Tag Archives: Monastery

Armenian Road Trip

We generally prefer to get around by public transport when we travel – it’s much cheaper, there’s less to worry about and it can be a good way to learn how locals live and move around.  However, when we were researching Armenia there were several sights that we were keen to see but seemed difficult to link together with public transport without using up more days than we had, so we decided to hire a car for just under a week.

Andrew and rental car

Andrew with our Armenian rental car

After collecting the car in the centre of Yerevan we drove north for about an hour to Lake Sevan, one of the largest freshwater high-altitude lakes in the world.  About 35km to the south along the lakeside road we arrived at the small village of Noratus and one of my favourite sights in Armenia.  The graveyard here is incredible, it dates back to medieval times and contains over 800 khachkars (literally ‘cross stones’) carved between the 9th and 17th centuries. It looked even more magical as the ground was covered in a thick layer of snow and the sun came out just as we arrived.

Noratus cemetery

One of the two small chapels at Noratus cemetery surrounded by khachkars

Walking around we could see how the khachkar developed from the early cradle stones, so called as they mimic the shape of a traditional hanging cradle, into more and more intricately carved crosses.  Khachkars are found all over Armenia, particularly around churches and monasteries, and they seem to have a wider cultural rather than just religious significance. The cross often grows from a representation of the Tree of Life and they can be decorated with carvings of the sun and moon, plants or people.

Khachkars at Noratus

Khachkars at Noratus (clockwise from top left): cradle stones from the 17th century; a row of simple crosses from the 10th-11th centuries; khachkars from the later stages of development; a modern take on the khachkar

The cemetery is still in use, unfortunately we didn’t have much time to look around the modern section as it was beginning to snow and, despite our best efforts, forging our own path through the snow had resulted in wet socks and cold feet.  Nevertheless by the end of that first afternoon we’d already decided that the car hire had been a splendid idea.  

Frozen Lake Sevan

Frozen Lake Sevan from our hotel room. It’s not usual for the lake to freeze, but locals told us that 2016/17 had been a particularly cold winter.

Next morning, we cleared 5cm of snow off the top of the car and set off on the longest drive of the week to Syunik, the southernmost province of Armenia.  During the summer the journey might be a bit shorter, but in early March the most direct mountain pass is still closed by snow and our only option was to take the road back to Yerevan and continue from there along the main highway to the south.

Armenian motorway detour

Armenian roads require a lot of concentration to drive, even when we thought we’d found a smooth stretch of motorway it turned out that bridges were being built and we frequently had to slow down or detour off the main carriageway

By late afternoon, we arrived at another equally remarkable but even older site.  Just outside the town of Sisian, Zorats Karer is also known as the Armenian Stonehenge but is actually even older.  Sited on a plateau surrounded by hills, archaeologists have dated the stones and tombs to 3000BC.  Again the weather was kind, the sun came out and we had the place to ourselves though it was bitterly cold on the exposed hilltop.

Zorats Karer

The standing stones at Zorats Karer

The standing stones are arranged in an oval around a central burial tumulus and sweeping off in two arms to the north and south so that it probably looks a bit like a galaxy from above.  Around 80 of the 223 stones contain holes near their top which are believed to be aligned with the stars making it an ancient astronomical observatory.

Zorats Karer

Zorats Karer (clockwise from top left): the biggest stones stand 2.5-3m tall; many of the stones contain a neatly bored hole close to their top; the burial tumulus in the central oval


We spent the second night of our road trip in Sisian, a town which has fallen on hard times since the collapse of the Soviet Union

Next day our target was Goris, just 40km away, but we took advantage of the freedom we had driving ourselves to stop at a few places on the way.

The tower tomb at Aghitu dates to the 7th century and has seemingly been plonked in the centre of an otherwise small and unremarkable village.  We had a good look around and were heading back to the car when we noticed an elderly lady walking down the road giving us a pretty obvious side-eye once over.  We responded to this in our usual way by smiling broadly and calling out ‘barev dzez!’ (Hello!) to which we received the very unusual response of said elderly lady stopping and engaging us in fluent (though clearly not recently practiced) and unaccented English, telling us she was a graduate of the Foreign Languages Institute.  You could have knocked us over with a feather!

