Datong: Chinese City with an Identity Crisis / by Thomas O'Malley

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Once a gateway connecting China to the nomadic lands beyond, the old walled city of Datong was a hub for travelling pilgrims and merchants from Tibet and Mongolia, trading within the old city walls and paying tribute at the ancient Buddhist caves in the mountains nearby.

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Then modernity happened. Like many old Chinese cities, Datong's ancient heritage (including its walls) crumbled or was bulldozed aside as the city took on its Socialist industrial guise. But, in 2011, an ambitious mayor decided he'd restore Datong to its former glory, by rebuilding its city walls and creating an 'ancient city of culture' from scratch. Yep, you read that right.

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Ahead of a research trip for Lonely Planet (Trans-Siberian 6th Edition), I thought I'd take a leisurely drive around the city using Chinese search engine Baidu's equivalent of Google Street View. The results were so illuminating I just had to share them.

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All the pics here are screengrabs from Baidu. I began by cruising around the perimeter city walls. These were complete apart from a short section along the west edge, where you can clearly see the (non-traditional) methods of construction used. Caveat: I have no idea when Baidu last filmed Datong for its Street View, so the wall may well be complete by now (I'll find out when I get there). But when Baidu does update its Street View imagery, this particular snapshot, of a Chinese city frozen in the throes of frankly bizarre transition, will disappear forever. And we can't have that.

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I've driven inside the walls now, and the next few pictures show old neighbourhoods being razed.  The mayor of Datong responsible for the project, Geng Yanbo (aka Geng Chaichai, or 'Demolition Geng') is the focus of a documentary by Chinese filmmaker Zhou Hao

It's an excellent film btw, and Geng comes across as a fascinating figure. His heart seems to be in the right place: he wants to restore glory and prestige to dusty old Datong, but to do it, he's got to demolish the homes of tens of thousands of people.

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More demolition on show. Rubbly.

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Here you can see the new city wall with a freshly landscaped row of trees in the distance. We are inside the wall on what will probably become part of the ancient city. The new ancient city.

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Again, worth reiterating that Datong may all be finished and redeveloped by the time you're reading this.

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Here's what looks like one of the 'new' ancient sights in the city. It could be the old palace or one of the temples, getting a tourism rebuild or facelift. I'm stumped as to exactly what you'd call this process. It's not modernising therefore it must be whatever the opposite of that word is. Oldernising? Retrofitting? Nah. Maybe the reason I can't think of the right word is because turning a modern city into an even more modern ancient city is A BIT OF AN UNUSUAL THING TO DO.

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The roads are getting a bit smarter now, as I drive into what seems to be the start of the rebuilt ancient city, with billboards showing promising images of the future past.

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Here we go. A bit lifeless, maybe, but give it time. The construction of these rebuilt 'hutong' style alleyways looks pretty solid, though. Good job, Datong.

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People! At last. She lives. It's alive.

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The bigger avenues in the centre of the walled city look way more complete, like this wide intersection with period-style street lamps and ye olde Chinese buildings. In the far distance is Gulou, the old drum tower, getting oldernised.

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Likewise here. Note also the 'ye olde' style litter bin.

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We're back outside the walls now (or maybe we're still inside, I can't actually tell), driving on a patch of scrubby ground that must be a road because the Baidu wagon endorsed it. You can see the watchtowers on the wall snaking away into the distance.

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Final shot - I drove away from the city for a while and snapped this - I think these apartments are where many of the residents of the old city were moved to after the oldernising. At least, they looked like this on the documentary. And a final word about Geng. He was abruptly 'promoted' to another city nearby - Taiyuan - in 2013, before he had a chance to finish his work. Did he ruffle too many feathers? Spend too much money? And will the new mayor finish what he started? (I'm guessing yes, yes and hopefully, yes, but with a lot of corner-cutting, no doubt).

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Part of research for Lonely Planet's Trans-Siberian Railway Guide 6th Edition, out 2018.