China Travel Guide


Gilded Buddhist statuary, Mahavira Hall, Huayan Si, Datong
Gilded Buddhist statuary,
Mahavira Hall, Huayan Si, Datong


  • 165 miles (265 km) SW of Beijing
  • 3,000,000
  • CITS Datong, 0352 510 1326

Situated near the southern flank of Inner Mongolia, Datong has some splendid sights worth exploring despite the coal mines and power stations that blight the surrounding landscape.

The city was twice a dynastic capital, under the Northern Wei (AD 386–534), and the Liao (AD 907–1125), both non-Chinese. The Northern Wei were fervent Buddhists who carved and decorated the Yungang Caves nearby, while a significant relic of the Liao era survives in the Huayan Si (Huayan Temple), located in an alley off Da Xi Jie, west of the crossroads in the old town. Completed by the Jin, the temple was much restored by later dynasties. Raised up on a 13-ft (4-m) terrace, Huayan Si’s Great Treasure Hall (Daxiong Bao Dian) is one of China’s largest Buddhist halls. Within the hall sit five gilded and enthroned Ming-era statues with attendants. The ceiling panels are decorated with Sanskrit letters, flowers, and dragons. A short walk east of the crossroads on Da Dong Jie is Jiulong Bi (Nine Dragon Screen), a 148-ft (45-m) tiled spirit wall built to front the palace of the 13th son of Hongwu, the first Ming emperor. Less than a mile south of the crossroads on Da Nan Jie is the Shanhua Si. Erected during the Tang era, it was subsequently destroyed by fire and rebuilt in the 12th century. The main hall has five Buddhist statues, flanked by 24 divine generals.

Lively arhat, Cave 18
Lively arhat, Cave 18

Huayan Si


  • 8:30am–5:30pm daily

    Yungang Caves
    Carved into sandstone cliffs, the caves at Yungang are one of China’s most celebrated accomplishments of Buddhist art. The assembly of over 51,000 statues was started by the Northern Wei dynasty in AD 453 to atone for their persecution of Buddhism. Hellenistic, Persian, Central Asian, and Indian influences are evident in the carvings, testifying to the many influences entering China via the Silk Road. When the capital moved from Datong to Luoyang, in AD 494, work at Yungang all but stopped. The statues, which range in size from the colossal to the minute, are accompanied by English explanations.

    View of the central section of the Yungang Caves, Datong
    View of the central section of the Yungang Caves, Datong

    Visitors' checklist

    • 10 miles (16 km) W of Datong
    • 0352 510 2265, CITS Datong
    • 3-1 from bus station
    • 3-2 from train station or CITS tour booked at train station
    • 8:30am–5:30pm daily
    View of the central section of the Yungang Caves, Datong
    View of the central section of the Yungang Caves, Datong

    Pagoda in Cave 2
    Nearly square in construction, this cave has a carved square pagoda linking ceiling and floor. The statues in the cave have suffered a little due to exposure to the weather.

    Interior, Cave 3
    The Buddhas here have rounded fleshy faces and full lips, indicating that they are later creations, perhaps Sui dynasty (AD 581–618).

    Exterior of Cave 6
    The wooden temple façade has protected the beautifully carved 50-ft (16-m) stone pagoda and the rest of the sculptures within.

    Detail of Cave 10
    Built as a pair along with Cave 9, this cave is also divided into two chambers. The interior is densely decorated with colorful bas reliefs and statues in niches.

    Musicians, Cave 12
    This cave is decorated with devotees of music and dance. The colorful walls provide excellent evidence for the development and use of musical instruments in China at the time.

    Main Buddha, Cave 20
    The simplicity and balance of the tableau shows great artistic merit. This cave would have been shielded by a wooden screen.

    Artistic influences, Cave 18
    The colossal Buddha recalls the style of Gandhara. This Buddhist stronghold and meeting point for many of the Silk Roads sought to recreate the solemnity, dignity, and aweinspiring nature of Buddha. A more realistic style can be seen in the five smaller arhats on each side and the crown worn by the Bodhisattva.

