Rebuilding the old in Datong

I don’t have a good impression of Datong. I found it to have a slightly sullen, seedy air. It felt depressing, chaotic and grimy. There was a layer of dust on everything. And the reason for that soon became clear when we cut through the town to stop for lunch en route to the Hanging Monastery. There was construction going on everywhere. They were not constructing new buildings. Rather, they were constructing, or perhaps I should say re-constructing the city walls – the very ones they tore down a couple of decades ago when culture and history didn’t seem to matter as much. Back when ‘development’ and ‘modernisation’ came to Datong, the old walls went and along with them, old neighbourhoods. People lost their businesses and homes – all in the name of progress. Yet now, the reverse is happening. Those who have settled where the walls stood are now asked to relocate – to make way for the ‘new’ walls.

Actually I suspect that even now, reclaiming culture and history may not have been the true impetus to re-c0nstruct. More likely it is the lure of money that the city stands to make from tourism. Having seen the success of towns like Xian and Pingyao (where we were headed next) where old walls encase authentic old townscapes, it must have crossed someone’s mind that Datong could also be a tourist magnet if they could just re-build the old town. And the best place to start? Tear down the new and re-build the old!

Flashy and lavish, the new entrance to the Yungang Grottoes. This sort of large-scale grandeur is what the city planners hope to re-create with the new 'old' city of Datong.

Flashy and lavish, this is the new entrance to the Yungang Grottoes. This sort of large-scale grandeur is what the city planners hope to re-create with the new ‘old’ city of Datong.

You can shake your head in disbelief but you gotta hand it to them – at least they have the sheer chutzpah to do this. Few other places in the world can simply bulldoze part of the city to build a new set of ‘ancient’ city walls. I’m not sure if it is arrogance or delusion that drives this. The flip side of course is optimism, including the belief that anything is possible, that nothing can stand in the way of someone’s will, that people can and will accept disruption in exchange for the hope of a better life. I don’t know but this I believe to be true – that the Chinese are incredibly adaptable.

As we drove, or crawled along in bumper-to-bumper traffic, you could see the massive scale of construction happening. Cranes dotted the landscape, bulldozers churned up the earth. Certain parts of the city had no proper roads and cars literally weaved their own pathways. In the dark when we returned from our excursion, all you could see were bobbing headlights that seem to thread in all directions. There were no streetlamps in that section of town. So cars just went any way that suited that them. 

The parts of the wall which were already completed looked spanking new. There was no way you could pass these off as something made 2000 years ago. Or maybe that was something they didn’t really care about. It wasn’t only the old city walls they were trying to re-create. They were also trying to re-create the old sections of the towns. So this means tearing down newer buildings, re-building in the old style or conserving the few old houses that remain. The whole town seemed to be one big construction site.

Lunch was in a nondescript building in the heart of town. We each paid about RMB40 extra for lunch. The restaurant obviously catered to the busloads of domestic tourists who packed the large dining hall. We were led to a semi-private area. The food was actually pretty good. But what was fun was to watch the young waiters take turns to come in one by one to stare quite openly at Mel, the British girl who was part of our group. They were quite blatant about it and at some point, gathered enough courage to practise their halting English.

Note the wait staff clustering near the entrance? Waiting to practise their English!

Note the wait staff clustering near the entrance? Waiting to practise their English!

“Hello. Where you from?” “You are America?” “Can you speak English with me?” “How are you?” “Is your hair real?”

Luckily this was almost at the end of the meal because they were quite intrusive after a while, ignoring the fact that we were still eating and carrying on our own conversation. She was quite bemused by the attention but sportingly answered their questions. They could hear us talking in English so obviously they knew that all of us, including the children, could speak English but no one wanted to talk to us. We must have looked boringly Chinese and from their perspective, it must have been more fascinating to speak to the girl with the long red hair instead!

By the end of a long day, after dinner at a Chinese fast-food answer to KFC, we had retreated to the worn overpriced little hotel room near the railway station where we had left our luggage. 

We killed time by watching TV – about the only time I could get the kids to watch any kind of Chinese TV without English subs! That was the beauty of bringing them to China – after a while they would be forced to watch, listen, speak and absorb Chinese. They could only improve from that point!

Our train was going to leave close to midnight so we headed to the train station to wait. This time there was a proper waiting room for those who held soft sleeper tickets. To our surprise we saw the same couple who had come in with us that morning on the Beijing train. In fact they shared the same compartment as KH and Owain. Turns out they are Belgian. They must have done the same thing we did – come in for a day trip and then leave for Pingyao. This seems to be quite a popular itinerary for western travelers.

The train to Pingyao was cleaner and newer than the one we took from Beijing to Datong. Even the bedding felt cleaner. I even felt it clean enough to not sleep in my jacket this time.

To me,  Datong will always be a city of irony. Thinking about Datong and the relentless quest to reclaim the past, someone should just tell the people in charge – you can’t fake the patina of age on city walls that stretch for kilometres. There is no going back, only going forward. There seems to be a pragmatic ruthlessness in which people are constantly and easily displaced to make way for yet another grand (harebrained?) scheme. I don’t know if anyone complains or dares to. Maybe everyone is resigned – or maybe they have bought into the deal too.

But I think savvy travelers are not so easily fooled by just the reconstruction of walls. The spirit of the city, of a place left untouched by time, cannot be so easily recreated. Ultimately, its not mere walls that people come to see. It is a living, breathing slice of history we look for – and that, unfortunately is what Datong can never be anymore. And that is what we are heading for in the dead of night as the train chugs along and the children sleep -to Pingyao.



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