These caves are one of mankind’s most impressive endeavors at monumental art and I had never heard of it before studying my guide book. Carved out of a sandstone mountain these caves contain no less than 50,000 Buddha sculptures with the oldest and the largest constructed in 460 AD. The Northern Wei dynasty began construction in the hard stone. The largest Buddha is 17 m high seated Buddha with thousands of smaller ones surrounding it. Skylights were excavated in the side of the mountain by men repelling from the top. They then carved out the images and removed the rock until they reached the bottom and carved out a proper entrance. It took 40,000 people 64 years to complete the giant seated Buddha. The proximity to the silk route can be seen by the Byzantine, Persian, Greek, and Indian influences in the dress and gods represented in the caves.
Visit the CITS office in the Datong train station for tours. The staff is friendly and speaks English.
The Hanging Monastery is a 1400 year old complex of stilted temples, corridors, bridges, and stairways hanging 50 m off a canyon floor. People repelled from the top to carve out the mountain and build the monastery. It was built so the Buddhist monks could control the floods that often filled the valley below bringing death and destruction. There are beautifully carved Buddhas in the temples dating from the Tang and Ming dynasties. The monastery is Taoist, Buddhist, and Confusionist and is visit by monks and priests from all three sects. Unfortunately, it has also been visited by Mao’s Red Guards who cut off the fingers and noses of these ancient relics during the Cultural Revolution. What a disaster, it takes one brilliant idea to ruin relics over 1000 years old! The monastery has been unable to stem the flooding of the valley below and a new dam now nicely does the job adjacent to the monastery instead.
Check with CITS in the Datong train station for tours 712 4882. The staff speaks English and are very friendly. The tour included lunch.
If you are interested in seeing 50,000 exquisite Buddhas of all sizes carved into a mountainside that are over 1500 years old put Yungang on your China to do list. Situated halfway between Beijing and Xi'an (two top spots on most people's itineraries) is a dusty industrial town of Datong. From here you can organize a tour from CITS office in the Datong train station. They leave with an English speaking guide around 9am and visit the Hanging Monastery 75km southeast of Datong, provide lunch at a nearby restaurant. You are then taken to the Yungang Caves where you spend about 2 hours visiting the statues. You can be back in Datong with plenty of time on your hands to find dinner and hop on a late night sleeper train to Pingyao, Xi’an, or Beijing. You do not want to be stuck in Datong for the night. There are no good options for accommodation. If you do get stuck see if the CITS in the train station can help you find a room. They will also get your onward ticket while you are on the tour.
I think the tour cost about 150 yuan (maybe $USD 20)