    The spectacular Hanging Temple (Xuankong Si), Heng Shan
    The spectacular Hanging Temple
    (Xuankong Si), Heng Shan

    Hanging Temple

    • 40 miles (65 km) SE of Datong
    • from Datong to Hunyuan, then taxi
    • 0352 832 7417
    • 8am–6:30pm daily

    One of China’s five sacred Daoist mountains, Heng Shan is also known as Beiyue (Northern Peak). The mountain range is a huge draw, its highest peak daring climbers to scale its 6,600 ft (2,000 m) slopes – a tradition started by the first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, and kept alive by later rulers. Its main attraction, however, is the spectacular Xuankong Si. Supported by slender wooden pillars, the temple seemingly clings precariously to the canyon’s walls. The Northern Wei were the first to build here, but flood waters from the Heng River below regularly washed the buildings away. The current edifice dates from the Qing dynasty. The temple’s 40-odd halls are hewn from natural caves and hollows in the rock, and are covered with wooden façades. They are connected by walkways and bridges, and contain statues of Confucian, Buddhist, and Daoist gods in stone, iron, and bronze. The Sanjiao Dian (Three Religions Hall) has statues of Confucius, Buddha, and Laozi all seated together.

    Incense Burner

    Wutai Shan
    The charming monastic village of Taihuai, nestling in the valley ringed by Wutai Shan’s five mountain peaks (or terraces), has the largest concentration of temples as well as most of Wutai Shan’s hotels and restaurants. Although Wutai Shan was the site of over 300 temples during the Qing dynasty, many were destroyed. Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Buddhist Yellow Hat Sect (which has the Dalai Lama as its head), lived here and the mountains and its shrines are revered by Lamaist Buddhists from Tibet and Mongolia. Late spring and summer is the best time to visit Wutai Shan, but also the most crowded.

    Visitors' checklist


  • 149 miles (240 km) N of Taiyuan  
  • from Datong or Taihuai  
  • from Beijing to Shahe then a 1-hr bus ride  
  • CITS 0350 654 2122  
  • daily  
  • by privately organized minibuses, taxis, or through CITS

    Wutai Shan

    Xian Tong Si
    The highlight of this, the largest temple on Wutai Shan, is the Bronze Hall. Made entirely from metal, it is decorated with thousands of small Buddhist figures.

    Pusa Ding
    To reach Pusa Ding (Bodhisattva Summit), a temple complex dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties, there is a climb of 108 steps. A significant number – it is the number of beads on a Buddhist rosary.

    Qi Fo Si
    This temple is not visited as much as the other more famous temples and as such will be a quieter spot to take in the scenery. It also has a white stone pagoda.

    West of the Qingshui River, the village is thronging with pilgrims, monks, and lamas. Visitors come for its Buddhist temples and to shop for religious talismans.

    Tayuan Si
    This temple is dominated by its distinctive Ming Dynasty and Tibetan-styled Great White Dagoba (Da Bai Ta), which rises to a height of 190 ft (50 m). The dagoba is topped with a bronze cap with bells.

    Luohou Si
    Inside this temple is a wooden lotus flower decorated with eight wooden petals that, when rotated, open to reveal carved Buddhist figures.

    The Cult of Manjusri
    Known as Wenshu in China, Manjusri is the Buddhist bodhisattva of Wisdom and the patron deity of Wutai Shan. A disciple of Sakyamuni (Buddha), Manjusri is often portrayed riding a lion or holding a sword – for cleaving both ignorance and suffering. Many of Wutai Shan’s temples and halls are dedicated to Wenshu and the deity’s association with the mountain dates as far back as the first century AD, when a visiting Indian monk had a vision of the bodhisattva. Many more sightings have been recorded since.

    The thickly wooded slopes of Wutai Shan
    The thickly wooded slopes of Wutai Shan

    Exploring Wutai Shan
    Wutai shan was originally worshiped by followers of the Dao (Daoists) pursuing the secrets of immortality, before attracting devotees of Buddha who built many temples in his name. If visitors explore around Taihuai they will find many temples scattered among the surrounding peaks and in more distant parts of the region. Most can be reached without much difficulty, and the effort rewards the adventurous with the chance to admire some of China’s oldest buildings.

    The elaborately carved archway at Longquan Si
    The elaborately carved archway
    at Longquan Si

    Wutai Shan’s Temples
    The first temples appeared on Wutai Shan during the Eastern Han Dynasty. The five peaks of Wutai Shan are each topped with a temple, but they are hard to reach and tend to attract only devout pilgrims. Several temples can be visited either by hiking, by bus, or by minibus tour from Taihuai (including those through CITS), although other trips, such as to Nanchan Si, involve longer expeditions.

