Datong, China: Diamond in the Coal

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The Last Locomotives

Although China today is best known for its network of uber modern Blade Runneresque bullet trains, pilgramaging train enthusiasts still descend on Datong to see the what was once the world’s last bastion of steam locomotive manufacturers. When much of the west was listening to compact discs, the Datong factory was still pumping out steam locomotives. It was only 1989 when the factory, built in 1959 with Soviet assistance, ended production. The factory has been converted to a museum, keeping it a happy place for people who get giddy when they hear the choo choo sound.


Away from Datong’s Must-See Attractions:

The farmland around Datong is quite an interesting sight in its own right, hemmed in by the mountains that act as an attractive backdrop. Datong’s pastures are China’s last significant tract of arable land on the journey north. As a New Zealander, it was comforting to see shepherds with their flocks of sheep in the roadside fields.


The area’s rich Loess soil gives the region and nearby Yellow River its golden colour. It’s good, easy carving, and many farmers in the area have chiselled their homes into it in nearby cliffs and fields. In the colder months it’s not unusual to see smoking chimneys rising from the field caves.


Also in Shanxi Province and just a few hours bus ride from Datong is Pingyao, one of China’s best preserved medieval forts (another UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Mount Wutai, one of China’s four sacred Buddhist mountains, home to 53 sacred monasteries (yep, another UNESCO WHS). There’s also The Great Wall of China close by.


Visit Datong Before It Gets Too Overrun

Like so much of China, progress in Datong seems rampant. The historic town centre has recently had a major uplift and expansion of the airport is well underway, with many new routes to confirmed. We were blessed with clear blue skies when we visited, which is likely to become increasingly common with Datong identified by the Chinese Government as one of the key cities requiring development. Part of this is an environmental cleanup which sees it acting as a pilot city for pollution rehabilitation studies – a major focus of the current Chinese Government. Today, Datong is still at the stage where visitors (especially foreign tourists) are few in number, so it’s a nice time to go.


I’d put Datong high on the list of places to visit in China. As an easy 6-hour train ride from Beijing, it’s not far off the well-trodden triangle of Shanghai – Xian – Beijing, but a little more personal.


Children play in the pool by Datong's Huayan Temple, part of the recently restored historic precinct in the heart of town

Children play in the pool by Datong's Huayan Temple, part of the recently restored historic precinct in the heart of town

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2 Responses to “Datong, China: Diamond in the Coal”

  • Justine:

    Thanks for the interesting information and photos Mark. We’re planning to visit Beijing for 3 days next spring, would you recommend a day trip to Datong from there?

    • Mark:

      Have you been to Beijing before? If not, you’d be best using your three days to look around Beijing as there is a lot to see. If you’ve already been to the Great Wall, Forbidden City, etc, then a day trip to Datong as doable. There’s quite a distance between the attractions, and if time is tight, your best option is to hire a driver for the day (which is remarkably good value). Check out the night train from Beijing arriving early morning in Datong. If you fly and have connecting flights, make an allowance for delays (which often happen flying domestically in China). Have a great trip!

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My wife Ellen and I are currently living in China, bumbling our way around this fascinating and fast-changing country. We kicked off our stay with a semester of Intensive Mandarin studies at Beijing Language and Culture University and are now living in Shanghai. These posts cover some of my experiences, views and curious facts in and around the Middle Kingdom. Please let me know what you think!

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