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Introducing Dàtóng

Dàtóng isn’t going to win any beauty pageants, but who needs good looks when you’ve got art? Border town extraordinaire, the city has long held a strategic position on the edge of the Mongolian grasslands, first rising to greatness as the capital city of the Tuoba: a federation of Turkic-speaking nomads who united northern China (AD 386–534), converted to Buddhism and, like most other invaders, were eventually assimilated into Chinese culture. The Tuoba’s main claim to fame is the Yungang Caves, a collection of sublime 5th-century Buddhist carvings that capture a quiet, timeless beauty that has all but vanished from the modern world.

Despite the area’s impressive sights, don’t pin too many hopes on finding enlightenment here – Dàtóng is the poster child for all that’s environmentally wrong with fossil-fuel addiction. The uplifting remains of times past are balanced out by sulphurous air pollution, contaminated groundwater and suburban slag heaps that grow by 80 million tonnes annually.