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China’s Stone Temple Pilots

A Buddha carved into rock at the Yungang Grottoes has looked over the bleak plains of northern China for more than 1,500 years.

This seated, 82-foot-tall figure stands out among the 51,000 Buddhist statues enshrined here in a honey­comb of stone grottoes built in the fifth to sixth centuries.

Pilgrims journey to this UNESCO World Heritage site in Shanxi Province through the gateway city of Datong, a former imperial capital turned soot-stained coal city. But those industrial scars are fading.

This fall, the local government finishes a five-year rebuilding of the Ming-era city walls, largely stripped down to their earthen foundations over time. Within the new walls, elegant Phoenix Pavilion still serves up its version of shumai dumplings, craved by China’s last empress, Cixi.

Not far away, Huayansi, a nearly thousand-year-old Buddhist temple, astonishes with well-preserved clay statues, including a serene female bodhisattva with still visible red and gold paint, her bronzed lips parted to reveal delicately chiseled teeth. Her steadfastness echoes in a city where pride in the past shines again.

Insider’s Tip: Try local delicacy braised rabbit head at a street stall.

This article, written by Lisa Gay, appeared in the October issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.

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