Aghitu tower tomb

Aghitu tower tomb

Just a bit further down the road is the monastery of Vorotnavank.  In a commanding position above the river Vorotan the monastery was largely destroyed in an earthquake in 1931 and has been rebuilt.  We enjoyed looking at the carved stone fragments which litter the grounds.

Vorotnavank monastery

There’s a fantastic view down the valley from Vorotnavank monastery

After a bit of an adventure trying (and failing) to go up a road which we eventually decided was far too rocky and rutted for our car, we arrived at our final stop, Kotrats Caravanserai.  With nothing more than a signpost pointing away from the road to guide us we trotted off down a snowy track.  Fortunately the ruined caravanserai was quite easy to spot.  A modestly sized building, which could easily have been mistaken for a barn were it not for the inscription in Persian and Armenian over the main entrance, the caravanserai dates to 1319 and the vaulted chambers inside were used as a secure resting place by merchants travelling along the Silk Road.

Kotrats caravanserai

Kotrats caravanserai (clockwise from top): the ruins are in the middle of a field; inside are three vaulted chambers; over the main entrance is an inscription in Armenian and Persian

By the time we got back to the car we were hungry and as we drove the final 17km to Goris the weather turned into a steady downpour, making us very glad to arrive at our friendly B&B, home for the next few nights.

UNESCO Churches and Monasteries of Armenia

In 301 AD Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion, and today 3 sites covering 5 places of worship are recognised by UNESCO’s World Heritage List. While planning our trip we felt like almost every other thing we read was church this or monastery that – we were worried that we might quickly tire of them, that they’d all start blurring into each other and we would fail to appreciate their differences and significance.

I’m glad to say that wasn’t the case!

Geghard Monastery

Geghard Monastery, Armenia

Geghard Monastery in early spring

So the story goes, Geghard Monastery was founded by Gregory the Illuminator in the 4th century at the site of a cave with a natural spring. Geghard is a common and easy day trip from the capital Yerevan, and as well as being an impressive sight in a spectacular location, it’s important because Gregory is credited with the country’s Christianisation.

Geghard Monastery collage

Clockwise from top-left: Julie photographing the chandelier in the main chapel; Zhamatun, the second of the cave chapels, viewed from a hole in the floor of the Upper Jhamatun; Julie tasting the spring water – very clean in taste (no sulphur or mineral aftertaste) but very cold!; Carved relief of a ram’s head, two lions and an eagle clutching a lamb which is believed to be the coat of arms of the family that had the cave monastery extended in the 13th century

At the beginning of March we pretty much had the place to ourselves, but out of the sunshine exploring the chapels and caves was pretty cold. Completely worth it though, as the carvings throughout the monastery are so detailed, particularly the most recent ones. We especially liked the boldness of the older carvings in the caves and the finer work in the corridor to the upper gavit.

The Temple of Garni

The Temple of Garni, Armenia

The Temple of Garni, the only remaining structure of pre-Christian Armenia

A visit to The Temple of Garni is usually combined with Geghard Monastery as it’s pretty much on the way. Our day trip also included a stop at the modern Charents’ Arch but unfortunately the morning’s haze hadn’t quite cleared enough for us to see it framing Mt Ararat.

The Temple of Garni isn’t on the UNESCO Heritage list, but it is believed to have been built in the 1st century AD so it’s nearly 2,000 years old! We loved the detail of the stone carvings around the roofline, and the very big steps at the front to get to the altar inside.

Temple of Garni collage

Clockwise from top left: The remains of the mosaic floor in the Roman bath house; Detail of the temple roofline carvings; the remains of the St Sion Church with a view down the Garni valley

The remains of St Sion Church sit adjacent to the temple but we could only just see them peeking out from the snow, however we were able to see through the door of a building nearby which houses the mosaic flooring remains of a Roman bath house – nowhere near as well preserved or extensive as those at the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily – but fascinating to see such a breadth of history in one place.

