Nanjing, China

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
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Trip End Aug 10, 2007


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Flag of China  , Jiangsu,
Monday, July 16, 2007

I found myself back in hard-seater class without an assigned seat again for the 8 hour trip to Nanjing but managed to find a seat when I got on the train early in the morning and didn't budge the entire trip for fear of losing it as it became more crowded through the day.  The ride through southern Shandong, Anhui, and northern Jiangsu provinces was clearly through an older, less prosperous part of China.  The very flat and heavily populated rural areas and smaller cities all had somewhat of an industrial look about them with a brick village or a tall smokestack almost constantly in view, quite unlike the mountainous postcard-pretty tourist spots we tend to associate with rural China.  Industrial, soot-blackened Xuzhou in northern Jiangsu province where plenty of locally-mined coal was lying around in huge mini-mountains and going up in smoke at dozens of outdated-looking plants was thoroughly Dickensian. 

The train crossed the very wide Yangtze River into Nanjing on the top level of the famous Yangtze River Bridge. The Yangtze is the traditional division between northern and southern China and normally the river with the world's third-greatest average flow. At the time it was swollen by the summer rains that had recently flooded some parts of central China.  The bridge was completed in the early 1960s entirely by the Chinese after the Soviets pulled their support and was considered a point of national pride as the first one across the Yangtze.  Now, though, there are three other futuristic-looking new suspension bridges across the river at Nanjing and other bridges elsewhere, so the original no longer seems to be worth the fuss the Chinese still make over it.

Nanjing translates as "southern capital" and has been China's capital during several eras of its history, giving the city a wide range of historical monuments.  With beautiful gardens, canals, modern neighborhoods, a brand spanking new subway system, and lots of signs in English I found Nanjing to be a very pleasant city despite the excruciating heat and humidity that give it along with two other Yangtze Valley cities the shared nickname "Three Furnaces of China".

The walls and gates that still surround many Chinese cities performed the same defensive functions as the fortifications of a similar era around European cities.  I'm amazed at the scale of many of those in China, though.  The largest walled medieval European cities enclosed an area perhaps the equivalent of that of a small Chinese town like Qufu.  Meanwhile, though, the extent of the area city walls in Nanjing, Beijing, and Xian enclosed suggests they were enormous cities 500 to 1,000 years ago, and some historians estimate they may each have had populations of over a million at times during that period.

Nanjing's best known monument is the mausoleum complex of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, leader of the revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty in 1911 who is revered as the founder of the Chinese republic.  The mausoleum is situated in Zijin Shan (Purple Gold Mountain) park on the eastern outskirts of town along with numerous other tombs of and monuments to prominent nationalists and figure involved in the war against Japan.  Also in the park is the tomb of the first Ming Dynasty emperor, Zhu Yuan Zhang, who ruled from Nanjing.  In another part of town Yuhuatai Park contains memorials from a slightly later era in Nanjing's and China's history, a large museum, statues, and tombs of Communist "Revolutionary Martyrs" killed fighting the Guomintang in the years between Sun Yat-Sen's death in 1925 and the Communist victory in 1949.  Yuhuatai  provides a history lesson with a strong dose of propaganda but is at least well translated into English (like most things in Nanjing) but seems incongruous with the modern capitalistic world that surrounds it.  The Nanjing Museum of Art and the Museum of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom round out Nanjing's multitude of cultural attractions.

I thought I'd stop at KFC for a taste of home and ordered a meal deal with a side order that looked something like popcorn shrimp but I figured must have been some variation on tater tots.  The little morsels clearly tasted like chicken when I bit into them but with such a strange texture, something like the cartilage you might bite into at the top of the drumstick.  But there's so much of it.  Iiiiwww, I'm eating bite size pieces of chicken feet, and at KFC!

Now that I'm traveling independently again I can return to my foodie habits of exploring local cuisines.  There are, of course, well known regional cuisines in China that are widely available throughout the country, but in most places there are also some local specialties to seek out.  Part of the difficulty in finding them, though, is that they rarely appear on English menus which usually have only a limited number of translated items that restaurant owners think appeal to western palates.  Meanwhile, the restaurant staffs in places without English menus also try to steer foreigners toward boring staples like beef with broccoli and sweet and sour pork.  It's not that I necessarily want to eat pork stomach, sheep kidneys, or char-grilled scorpions on a stick, but something a little more exotic than what I can get at Great Wall Super Buffet back home would be nice.

Most people are familiar with Beijing Duck, the famous roast duck dish served with pancakes, plum sauce, and scallions that's a staple of Mandarin cuisine, but the specialty in Nanjing is also a duck dish (Yanshui Ya) that's salted before cooking and then served cold in slices.  Aided by a crowd of helpful waitresses at a nice restaurant, I managed to order Yanshui Ya along with a couple vegetable dishes for my 40th birthday dinner.  The verdict: In the future I'll stick with the northern capital's version of duck.

Having already seen most of the notable sights in Nanjing, I thought I'd take the subway to the end of the line to one of the places labeled on my city map as a "new city" and walk around.  What I found at Aoti was a surrealistic environment of well-landscaped but empty boulevards and massive building under construction in every direction, yet at the time it still eerily uninhabited except for legions of construction workers.  The ultra-modern buildings in unusual shapes and super-human scale look like something out of a 1950's science fiction vision of the future.  It's as if they decided to build an American-style Edge City like Tyson's Corner or Denver Tech Center all at once, and then beside it built an "Olympic Sports Complex" with five major stadiums and arenas.  This impressive but rather sterile environment may be the face of China's future since similar new cities are being built on various scales throughout the country.  I also never quite figured out which construction site is to be the 100+ story building, but I understand there's one in the works in Nanjing too.
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