Lost and Confused in Northern China

I had heard how hard it is to travel China if you don't know Chinese so I booked a group tour for most of my time here. But there was one place missing from the itinerary which I was dying to see. The city is called Datong and is most famous for the Yungang Grottoes, a cluster of ancient Buddha figures carved directly into the side of a mountain. You can get there in 6 hours on a train from Beijing so I thought it would be a simple affair to go there and come back in two days.

The only problem was that I waited until the last minute to book anything and ended up just barely getting train tickets and a hotel - no tour guide. Phoebe, my tour guide in Beijing, was less than thrilled with this arrangement; warning me it would be hard to get around because few foreign tourists ever go to Datong. I don't think she realized her argument just made me want to go even more. I was nervous about the whole thing but went ahead with my plans. How bad could it be for someone who doesn't speak a word of Mandarin?

I used to think no one spoke English in Beijing....absolutely no one speaks English in Datong and most were not happy to meet the single stupid foreigner in their city. I would ask vendors for prices. They would respond using the Chinese words for numbers. When I told them I didn't understand, they would write down the Chinese character for the number as if somehow this was an improvement. My physical appearance clearly worked against me in these situations as people assumed I was Chinese and would dummy down their sentences in increments as their disappointment increased. Conversations with the locals ranged between non-existent to frustrating. My English words seemed to repel people away like poison gas. I'm willing to admit that for the first time on this trip I felt truly lonely.

Despite the troubles communicating, I did manage to see the grottoes. The bus routes to the site are mostly straightforward and I fumbled my way through the day to get back to the city by 4pm.

Since my train departed at 10pm, I spent a couple hours moseying about town aimlessly. This was not on purpose. I took a different bus route back to town in a greedy attempt to see one more temple and found myself completely disoriented. While walking, I saw a 5-star hotel and entered the lobby in search of wifi. Lucky me, their network was unsecure. I was actually close to the temple but it was now closed so I sat in the lobby reading emails for the next several hours before heading back to the train station. I had survived Datong!

I was so proud of myself at this point, I wanted to tell Phoebe all about it and get some kind of gold star for not being a troublemaker. But it was on the train to Beijing, on the very last piece of the whole itinerary, where things went wrong and I lost my chance at the gold star. The train got into Beijing station at 5am and I was ready to disembark. However, the car door didn't open and I noticed that everyone around me was still sleeping. I figured I must be too early so I sat and waited for an attendant to come and open the door. After a few minutes, the train started moving again. This was mildly concerning. I found an attendant for help but ofcourse he didn't speak English. In a few minutes, a gang of attendants were trying to help me, stringing together whatever English they could gather to convey to me a single message. I had missed my stop.

One of the attendants called Phoebe and eventually settled on the following plan. The tour group was taking the train to Shan Hai Guan station that day and the train I was on happened to be going that way as well. So it was a simple matter of getting off at that station and waiting for them there.

Overall, the train attendants were pretty amused with the situation and used the transit time to practice their English, rummage through my passport, and attempt to figure out where I was from. They seemed to find it incomprehensible that I wasn't Chinese.

In China, when public scenes ensue, curious crowds will begin to gather and I eventually found I had an audience around me. One little girl used her phone to type questions in Chinese which would translate to English. It was probably the kindest encounter I've had in China so far. I gave her a toy turtle I had hanging off the zipper of my backpack.

Once the train got to the designated station, an attendant took me to a waiting room and gestured for me to sit down on a couch. I sat there for 3 hours until I finally saw Phoebe and the gang walk toward me. Salvation was here! I was like the kid who gets lost at the mall and is picked up by their parents from the mall police office. 

I won't be venturing out alone into the boonies of China again anytime soon but I'm still glad I took this weekend trip. Getting to see those grottoes was well worth the ordeal.

Wooden entrance placed in front of the caves

Detail of wooden entrance

 Large Buddha statue

Small Buddhas adorning the wall of the cave

Larger buddhas got to have two cave doorways

Buddhas looking down at the tourists

Buddha decorated wall

 Inside Lingyan Temple next to the grotto area

Snarling lion and girl on phone. A random picture I took while wandering the city streets.

The Datong city gate all dressed up for Chinese New Year

 View from my train window at dusk

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