The wall that encloses Datong’s old city is almost impressive – encircling an area of 3.3 square kilometres it is perfectly polished and sharp-edged. As the most distinctive feature of ancient cities, this particular one is in fact spanking new and unfinished: a gap in its western stretch ranging hundreds of metres is waiting to be sealed up.
Lying at the heart of contemporary Datong, the old city was almost unrecognisable until a few years ago, except for a handful of surviving monuments buried within shabby multi-storey buildings. But as China’s capital for three separate dynasties, Datong was once home to royal palaces, gardens and temples. The spectacular Yungang Grottoes, a Unesco heritage site of ancient Buddhist art and carving, act as a reminder of its past.
Today’s Datong in Shanxi province is a third-tier city of 3.3 million people (Beijing and Shanghai are first-tier cities out of a five-tier ranking), with a vastly expanded urban area of almost 50 square kilometres. In recent decades, mass and indiscriminate rebuilding, alongside a booming coal mining industry that gained Datong the label “China’s capital of coal”, also made it one of the country’s grittiest cities. […]