The Yungang Caves

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山西省

May 4: Datong and The Yungang Caves

The road to Yungang is the road to the coal mines and I follow a constant stream of overfilled blue dump trucks all spilling chunks of coal onto the road. Without a fairing on the motorcycle I am especially vulnerable to taking a hit directly in the head. However, if I hang back so that I don't get spattered by coal falling from the truck in front of me, the truck behind me decides that he wants to fill all that extra space I left in front of me, and overtakes, spilling coal on me as he careens recklessly by. If another truck is oncoming, the driver does not hesitate to move directly into me. In this survival of the biggest, it is up to me to pay attention and drop back, squeezing into the tiny spaces between tailgating trucks.

 It is the ride from hell, even when I find a place behind a truck that is not as overfilled than the others. Not to say it is not overfilled. It is simply lightly overfilled. I remain close behind this guy, dodging the larger chunks that bounce out while the trucks behind me tailgate, then pass both of us. Several times the overtaker chickens out, and comes in to my lane forcing me to brake hard to let him have my space. Along with the big aggressive blue trucks there are a few tour buses and taxies also headed to the caves.

Each side of the road is lined with black dust and chunks of coal. The pile is consistently about three-feet high and equally as wide. Children and old women walk slowly along it filling dirty burlap bags. They are covered in coal soot, and I already feel my just-showered face becoming grimy. Thankfully, the turnoff for Yungang comes quickly.

A parking lot leads me to the cave's entrance, but I can barely get to it because of a crowd of Chinese tourists surrounding, of all things, a braying camel. The camel is on the ground ready to receive a customer on its carpet-adorned back. The young woman about to board wears a long lace dress and black high heels. Her husband, also dressed formally, holds a camera ready, but each time the woman approaches the camel it shakes its big head, causing the bells around its neck to clang, and lets out a terrifying roar, displaying huge yellow teeth and a slobbery mouth. The woman understandably shrieks and skitters back to hang on her husband's arm, and the crowd thinks this is hilarious. The camel man convinces her to try again so she bravely approaches, but the camel, eyeing the spike heels, clambers and rocks to a standing position. The yellow teeth and slobber from six feet up is more than she can take. The sale is lost. 

The camel man spots me and so does the crowd but I quickly walk away. I know from experience that the getting up and down part that is not as bad as the bucking and nipping, and this one looks pissed off enough to do both.

Before I can reach the gate I also have to navigate a crowd of postcard hawkers waving packs of accordion-fold cards under my nose. I buy a set from an old man with a white beard. Flipping through the cards I realize that the caves are going to be really fantastic.

Paying admission gains me both access to the cave site and a rare silence. A sparkling white expanse of concrete the size of a football field covers the ground between the fence and the caves, which look like tiny dark holes in the cliff from this distance. I start to follow the signs for Caves 1-4, and begin to enjoy the peaceful stroll when a a group of five young women spot me and burst into a run, heels clacking across the concrete. For some odd reason they are all wearing fancy dresses with lace and stockings.

Before I can react, they grab me by the arms and pull me away from the caves, laughing and chattering like birds, and drag me onto a park bench under a tree at the edge of the concrete.

Bewildered but compliant, I am unceremoniously plopped down on the seat. One girl holds a compact mirror up to my face. I almost jump. My face is black with soot except around the eyes where my goggles were. Another girl tears open a packet of wet tissues and helps me wash it off. They go about all this with the utmost seriousness, and once my face and hands are clean I am rewarded with a little package wrapped in green corn husks which turns out to be a compact triangle of sweet sticky rice with a date in the center.

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