What Could Go Wrong In Datong?, by Joel
Nonstop electric sawing and drilling until 2 am capped off with the overwhelming stench of paint thinner wafting up to our third floor street side room at the only hostel in town, only accessible during business hours by walking through a children's clothing store, and after dark by sidestepping a resident passed-out homeless man. That the hostel bed more closely resembled a stone slab than the "hard sleeper" bunks on the train we rode in on from Beijing wasn't helped by the rude awakening we received promptly at 8am. Cutting through both windows and earplugs, the blasting techno straight out of the Mortal Combat movie soundtrack was presumably intended to draw customers to the dayglow popup inflatables on the pedestrian street below, where lonely men hawked wedding photography or health insurance packages, though barely a soul sauntered past, much less stopped to entertain the pitch - because, well, who in their right mind would want to conduct business in that kind of environment? Downtown Datong boasts an impressive expanse of nothing, with massive construction projects leaving gaping earthen holes many square blocks wide. We walked for hours chasing phantoms of veggie restaurants that never materialized, before breaking down and taking a seat in the next place we passed, where we employed the relevant local phrases, google translate and pantomime to articulate our dietary needs. The waitress shouted and pointed emphatically to Chinese characters on her order pad before we apologized and made a hasty exit. After not-lunch, we fumbled through the acquisition of bus tickets, as a well-intentioned women dialed her broken English-speaking niece to explain some detail concerning a bus transfer that I already gleaned from the guidebook. At every turn, locals stared blankly, clearly regarding us as mentally deficient for our inability to comprehend Mandarin, though barely a soul can - or is willing to - utter even a single English word. This despite ubiquitous exposure to English street signs, shop awnings, t-shirt slogans and movies like Mr. and Mrs. Smith - which aired in its entirety on the return trip from the hanging temple, in English - with subtitles in both languages.
Oh, right - the Yungang Grottoes and Hanging Temple were incredible. See photos below.
words and photos by Joel.