Zvartnots Cathedral

Zvartnots Cathedral Ruins, Armenia

The ruins of the 7th century Zvartnots Cathedral

The ruins of Zvartnots Cathderal and the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin are the second UNESCO site that we visited in Armenia on another day trip from Yerevan. According to the small museum on site, Zvartnots Cathedral was briefly the centre of Christianity in Armenia, and its unique design was inspirational for the restoration of the much larger dome of Haghia Sophia in Constantinople, now Istanbul.

The remnants of Zvartnots Cathedral, clockwise from top-left: a pair of carved eagle capitals; a model of what Zvartnots may have looked like; and the many pieces of it which lay around in the surrounding fields like a massive jigsaw puzzle

According to the information pages on the excellent Armenia Heritage website, the surrounding buildings were a palace used by the Catholicos of All Armenia (i.e. the head of the Armenian Church) and included a throne room, a Roman bath house and a large winery. Palatial indeed! We really enjoyed exploring the ruins and trying to imagine how impressive the cathedral and its surrounding buildings would have been.

Echmiadzin Cathedral

Echmiadzin Cathedral

Echmiadzin Cathedral. There’s always something being repaired when we visit the sights of a country!

Echmiadzin (officially Vagharshapat) is the 4th largest city in Armenia having once been the capital, but the reason for our visit was the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin – the centre of Christianity in the country – and specifically the Mother Cathedral of Holy Echmiadzin, the oldest cathedral in the world.

The colourfully carved entranceway and the frescoes of the main cathedral’s dome

Inside it felt open and airy despite its relatively small size, and easily accommodated the many worshippers and handful of tourists. We liked the restrained frescoes and the 3 rooms of the treasury museum behind the main altar that includes among its relics the right-hand of St John the Baptist and the Holy Lance, said to have pierced the side of Christ.

Clockwise from top-left: Reliquary of St John the Baptist; The Holy Lance and its reliquary; Julie in the first room of the Cathedral Museum

As well as the cathedral, the Mother See, like the Vatican, comprises a number of other buildings including a seminary, and there are some very modern additions like the Gate of St Gregory and my favourite, the circular Church of the Holy Archangels.

Church of the Holy Archangels, Armenia

As well as the cathedral and its treasury museum, we liked the new Gate of St Gregory and the funky tall circular Church of the Holy Archangels.

Sanahin Monastery

Sanahin Monastery, Armenia

Sanahin Monastery, tucked away on the fringes of the village

Near the end of our fortnight in Armenia we stayed in the small northern mining town of Alaverdi, an excellent base from which to visit Armenia’s final UNESCO site – the monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin.

While it is possible to visit both in a day, or even half a day by taxi, we split them up so we’d have plenty of time to explore. Sanahin is the closer of the two to Alaverdi, though they’re both a short but very steep 1st gear marshrutka ride from the bottom of the Debed Canyon to their respective villages and they’re very different.

Sanahin Monastery collage

Details of Sanahin Monastery: the carved pillars and walls of the main gavit which we saw at all of the churches and monasteries in Armenia; One of the carved gravestones depicting the profession of the deceased, we think he was a musician

Sanahin looks compact, squeezed into a forest clearing between the edge of the village and the foot of the hills but it feels big, especially in the main covered entranceway or gavit, the floor covered in the gravestones of royalty and those once important in society, often depicting the interred’s profession. However, our favourites were the huge square bell tower with red brick crosses incorporated into its walls, and the fine examples of two khachkars (literally “cross-stones”) standing to attention that flank the main entrance.

