Don't be put off by first impressions of contemporary DATONG, the second largest city in Shanxi Province, situated in the far north, near the border with Inner Mongolia. Amid the blasted landscape of modern industrial China-coalmines, power stations and a huge locomotive factory--are some marvellous ancient sites, remnants of the city's glory days as the capital city of two non-Han Chinese dynasties. The Turkic Toba people took advantage of the internal strife afflicting central and southern China to establish their own dynasty, the Northern Wei (386-534), taking Datong as their capital in 398 AD, by which time they had conquered the whole of the north. Though the period was one of strife and warfare, and the Wei never fully consolidated their hold on power,the Northern Wei, who became fervent Buddhists, made some notable cultural achievements, the finest of which was a magnificent series of cave temples at Yungang, just west of the city, still one of the most impressive sights in northern China.
Over the course of almost a century, more than fifty caves were completed, containing over fifty thousand statues, before the capital was moved south to Luoyang, where contruction began on the similar Longmen Caves. A second period of greatness came with the arrival of the Mongol Liao dynasty, also Buddhists, who made Datong their capital in 907. They were assimilated into the Jin in 1125, but not before leaving a small legacy of statuary and some fine temple architecture, notably in the Huayan and Shanhua temples in town, and a wooden pagoda, the oldest in China, in the nearby town of Yingxian. Datong remained important to later Chinese dynasties for its strategic position just inside the Great Wall, south of Inner Mongolia, and the tall city walls date from the early Ming dynasty. Though most visitors today are attracted by the Buddhist sites, Datong is also the closest city to Heng Shan, one of the five holy mountains of Taoism, whose most spectacular building, the almost unbelievable Hanging Temple, is firmly on the tour agenda.