And here is something important – don’t lose it’, I am told by Nick, our local guide. I look down. It is a name badge on a lanyard to be worn around my neck. ‘How nice’ I think, ‘this is a good way of getting to know everyone’s name’. So why is my name Nick?
I have joined a group tour around China which is to visit some sites off the beaten track – not just the capital cities of Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai. These holidays are always taken with a little bit of trepidation. Group tours make visiting countries like China easier, but what will my fellow travellers be like? (fabulous); Will we get on? (yes); Will the tour be full of long days? (some); flea-bitten hotels? (no) and mediocre food? (possibly).
I look at the lanyards worn by other members of my group. Their name apparently is also Nick – perhaps this is a joke to break the ice? However, all eventually becomes clear. The name refers to our local guide, and his mobile number is printed underneath his name. However, it is the message that is printed on the back, in Chinese, which is the winner. ‘If this person is lost, please contact the person on the front of this card’. How thoughtful! Now if we wander off, all roads will lead back to Nick. What a brilliant initiative!
And so began my two week adventure around a small part of a very large country. In all, we covered 2,800 kilometres, transversed mountains that were 2,000 metres high and explored some stunning sites. Here are a few of my favourites.
The Yungang Grottoes lie close to the city of Datong. Reached by a six and a half hour train trip from Beijing, this city has a long history of importance to ancient empires because of its location. Founded in 200 BC by the Han dynasty (then called Pingheng), it lies in a basin which is bordered on three sides by mountains, with passes only to the east and south-west. Inner Mongolia lies directly to the north and west and so for many centuries, the city was the centre of interaction between the Chinese and outside cultures. During the ‘period of disunity’ following the breakdown of the Han dynasty which ruled all of China, the country split geographically into north and south with different ruling families. The north was ruled by a succession of different houses – the 16 kingdoms (304 – 439 AD) and then the Northern Wei dynasty, founded by the nomadic Toba Wei, was the first of five Northern dynasties (386-581 AD). The Northern Wei set up their capital first at Datong (from 398 – 494 AD) but later moved it to Luoyang. The city was renamed Datong in 1048 AD and was a secondary capital for the Liao and Jin dynasties (before being sacked by the Mongols) and it continued to be of strategic importance during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Today, Datong is the largest producer of coal in China with a third of its population coal miners. Our guide told us that in 2008 it was a very dirty city, where everything was covered in black coal dust. But they have worked hard since then to clean up both the city and their technologies to find cleaner methods of using coal, as well as developing technologies to replace coal. They have also spent a large amount of money rebuilding the ancient city walls in a bid to make the city more attractive to tourists. On our way to the grottoes we pass a village that is dedicated to the coal miners, with housing, a hospital and shops. The grottoes lie very close to the old coal mines, and our guide told us that in the past, the enormous trucks carrying coal would pass close by to the grottoes, leaving black coal dust on the faces of the