Sanahin Bell Tower, Armenia

Detail of the wonderful carved red-brick inlay of the bell tower at the Sanahin Monastery

Mikoyan Musuem, Sanahin, Armenia

Just down the hill from Sanahin Monastery is the museum of the Mikoyan brothers. One worked for 60 years in the Soviet Politburo and the other designed the USSR’s first jet fighter, the MiG

Haghpat Monastery

Haghpat Monastery, Armenia

Haghpat Monastery with its commanding view over the village and the canyon

In contrast to Sanahin, Haghpat Monastery sits on a lofty perch overlooking the village and the canyon. When we arrived we thought it was closed as all of the gates were shut, but after wandering around the perimeter of the old walls a local farmer gestured through so we crept in and started exploring.

Sanahin Monastery collage

Clockwise from top left: detail of the carving of the monastery’s founder’s sons Smbat (who later became a king) and Gurgen holding a model of the church; the Amenaprkitch (All Savior) Khachkar of 1273 is the only one we saw in Armenia with a painting on it; and the view of the valley canyon with Sanahin just visible on the left ridge

As we worked our way around a youngish guy with a big bunch of keys started opening up the buildings and encouraging us to enter. A Polish couple arrived and he seemed more comfortable talking to them in Russian – we followed them all to the bell tower but unfortunately there was only time for the other couple to climb the tower as the caretaker had to lock up. Still, we’re glad we got to see inside the locked churches!

Hamazasp Gavit, Haghpat, Armenia

The cavernous Hamazasp Gavit is the largest gavit in Armenia at 330m2

As well as the separate bell tower (very different to the one at Sanahin), we liked the vastness of the ancillary buildings – one, the Hamazasp Gavit used as a monks assembly room is the largest gavit in Armenia, and we especially liked the depiction of the two brothers holding a model of the church.

Akhtala Church

Akhtala Church, Armenia

Akhtala hill-top church. Stunning location and not much to look at from the outside, but inside..

After our visit to Haghpat we decided not to wait 1½ hours for the next marshrutka and opted to set off on foot hoping to hitchhike a little further away from Alaverdi to the small village of Akhtala. A transit van, an old Vauxhall Cavalier with a cheery pair of Georgians (one of whom looked like George Clooney!) and a lovely couple in old Lada making a bread delivery later and we were there, the non-UNESCO St. Astvatsatsin church in the Akhtala complex.

We stood at the gates for a minute or so taking in the views (and taking photos, obviously!) when an old gentleman rattling some keys walked past us and gestured to the church. Feeling a bit like we were being frog-marched, we followed and were led inside – Wow.

The colourful main nave frescos of Akhtala, Armenia

It’s an assault of vivid colour! Beautiful, detailed frescoes line the walls though some are in desperate need of a little restoration..

We spent as long as we dared gazing in awe at the colourful, detailed murals while the caretaker quietly stood out of the way occasionally checking his mobile phone. We could easily have spent an hour inside walking around and slowly checking out each of the walls. It looks like repairs have started on the roof so we made a donation and asked if it was OK to look around the grounds.

Akhtala, Armenia

This prompted a short tour.. our caretaker was keen to point out the grave of the last monk to live here who died at the age of 100 in 1972, the old monastery cells in the walls, some kilns near the entrance and a modern sculpture that he was quite keen for us to step through which superstitiously helps your relationship but we both thought framed the monastery quite nicely..

Akhtala, Armenia

Modern sculpture at Akhtala – if only I could recall the Armenian for “Excuse me, sorry, would you mind taking a step backwards please?”

Feeling confident in our hitchhiking abilities, we set off from Akhtala towards the main road and after about 40 minutes and a few attempts we eventually managed to wave down a telecoms engineering van heading our way that had 4 guys in it and 2 spare seats. One of the young guys, Mikahl, graduated with a degree in English and we had a long and interesting conversation with him and his work mates. He also tagged us on Facebook as “English autostoppers” :o)

Mikahl - English Autostoppers

Mikahl tags us on Facebook on our way back to Alaverdi! Thanks again for the lift and the conversation :o)

The thing we’ll remember most that distinguishes Armenian churches and monasteries from any other places of worship we’ve seen so far are the carvings on the outside walls. They are covered in crosses of different sizes and styles, almost like graffiti, and we think they look really good!

