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As the most distinctive feature of ancient cities, this particular one is in fact spanking new and unfinished: Lying at the heart of contemporary Datong, the old city was almost unrecognisable until a few years ago, except for a handful of surviving monuments buried within shabby multi-storey buildings. The spectacular Yungang Grottoes, a Unesco heritage site of ancient Buddhist art and carving, act as a reminder of its past. But in February Geng left to take up mayorship in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province, leaving behind a landscape pock-marked by construction.
His departure prompted thousands of residents to plead for his return , many on their knees begging for him to finish what he began. Starting with the Northern Wei dynasty 1, years ago, Datong was a beautiful capital. It continued to thrive in the Liao and Jin dynasties, and later regained prominence as a major strategic centre in the Ming dynasty — Falling into decline thereafter, continual warfare and neglect had engendered a state of chaos by the early s. But with its epic revival, Datong would regain its Ming dynasty splendour, building on the geometric layout that had survived from then.
Wide intersecting streets running along the central axis, split the city into quadrants, which further divide into a network of lanes and alleys. Within this, symbolic landmarks like the Drum and Bell towers of which only the Drum Tower survives , multi-tiered and symmetrically positioned, loomed over a predominantly flat landscape.
Wooden gates and archways framed major streets and denoted neighbourhoods in which locals traversed bustling lanes of commerce, visiting one of the countless temples that dotted the city. But from every angle, the city wall was the most recognisable view. Atop this, an array of 62 watchtowers, jutting out at regular intervals, formed a formidable line of defence. Tens of thousands of residents would be moved out beyond the city wall and permanently resettled, their homes demolished for Ming-style replicas.
Datong would be transformed into a commercialised tourist site — where the only footfall to count is that of tourists. Professor Tao Ran, senior fellow at the Brookings-Tsinghua Centre for Public Policy, says that the move is in line with local governments relying heavily on land sale revenues to generate profit in recent years.