I mentioned one UNESCO World heritage site as a reason to go to Datong, China, but the fun doesn’t end there. That’s because there is another, equally amazing and slightly more intense site to see in the same area: the Hanging Monastery.
This is an unbelievable sight at first, one that is hard to imagine. Why would you ever build a monastery like that, is probably the obvious question running through everyone’s mind. Aptly named, the monastery hangs in the middle of the cliff, with seemingly no support except for the rock face and a few old logs sticking out. It’s not built on the side of a mountain, with slopes, handholds and pathways, but on the side of a sheer cliff, right in the middle. Why would you ever build a monastery there?!
From the ground, all you want to do it get up in there and walk around. It looks so cool! But then once you actually step foot onto it, onto the old, creaking wooden walkways and the tiny steep ladders hundreds of feet in the air, you start wanting to get to the safety of the ground pretty darn quick.
The building is 1,500 years old (with some major renovation work a few hundred years ago) and while you would think the modern day gov’t would add details to make it safer for the thousands of tourist that tramp through it everyday, seemingly no work has been done. You walk across a pathway carved out of the mountain, and if you look up, you can see the old, really old, beams of wood supporting the structure. It doesn’t even look like it is holding anything up, much less a massive structure with thousands of pounds of people walking on it.
That’s because the beams aren’t holding much. There is actually a hidden structure that was built in the mountain giving the monastery the bulk of support. There are crossbeams hidden in the mountain, and a lot of the support comes from the mountain itself. I guess it was an architectural achievement way back when it was built and even today engineers from all over the world come to study the design.
The monastery itself isn’t that big. (No secret rooms carved into the mountainside or anything.) There are many small rooms with statues of different deities and people. In fact, this is one of the only monasteries in China that combines Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism in one temple. One room has a statue of Confucius, Lao-tzu and Buddha all hanging out together. (If you look close you can see their drinking baijiu and playing cards.)
The statues might combine and mix different religions, but they all have one thing in common: They are creepy. Ryan took a lot of pictures of the statues throughout (there are about 80 all together) and there isn’t a happy or peaceful looking one in the bunch.
And to answer the constant question that runs through your mind, why would they ever build a monastery there? Well, that might just remain a mystery. The obvious answer is for defense. But it is a small monastery, and never had anything of value, so that doesn’t make sense. I searched far and wide on the internet, and found another answer that is equally unsatisfactory. They said it was built because it couldn’t be destroyed by floods and the cliff overhang protects it from rain and snow. Yeah, sure, no doubt that is true, but would they really go through all that trouble to avoid a little rain? Another theory is, following the zen practice of total peace and quiet the height and isolation makes for a quiet retreat. Also true, but again, couldn’t they have built it on the top of the mountain to achieve the same thing?
I guess we shouldn’t question the ancients and their silly ways. After all, now we get to enjoy wandering the rickety old wooden beams of the place ourselves, hundreds of years later.