Catania, Sicily

Catania is nestled at the foot of Mt Etna on Sicily’s north eastern coast. It was our first stop on our circuit of Sicily, the ball to Italy’s boot, and is the island’s second largest city. Although it’s a decent size, with a population of around 300,000, we found the centre to be compact with all of the sights within easy walking distance of each other.

Accordion playerThe first person we met as we walked from the bus to our rented apartment was this cheeky accordion player who deliberately walked in front of Andrew’s camera and posed while playing us Christmassy tunes

In the centre of the city is the Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square) where we started our visit with a spot of people watching and a humongous (and very alcoholic) rum baba at one of the square’s pavement cafes.

Rum baba and espressoRum babas with espresso at a cafe in Piazza del Duomo

The focal point of the Piazza is a monument consisting of the rather unlikely combination of an Egyptian obelisk and a happy-looking elephant carved from lava stone. It was assembled in 1736 by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini although its origins are unclear and both the elephant and the obelisk predate the assembly by many centuries. It now serves as the emblem of the city.

Elephant obeliskThe elephant obelisk is a popular place from which to watch the world go by

Along the eastern edge of the Piazza is the city’s cathedral, or Duomo, dedicated to St Agatha who was born in Catania in 231AD. The inside is quite plain but nevertheless grand and imposing. In the middle of our visit, music started playing and a soloist began singing beautifully, it turned out to be a service in one of the side chapels, adding a lovely atmosphere.

Catania DuomoCatania’s cathedral is dedicated to St Agatha


One of the things we were looking forward to in Italy was the world famous food and I was hoping that the markets would be a vibrant place to explore. Catania has two daily markets in the central area and both were great places to look and photograph as well as to shop for provisions. It was easy to tell what was in season with piles of fennel, purple cauliflowers and citrus fruits dominating the scene. We found all of the vendors to be friendly and keen to show off their wares, some of which were unusual for us, such as dried salted cod, huge buckets of globe artichokes and lambs in the butchers shop sliced right down their middle, head included.

Catania markets collageCatania’s markets (clockwise from top left): Fruit and veg stalls in the streets around the fish market; Lambs are sold whole or neatly halved; Crates of fennel were everywhere; Salt cod drying in the sun

The Fish Market was the closest of the daily markets to where we were staying. Fresh fish always makes an interesting display and the most eyecatching of the fish here were huge swordfish. The fishmongers display the head with attached ‘sword’ at the side of the stall, and slice juicy steaks from the body to order. Wandering between the stalls were roving merchants of lemons and big bunches of parsley to complete the ingredients list for a simple fish supper. As well as the fish stalls, the surrounding streets had fruit and vegetable stalls, butchers, bakers and cheesemongers.

Fish marketThe Fish Market

Teatro Romano

Catania has a long history as a city and there are many historic sights. One of the oldest is the Teatro Romano, a semi-circular Roman theatre dating to the 2nd century AD which was built on the site of a Greek theatre from around 500-600 years earlier. Roman theatres followed a similar design to Greek ones for good acoustics to host plays and musical recitals. The structure is impressive and must have looked striking when in its original form with white marble seating divided by eight stairways of black lava rock.

Teatro RomanoCatania’s Teatro Romano

As we paid for our tickets, the heavens opened complete with thunder and lightning so we sought refuge in the small onsite museum. There we learnt that until the mid 20th century houses were built on top of and all around the old theatre, incorporating its stonework into their structures. Since the 1950s, the Antiquities Office has undertaken several projects of excavation, removing the houses and restoring the theatre, and work is ongoing.

Aerial photo of Teatro Romano from 1930sAerial view of the houses built over Teatro Romano from the 1930s [photo credit: Information board inside Teatro Romano]

The museum is housed in one of the encroaching buildings and has been preserved to show the way that the theatre was used through the ages. From there we explored the huge passageways which run beneath the seating before emerging into the theatre itself.

