One of the finest examples of Chinese Buddhist cave art, these 5th-century caves are truly spectacular. With 51,000 ancient statues and celestial bodies, it looks smaller than everything else in Shanxi. Carved by the Turkic-speaking Tuoba, the Yungang Grottoes drew their designs from Indian, Persian and even Greek influences that swept the Silk Road. Work began in 460 AD and it took him 60 years to complete all 252 caves, the oldest collection of Buddhist sculptures in China.
Pass through the visitor center and a replica temple on the lake before arriving at the cave. There may be some caves that are closed for restoration, but this is a rotating base. Despite weathering, many of the Yungang statues still retain their beautiful pigments.Especially the deep-cut caves are well protected from the elements, but water intrusion from above is always a danger.
Many caves were once covered with wooden structures. The very impressive caves 5 to 13 are surrounded by recently built wooden temples, many of which have long been lost. Some of the caves contain intricately carved square stupas or central columns that you can walk around. Frescoes abound, with graceful depictions of animals, birds, and angels, some still vividly painted, and almost every cave with his 1000 Buddha motifs (small Buddhas sitting in niches). is included.
Eight caves house giant Buddha statues. The largest is in Cave 5 and is a 17m tall seated golden-faced Buddha. Like many of the frescoes here, the frescoes in this cave are badly damaged and destroyed, but note the painted vaulted ceiling. Colorful Cave 6, Shakyamuni’s Cave, is also stunning, resembling the best Indiana Jones epic set with legions of Buddhist angels, bodhisattvas, and other celestial bodies.
In the center of the cave, a square block stupa or pillar meets the ceiling and is flanked by two tiers of Buddha statues. Most foreign tourists don’t notice the bright red oil paint graffiti on the right side of the cave’s main door frame, which reads Dàtóng Bāzhong, Datong No. 8 Middle School.Cultural Revolution. The frescoes here are also badly scratched by the youngest visitor of the era of the riots, with the 50-year-old date “76.12.8” being roughly etched.
Double-chambered Cave 9, Axoke Buddha Cave, is also a spectacular sight with a giant seated golden-faced Buddha.
Caves 16 to 20 are the earliest caves in Yungang, carved under the supervision of the monk Dan Yao. Cave 16, the Standing Buddha Cave, has a huge standing Buddha whose central part has been severely eroded. The walls of the cave are pierced with small niches containing Buddha statues. Cave 17 houses a huge 15.6-meter-tall seated statue of Maitreya Bodhisattva. Examine the exceptional quality of the carvings in Cave 18.
Some faces are fully rendered. Cave 19 contains a huge 16.8m tall statue of Sakyamuni. Cave 20 (460-470 AD), completely exposed to the elements, originally represented a trinity of Buddha images (Past, Present and Future Buddha). The giant seated statue in the middle is a representative icon of Yungang, and the Buddha statue on the left has somehow disappeared. A prayer mat is placed in front so that worshipers can pray.
After the last cave, you’ll find your way to an elegant and informative museum (9:30am-4:30pm) detailing the Wei kingdom and the artworks within the caves. English subtitles are limited.
However, most of the caves have proper Chinese/English subtitles. An English-speaking guide can be hired for ¥150. Their services include visits to museums. Please note that some caves allow photography and others do not. To get to the cave, take bus 603 (3 yen, 45 minutes) from Datong Station to the last stop. Buses run every 15 minutes. Taxi fares from Datong are about 40 yen one way. Along the way, you’ll pass the less attractive but interesting Datong Coal Mine.