Saturday, April 25, 2009

Datong: From hard sleeper to four stars and a donkey meat dinner

Hard sleeper again to Datong, our next destination, because all the soft sleepers were sold out. This time, there was a surprise at the end. The clerk at our hotel in Pingyao told us the train would arrive at 6:30 a.m. She must have had some numbers mixed up, because it pulled in at 4:48 a.m.! Lucky for us, a conductor came around and woke everyone up around 4:15 a.m. We had to scramble to get our things together and get off. One woman ended up trapped in the bathroom after the conductors came around and locked all the doors.

We've been playing this leg of the trip by ear. Datong is near the border of Inner Mongolia. It's a commercial center for the coal mining industry, and if you believe, the guidebooks, not worth much time. I disagree if part of the reason you come to China is to experience everyday life. But one big reason most people end up here are to see the Yungang Buddah caves, 10 miles out of town, where there are some 50,000 statues carved into sandstone cliffs.

The other reason is to climb to the Hanging Temple built into a cliff in the mountains about 40 miles away.
We'd read the guidebooks, but really still weren't sure where to stay or how to arrange to get to both of these places and make onward connections to get back to Beijing.

Two choices: Check in to a $30-a-night room in gloomy-looking hotel across from the railway station and wait for the China Travel Service office to open, or ask a taxi driver to take us to a four-star hotel downtown with the aim of using its services to make all the arrangements. It could be hit or miss, we knew, because there's no guarantee that even a four-star hotel staff speaks English, but at 5 a.m., the four-star idea won out.

We got lucky. The Datong Garden Hotel not only had a room, the desk clerk quoted us a price of $80 vs. the posted rack rate of $160.

Within in an hour of checking in (Most Chinese hotels will let you check in anytime), the assistant manager had helped us make all the arrangements for getting around for the day. We booked a taxi and driver for the day for $42, only about $12 more than we would have paid to go on a group tour.

The best part: This buffet breakfast that comes free with the room. I've really never seen anything like it. On the table were all the Chinese specialties. There were several types of cooked greens, sweet potatoes, jack fruit, noodles, steamed dumplings, rice dishes, yogurt, five different kinds of sausages, pastries, breads, eggs and all the American breakfast staples.

Hotels make great travel agents for anyone traveling on their own in China. You can pretty much count on them if you need airline or train tickets, an all-day car and driver, or just about anything else. We've found this to be true whether we're staying in a small inn or hostel or a four-star hotel like this one.

We were looking for a place to eat dinner tonight, so we asked the hotel's desk clerk. . She recommended a restaurant down the street called Yonghe, and called ahead to alert them two foreigners were on their way. They had a table waiting when we arrived. The menu was thick as a picture book, and since it had pictures, we were able to compose a fantastic meal of fresh veggie rolls with a seseme dipping sauce, a tofu dish, and donkey meat (that's right!) stir fried with green bell peppers and cilantro. With two bottles of beer, the bill came to $9.

Besides trying donkey meat, we enjoyed observing how the waitresses in their yellow jackets stood at attention by each table, even before any customers arrived. Service is taken pretty seriously in China, whether it's in a hotel or a restaurant or a store. We found it a little uncomfortable at first to have someone watching so closely while we shopped or ate, but it's definitely an important part of the culture.

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