Teatro Romano walkwayAndrew in one of the high passageways beneath the rows of seating

Monastero dei Benedettini

The former Benedictine monastery of San Nicolo is a fascinating building and we joined one of the hourly guided tours to gain access to some of its more interesting corners. I say we joined a tour, but we were the only ones on it and we had to read the information from a printout as our guide only spoke Italian! The monastery’s buildings were confiscated by the Italian state in 1866 and it is now home to the Humanities Department of the University of Catania.

Students at work in the Monastero dei BenedettiniStudy hall in the former Monastero dei Benedettini

Before the tour we looked around San Nicolo church which is attached to the monastery. Its facade is unfinished and inside it is huge and whitewashed, seemingly not much used. The most interesting feature was the meridian line clock which runs for almost the full width of the church in front of the altar. These types of sundials were used to check the accuracy of calendars.

San Nicolo ChurchSan Nicolo Church (clockwise from top left): the unfinished facade; the meridien clock runs across the width of the church; the empty looking interior

In the second half of the 17th century, two natural disasters befell Catania. First, in 1669, a massive eruption of Mt Etna. We were amazed to learn that it took two months for the lava to travel the 40km to the city and so the monks had time to build a barricade around the monastery leaving it unharmed but with an immovable 12m high ‘shelf’ surrounding it to the north and east. Then in 1693 a massive earthquake flattened the monastery along with much of the city. The only part which survived was the basement which now houses the department’s library.

Basement libraryThe Humanities Department’s library is located in the monastery’s basement – it would make a great location for a murder mystery!

The second floor corridors are very grand with high ceilings and stone doorways, witness to the fact that most of the monks were younger sons from wealthy families and were used to luxurious surroundings. When the monastery was rebuilt after the earthquake, it was extended and, as the lava shelf could not be moved, the architect used it to support the new common areas of the monastery – the kitchens, dining hall, library and even a garden for the novices. Beneath the kitchen our guide led us through the vaults used for food storage.

Lava shelfThe narrow gap between the lava shelf (to the right) and the monastery buildings

Monumental staircaseThe tour ended with us descending the Monumental Staircase. Its grand scale and stucco bas reliefs would look more at home in a palace than a monastery

Bellini Theatre, churches and Castello Ursino

Andrew had found the route for a walking tour online and we enjoyed wandering the streets looking at the various monuments. Many were churches (about as densely sprinkled as the mosques in Istanbul), but we also saw the remains of a Roman amphitheatre (with seats all the way around as opposed to the semi-circular structure of the theatre), and a more modern theatre dedicated to Vincenzo Bellini who was born in Catania and whose tomb we saw in the Duomo. The final sight on the route was Castello Ursino, a medieval castle built between 1239-50 in a strategic position on a cliff next to the sea. Nowadays it’s a kilometre inland as later volcanic eruptions extended the coastline outwards! It is one of the few buildings to have survived the 1693 earthquake though.

Historic structures of CataniaClockwise from top left: Teatro Massimo Bellini; Church of St Francis; Roman amphitheatre remains; Castello Ursino

Somapura Mahavihara, Paharpur, Bangladesh

The ruins of the massive Somapura Mahavihara in Paharpur, north-western Bangladesh are one of only 3 UNESCO World Heritage sites in the country – the other two are the mosque city of Bagerhat and the natural beauty of the Sundarbans National Park.

Believed to be part of a network of Tibetan Buddhist teaching monasteries, this is the only one of the 5 great Mahaviharas that now sits outside present day India as the rest are just over the border to the west.

After a short but very hot and busy train journey from Rajshahi, we arrived at the ruins late afternoon to find a few groups of Bangladeshi tourists wandering around..

Central shrine at Somapura Mahavihara, Paharpur, Bangladesh

The breath-taking multi-level central shrine at Somapura Mahavihara, Paharpur, Bangladesh

Last used around the 12th century, the Somapura consisted of 177 monk “cells” that surrounded the central shrine or stupa in an almost perfect square wall with the main entrance facing north. The enclosed grounds have foundations for a number of supporting buildings – such as a kitchen and bathing house – and the latrines were outside the walls to the south.