    With lovely views over the valley, Nanshan Si (South Mountain Temple), around 2 miles (3 km) south of Taihuai, is one of the largest temples on Wutai Shan, most notable for its 18 superbly crafted arhat effigies. Three miles (5 km) southwest of Taihuai, immediately above Nanshan Si and part of the same temple complex, is Youguo Si. Longquan Si (Dragon Spring Temple), at the top of 108 steps through a marvelous marble archway, features the Hall of Heavenly Kings (with an effigy of Milefo – the future Buddha, also known in this chubby incarnation as the Laughing Buddha), the attractively decorated and designed Puji Pagoda, and the Guanyin Hall, among other structures.

    Two more temples within easy reach of Taihuai include the Ming dynasty Bishan Si, which contains some intriguing Buddhist sculptures, and Zhenhai Si.

    Considerably farther away is the remote Nanchan Si, about 44 miles (70 km) south of Taihuai on the road to Taiyuan, which contains one of China’s oldest surviving wooden halls (782 AD). The main hall has somehow avoided destruction – a miracle considering the many anti-Buddhist purges during China’s history. Despite much restoration work, the hall’s original Tang-dynasty design, a rarity in Chinese temple hall architecture, is preserved. Foguang Si (Buddha’s Light Temple), about 25 miles (40 km) south of Taihuai, also features a Tang dynasty hall dating to the 9th century. The hall is especially notable for its fine dougong bracket work, Tang and Song dynasty wall paintings, and collection of Ming dynasty arhats.

    The buddhist Chongshan Si, Taiyuan


    • 254 miles (408 km) SW of Beijing
    • 1,900,000
    • CITS 38 Pingyang Lu, 0351 821 1109

    A heavily industrialized city, Taiyuan lies on the banks of the Fen River at the heart of Shanxi and makes a convenient base for trips to Pingyao and Wutai Shan. Between the years 471–221 BC Taiyuan was the capital of the Zhao Kingdom, and became a flourishing center of Buddhism by the 6th century AD. Because of its strategic position, bordering the hostile nomadic tribes to the north, the city underwent heavy fortification during the Tang dynasty. However, fearing its ambitions, the Song ruler had it torched to the ground. The city was rebuilt a few years later.

    Guardian deity, Jinci Temple
    Guardian deity,
    Jinci Temple

    The Buddhist monastery Chongshan Si is hidden down an alleyway northeast of Wuyi (May 1) Square. A temple has existed here since the 7th century, although the current building dates from the 14th century. A fire reduced much of the temple to ashes in 1864, but considerable rebuilding has taken place. The Hall of Great Compassion (Dabei Dian) houses the striking Qianshou Guanyin (Thousand-Armed Goddess of Compassion), the central figure in the trinity of statues. The multi-armed and multi-eyed goddess stands over 26 ft (8 m), her arms fanned out behind her. Also displayed in the temple are sutras (Buddhist scriptures) and scrolls from the Song, Yuan, and Ming eras. In the east of town, the Twin Pagoda Temple (Shuangta Si) was built on imperial instruction during the late Ming era. Also known as Yongzuo Temple, its 13-story, 164-ft (50-m) high pagodas have come to symbolize Taiyuan. The Shanxi Provincial Museum, in front of Chongshan Si, has two sections – the main part is housed in a Ming-era Daoist temple formerly called Chunyang Temple, northwest of Wuyi Square. Within the halls are relics, bronzes, and statuary. The second section, in the Ming-era buildings of the former Confucius Temple east of Wuyi Square, houses relics of Shanxi’s recent history, and a collection of Buddhist sutras.

    Chongshan Si

    • 8am–4:30pm daily

    Shanxi Provincial Museum

    • Both sections
    • 9am–5pm Tue–Sun
    The temple spring at Jinci Si, Taiyuan
    The temple spring at
    Jinci Si, Taiyuan


    The bustling Jinci Si, 15 miles (25 km) southwest of town at the base of Xuanwang Shan (Xuanwang Mountain), dates to the Northern Wei, although much of its architecture is from the Song period. The main entrance leads straight to the Ming-era Mirror Terrace, originally used as a theatrical stage. To the west, a canal runs through the temple complex, crossed by a bridge that leads to a terrace supporting four fierce iron statues. Lying beyond is the impressively carved Hall of the Sacred Mother (Shengmu Dian), one of China’s oldest surviving wooden buildings. Inside the hall, a group of ceramic Song-era figures waits on a central figure of the Sacred Mother.

