An adventure beyond Beijing

China: A train trip to Shanxi Province takes visitors to caves filled with carved Buddhas, a temple suspended on a canyon wall and encounters with locals who have never met a foreigner before

Destination: The Far East

May 07, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | By Frank Langfitt,Sun Correspondent

In the past decade, China has become a far easier place for Westerners to travel than ever before. Back in the 1980s, not long after the country opened to the outside world, tourism was often an exercise in bad service and mind-numbing bureaucracy.

Today, the nation's main tourist trail -- which runs from Beijing through Xian, the Yangtze River's Three Gorges, Guilin and Shanghai -- is dotted with five-star hotels. Americans visiting Beijing can get a double tall non-fat latte at Starbucks or a double cheeseburger at one of the capital's more than 50 McDonald's.

As China's major cities have grown more accessible, though, they have also lost some of the very Chineseness that draws people here in the first place.

The old, gray brick homes that once carpeted the capital are rapidly being flattened to make way for nondescript high-rises. Tourists can spend much of their time shuttling back and forth between the Holiday Inn and such sites as the Great Wall and the Forbidden City with few unscripted moments.

Fortunately, China is a big country. By definition, most of it remains off-the-beaten track, and many cities are years if not decades away from Western-quality gentrification. Travelers willing to leave the security of an international hotel chain and put up with occasional hassles will be rewarded with a memorable, unvarnished view of the world's most populous nation as it leapfrogs into the modern age.

Earlier this year, my wife Julie and I took just such a trip with a couple of friends from Louisiana. Jennifer and Gary had never traveled overseas before, but they are hearty, enthusiastic and unflappable -- in short, ideal candidates for a train trip through North China.

We decided to head to the city of Datong, home to some of the nation's best Buddhist cave art, which dates to the 5th century A.D. We also planned to visit an old monastery that hangs off the side of a cliff.

Total immersion

If you have the time and patience, traveling by train is probably the best way to see China. Most Chinese travel this way, and on any given train you can find people from around the country.

While more sophisticated Chinese have become accustomed to foreigners, many train riders have never met one before, so they treat overseas tourists like celebrities. Passengers pepper you with all kinds of questions -- mostly in Chinese -- and request to have their picture taken with you. Students will even open their textbooks and try to teach you the language.

Our journey began at the Beijing West Railway Station, said to be the largest in Asia. It is a cavernous building where each waiting room holds several thousand people.

Hundreds of migrant laborers sat on top of newspapers on the floor or lay on molded plastic chairs while resting their heads on red, white and blue plastic bags in which they had stuffed all their belongings.

The scene isn't picturesque, but it is representative. Migration is one of the major trends and problems in China. Hundreds of people stream into Beijing every day to escape the drudgery of the countryside and find higher-paying jobs. Because most do not have residency permits, they cannot send their children to local schools and must work off the books.

On the train, we found our cabin and stowed our luggage on the shelf next to our bunk beds. Because train tickets are often hard to come by in China, we were not able to make advance arrangements for all of us to sleep in the same cabin. Julie and I were stuck with a pair of businessmen who were drunk, so we decided to head for the dining car to play cards.

As the sun began to drop, we looked out over terraced farms built into the steep, green mountains west of the capital. We ordered dinner by glancing at the dishes on other people's tables, asking a few questions and then pointing. The beer was warm, but the food was surprisingly good. There were no other foreigners on the train.

Cave sculptures

We arrived late that evening at a small railway station and pushed our way past a pack of desperate cab drivers begging for the fare. Clear of the crowd, I found one I could negotiate with who took us straight to our hotel. The next morning we headed off to the Yungang Grottoes, which are carved into the side of a small mountain and contain 51,000 pieces of sculpture.

The 53 caves are dug into a sandstone wall and have a honeycomb effect. Some are magnificent, cathedral-like chambers lined with thousands of tiny, carved Buddhas painted in bright orange, blue and red.

The work, which took thousands of craftsmen some 70 years to complete, is striking in its intricacy and color. One cave, known as the Musical Palace, features a band of musicians playing flutes, drums and lutes. Another has a giant pillar in the center covered in sculpture that depicts the life of Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism.

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