The monks’ cells were all uniform in size, though if I were a monk studying there I would have wanted one of the corner plots because they have an extra little anteroom as well.

Monk cells

Monk cells – fit for a monk in training

Paharpur collage

Clockwise from top-right: foundations of 4 different shrines inside the grounds; The base of each layer of the central shrine is decorated with terracotta tiles depicting plants and animals; The information board next to the main northern entranceway onto the central shrine

After a good walk around we retired to our room within the monument and museum grounds for dinner and some much needed rest, but not before the museum curator invited me to join him for a conversation about archaeology (thank you, Sir Tony Robinson and Time Team – I knew that Sunday evening TV viewing would come in handy some day!)

Somapura central shrine in the early morning light

Somapura central shrine in the early morning light

The following morning we got up early and had the site to ourselves, save for an early morning jogger and the security guard who probably features in most of our photographs of the central shrine as he did his rounds while trying to keep an eye on us.

We really enjoyed looking around the Somapura Mahavihara. The small on-site museum had some nice statues and terracotta tiles found during the excavations and was just the right size to hold our interest. As explored the ruins, I wondered what it must have been like to study there before it was abandoned.. it must have had quite a feeling of safety and seclusion given the high outer walls that housed the monks’ cells and narrow entranceway.

Datong, Shanxi Province, China

Datong is a strange place. For a start, the city centre is partway through being rebuilt. That means that they are knocking down perfectly fine but not very attractive buildings in order to recreate the historic centre… I think it’s being done to make the city more attractive to tourists, but the scale of the work is so huge that it will surely take decades to recoup through tourism the amount being spent on construction.

20130822-072039.jpgA cross section of the new city wall which is not yet finished

20130822-094655.jpgNewly built city street

We also felt a little like celebrities here. It’s sufficiently off the beaten path that the locals are very curious about anyone ‘foreign’ looking! I think we’ll encounter this quite often as we travel through China but I don’t know if I’ll get used to it. To give you some idea:

  • people would stare at us on the street – I was worried that we might cause an accident as quite a few of those staring were on bicycles
  • people looked at us shyly and say ‘hello’ or ‘ni hao’ – us replying generally resulted in a fit of giggles
  • more confident locals would stop us to have a chat (usually quite limited by their lack of English and our lack of Mandarin)
  • and if they were feeling really confident they would ask if they could take our picture!

Getting there

Getting to Datong was very straightforward. As the train takes about 6 hours we decided that it wasn’t worth doing an overnight trip as we wouldn’t get enough sleep so instead we took the bus which is faster (between 4.5 and 5.5 hours). We were worried about buying our bus ticket but in the end it was more complicated to find out which bus station in Beijing we needed, and how to get there (for anyone having the same difficulties it’s Liuliqiao which can be reached by subway lines 9 or 10). To buy the ticket, we said ‘Datong’ and showed the clerk the Chinese characters for the city name in our guidebook. She turned her screen around and showed us the time of the next bus and the price. Easy peasy. As an added bonus we got views of the Great Wall during the journey which whetted our appetite for when we make the trip there!

20130822-073558.jpgThe Great Wall from the bus

Our hostel

We stayed at the brand new Fly by Knight Hostel, the original branch of which is in Beijing. We had a large and comfortable private room with floor to ceiling windows. As the hostel is located on the 22nd floor of a brand new apartment building this means that we had incredible views over the city.

20130822-074657.jpgView of bustling Datong

20130825-211906.jpgThe city walls are lit up at night

Sights in the city centre

One of the authentically old parts of the city centre is the Nine Dragon Screen which was built in 1392. According to the information board in the grounds

it was originally situated in front of Dai-king Zhu Gui’s mansion who was the 13th son of Zhu Yuan Zhang, the first emperor of the Ming dynasty.

The mansion has long since gone, but the screen is well worth a quick visit. And yes, the first thing we did was to count the dragons and check that there were nine!

