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This article was published 18/7/2014 (803 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The world sees the smog in Beijing but never its surprising source.
A seven-hour train ride west of Beijing to Datong takes you through the heart of Shanxi province, China's largest producer of coal. The region mines 400 million tonnes a year from the 70-billion-tonne "sea of coal." With the People's Party of China declaring pollution Enemy No. 1, Shanxi is focusing more of its energy on exploiting another abundant resource -- stunning historical sites.
A steady stream of coal trucks rumbles up and down the roads past some little-known wonders of the world. Man-made marvels of ancient China survived hundreds of years of earthquakes, looters, marauding invaders and the Cultural Revolution.
The China National Tourist Office invited me to explore this area off the beaten path at their expense. I had no idea what to expect and wasn't expecting to be impressed.
Shanxi is next door to the similarly spelled Sha'anxi province -- home of the ancient capital Xian and its famed terra cotta soldiers. It may not be as well-known as a tourist destination, but Shanxi is the epicentre of breathtaking natural and man-made beauty on China's holy mountain.
Wutai Shan, or "five terrace mountain," has drawn pilgrims for nearly 2,000 years. The Buddhist sanctuary is home to the Boddhisatva of Wisdom and has UNESCO heritage site status. Five million people -- mainly Chinese Buddhists -- make the pilgrimage to Wutai Shan every year, but it is not very well-known in the west.
Here, long before Shanxi was pounding out coal to power China's economic boom, there's abundant evidence of the Dao-Buddhist belief that man-made structures infringe on the harmony of nature.
Architects and artisans tried to conform temples and monasteries to nature. The more challenging, the better.
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The Yungang grottoes are home to massive Buddhas carved into the sandstone side of a mountain 1,600 years ago when it was the site of the world's biggest city and the capital of the Wei Dynasty. The massive project took 64 years and 100,000 workers, including slaves and craftsman from India and Pakistan, to complete. Unlike the local Chinese artisans, the outsiders were familiar with the new religion's Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and the skill of carving them into the side of mountains. Today, 45 caves have been preserved as well as 51,000 rock statues. The tallest statue is 17 metres. For centuries, the grottoes have been a major pilgrimage destination for Chinese Buddhists. Before the caves were built, it was on a major east-west travel route. There's evidence of a 2,000-year-old track used by two-wheeled carts -- similar to Red River carts -- travelling the well-worn route to and from Beijing.
A freshwater spring near the caves still attracts people who haul pails of rejuvenating holy water miles to their homes.
Major renovation and preservation work was done and it's now a UNESCO world heritage site and a major tourist attraction, mainly for Asians. A coal-fired plant nearby was shut down to spare the ancient relics from air pollution. The plant was reportedly converted into a coal theme park. It's not heavily marketed to western tourists.
Driving south of Yungang grottoes through clean mountain air and past more coal trucks, a rickety-looking building appears to cling to the side of an enormous cliff.
Xuankong Temple -- the Hanging Temple -- was built at the foot of Hengshan Mountain on a cliff in the Jinlong gorge.
It was built 90 metres above the ground more than 1,500 years ago by a monk named Liaoran. It's kept in place with oak crossbeams cantilevered into holes chiseled into the sheer mountain face. Workmen rappelled over the side of the cliff to build the 40-room, three-storey temple with its support structure hidden inside the bedrock.
Time magazine reportedly listed it as one of the Top 10 most dangerous and odd buildings in the world. It's the only existing temple that combines China's three traditional religions: Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.
Today, crowds file through the wooden buildings year-round, up and down slippery narrow stairs and balconies with hip-high narrow wooden railings. They stop and kneel to pray on yellow cushions inside the many temple shrines. They take selfies and snap photos of each other hanging over the balcony's flimsy railings.
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Higher into the mountains and away from the coal trucks, prayer flags hanging from guardrails flap in the breeze and horses graze on the slopes of the holy mountain. Is this Tibet or China?
It's China's Mount Wutai -- one of Buddhism's four holy mountains and home to an ancient complex of Buddhist temples and monasteries. Legend has it two Indian missionaries founded the first monastery there in 68 AD. It flourished with more than 300 temples and monasteries during the first millennium. Today, there are 50, including a Tibetan Buddhist convent with nuns from all over the world next door to a lamasery full of red-robed monks. Pilgrims visit Pushou Tibetan Buddhist Temple every year. Schoolchildren come with their parents to pray for good marks to get into a good school.
Under yellow-tiled roofs -- a colour allowed only for emperors who stayed at the temple -- prayer wheels are spun. Sutras are recited. The devout work toward the goal of prostrating themselves 100,000 times during their lifetime.
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Next door, at the Chinese Buddhist temple of Pusading, built between 471 and 499 AD by Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty, Ascetic monks who rely on donations for survival move through the crowds with alms bowl. Eighty temple monks live here during the summer. Faithful pilgrims light incense and pray at the temple with 108 steps leading up to it, corresponding to the 108 tests human beings must withstand during their lives. Tourists take part in superstitious rituals at the steps that begin and end with a three-metre-high blind gate inscribed with the name of Buddha painted on a yellow background. It's there to protect against spirits trying to enter the temple. It's where pilgrims play a kind of a "pin the tail on the Buddha" game after taking the last step. They close their eyes and step toward the written name trying to put their hand on the word for Buddha.
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Down the road, the ancient walled city of Pingyao comes into view. Built by the Mongols 700 years ago, it was a stop on a major trade route. Today, it's home to 40,000 people, many of whom work in tourism-related businesses. The city's institutions have been turned into museums showing the way people lived. The criminal court has grooves in the stone floor -- a result of hundreds of years of accusers and defendants kneeling before the judge. The magistrate, who had to live 250 kilometres away from any family to avoid any chance of nepotism and influence, was housed in a couple of rooms next to the court. Surrounded by walls that are each 1.5 kilometres long, it was home to a bodyguard company and institute. Trainees spent three years in unpaid internships, receiving only room and board. It was a precursor to the modern security firm where guards learned martial arts, archery and the skills they needed to transport treasure for rich folks at a time before banks. As a closed society, China was late to enter the banking business. China's first bank didn't open until 1823 in Pingyao. Business was good, and coins were used in the mortar of walls to show how prosperous it was.
Pingyao was preserved as a UNESCO heritage site in 1997 with its narrow streets full of bikes, scooters and the occasional golf cart.
A couple of hours away, a place that's nearly 1,000 years old failed in its recent bid to become a world heritage site.
Ting Che Chang is 900 years old. Giant bronze statues guard the temple next to a 3,200-year-old cypress tree. There are dozens of almost-life-size statues of maidservants that are 700 years old. A seven-storey, 38-metre pagoda is reflected in one of the park-like place's many ponds. It's old, breathtaking and well-preserved but couldn't pass UNESCO muster in a land of wonders.
That all this historic beauty survived so much for so long is a wonder in itself. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, five million people died and priceless cultural treasures, including temples and monasteries, were destroyed.
In Shanxi, many cultural and religious sites were protected by the faithful and community leaders. With the will to protect what's sacred and centuries of amazing architectural feats, you're left thinking China should be able to solve its pollution challenges in a snap.