    About 25 miles (40 km) southwest of Taiyuan, the Tianlong Shan Grottoes in the Tianlong Mountains constitute a small, but significant, collection of Buddhist cave art. A total of 21 caves dot the eastern and western sides of the mountain, with worn and damaged statues dating from the Eastern Wei to the Tang dynasties. The best-preserved specimen is the large seated Buddha in Cave No. 9.

    Jinci Si

    • 8am–5pm daily

    Tianlong Shan Grottoes

    • 9am–6pm daily
    Traditional red lantern
    Traditional red

    Surrounded by one of China’s few intact Ming city walls, Pingyao’s streets are lined with a wealth of traditional Chinese buildings, including courtyard houses, temples, and more than 3,000 historic shops. Pingyao’s treasure trove of Ming and Qing architecture is a legacy of the town’s affluent days as a banking center, which ceased when the Qing dynasty defaulted on loans and abdicated, leaving the banks empty. The transferral of the country’s finances to Shanghai and Hong Kong turned the city into a backwater, saving it from development and, ultimately, preserving its character.

    Visitors' checklist

    • 62 miles (100 km) S of Taiyuan
    • 40,000
    • City Walls access at West Gate
    • daily
    • (joint ticket to Rischenchang, Furniture Museum and County Magistrate’s Residence)

    This extensive museum of early banking is the site of China’s first draft bank, founded in 1824.

    County Magistrate’s residence
    Pingyao’s justice department during the Ming and Qing dynasties, these offices represented the secular world while the Daoist temples, mirroring the County Yamen on the other side of Nan Dajie, represented the spiritual realm.

    City Walls
    The 39-ft (12-m) high, crenellated enclosure dating from 1370 is said to resemble the outline of a tortoise. Its head lies at the south gate, its four feet at the east and west gates, and its tail at the north gate.

    Furniture Museum
    As well as this rickshaw, there are rooms in this typical Qing dynasty compound that are furnished as bedrooms, kitchens, and opium dens.

    Kuixing Tower
    This extravagant and unusually designed eight-sided pavilion rises above the battlements. It is named after a star in the 28 constellations of the Chinese zodiac.

    Bell Tower
    Rising above Nan Dajie, the Bell Tower is a charming structure decorated with ornamented eaves.

    Furniture Museum
    As well as this rickshaw, there are rooms in this typical Qing dynasty compound that are furnished as bedrooms, kitchens, and opium dens.

    Southeast Pingyao
    The most notable part of the car-free town, the southeast corner and center of Pingyao has the largest concentration of sights, museums, and heritage architecture.

    Shuanglin Si

    • 4 miles (6 km) SW of Pingyao
    • 8:30am–6:30pm daily (until 5pm in winter)
    This temple has a long history, dating back 1,500 years to the Northern Wei, which had its capital at Datong. The current temple was built during the Ming and Qing dynasties and contains over 2,000 Buddhist statues, some from the Song dynasty. The effigies are arranged in ten halls around three courtyards. The expertly fashioned figures’ expressions vary from the sublime through the comic to the sinister. The lifelike luohan in the second hall each reveal an individual persona and the bodhisattvas in the third hall are well worth seeking out.

    Classic courtyard at the extensive Qiao Jia Dayuan
    Classic courtyard at
    the extensive Qiao Jia Dayuan

    Qiao Jia Dayuan

  • 12 miles (20 km) N of Pingyao  
  • between Taiyuan and Pingyao can drop you off  
  • from Pingyao  
  • 8am–5:30pm daily

    This magnificent courtyard house was the setting for director Zhang Yimou’s classic 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern, starring Gong Li. Dating from the 18th century, the vast complex, comprising 313 rooms, is an exquisite exercise in architectural balance, its linked courtyards pervaded by a sense of equilibrium. Enclosed by a 33-ft (10-m) high, fortified wall, the house was built by Qiao Guifa, a merchant who made his fortune in tofu and tea.

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