20130822-101145.jpgUs in front of the Nine Dragon screen (we really are there in the middle, it’s just very big – 45.5m long!), and two of the dragons

We discovered that it’s also possible to walk on the city walls. Amusingly, the entrance ticket describes them as Ancient City Walls despite the fact that it’s not yet possible to walk all the way around because they haven’t finished building them! It was a nice walk though and we amused ourselves by watching the Chinese tourists on the tandems that are for hire on top of the wall.


20130822-123733.jpgThere’s a fake pagoda as part of Datong’s city walls, Chinese tourists on a tandem, and view of a not yet demolished part of the city centre from the walls

From Datong there are 2 day trips to major sights which are really the main reason for visiting the city:

Hanging Monastery

The Hanging Monastery is located near the town of Hunyuan, a two hour bus ride from Datong. Again it was easy to buy the bus ticket and the bus driver put us into a taxi for the last 5 minutes to the site of the monastery. If we had been a bit more on the ball we would have tried to communicate to the bus station taxi driver a time when he should come and collect us. Unfortunately, we thought he was just going to hang around, but he was nowhere to be seen when we came back out. We waited to see if he would return (with more tourists from another bus for example), but in the end we had to haggle for a taxi back to Datong – they quoted such a ridiculous price for the 2km to Hunyuan bus station that it just wasn’t worth it. Anyway we had plenty of time to bargain so we were quite pleased to get the price down from 200RMB to 140RMB.

The monastery itself is built into the side of a cliff and dates from 491. It looks as if it’s kind of floating there, as it’s supported by beams drilled into the rock face as well as stilts to the ground. The mountain peak above it protects it from rain and strong winds, and its position 50m from the ground means that it doesn’t get flooded.


The buildings are now just a tourist attraction and there is a prescribed path around the 36 tiny rooms and linking walkways. Some of them are a little precarious and there aren’t many spaces for passing people so we sometimes felt a bit pushed along by the horde of Chinese tourists behind us, but the up close views of the roofs and the building’s quirky structure were worth it. It’s construction is not the only unusual thing about the monastery, it also has elements of all three of the traditional religions: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.

20130822-151139.jpgNarrow staircase between levels of the monastery, colourful roof tiles, and inside one of the temples

Yungang Grottoes

The Yungang grottoes also date from the 5th century and feature Buddhist carvings and paintings in dozens of caves. The cave decorations range from bright wall paintings to huge Buddha statues (some are nearly 20m high). We enjoyed the variety and the scale of the place is really magnificent.

20130825-222127.jpgVaried cave decorations

20130822-151916.jpgUs in front of the 13.7m high White Buddha (cave no. 20), the cave entrance around this statue has collapsed

The caves’ original purpose was of course worship and Buddhist visitors today still burn incense and pray. A new temple has also been built on the site.

20130825-222439.jpgBurning incense, new statues inside the temple, the newly built temple complex is on an island

20130825-222507.jpgThis sign at the end of the walking trail made us chuckle


We had a bit of trouble finding the Nine Dragon Screen at first and stopped in a local restaurant for lunch and to ask the way (travelling tip for China: copy out the Chinese characters for the sight you want to visit before you leave your hostel, or carry your guidebook with you – showing someone the written Chinese is much easier than the blank look you get if you try to say it). Lunch was potato starch noodles in what looked like chilli soup although it wasn’t actually too spicy. Potato starch noodles are not easy to eat with chopsticks – if I didn’t know better I would think they were made from jellyfish, they’re slimy and gloopy and fall apart when you lift them too high from the bowl! They were surprisingly tasty though.

20130822-101929.jpgThe restaurant, and the noodle soup (the noodles are all lurking below the surface in this picture)

But our favourite place to eat in Datong (we went there every day!) was a street stand just along the road from our hostel. It was run by a husband and wife team. She shaped and cooked bread rolls on a charcoal stove and he shredded the (pre-cooked) pork with mild green chilli and some of the pork cooking gravy to stuff the freshly baked rolls. Delicious!


20130822-151926.jpgYummy pork rolls