others are austerely beautiful, some are in darkened nooks that can only be squintingly revealed, others are fully open to the rays of light that penetrate the murky skies. You can spend hours wandering about the caves, although you should make sure to see the central caves (No.'s 5-13) and cannot fail to miss the largest outdoor seated Buddha of Sakyamuni, who squats at a height of 14 meters in cave 20. Most of the caves have a fairly good English introduction.
Opening hours: 09:00-17:00.