Strange love for Nanjing, or how I learned to love the furnace: a weekend in Nanjing

Culture | by Miller Wey
Posted: August 18th, 2011 | Updated: July 13th, 2012 | Comments
Living in China is great for the travel addict, with cheap internal transportation and an incredible diversity of destinations—but try telling your boss that. Whether living here or taking a trip to China, there never seems to be enough time to take it all in. But when we do, rest assured we'll take the time to share our trip with you >>> I've had my eye on Nanjing since back when I was living in Ningbo and before that, even, while in Beijing. But for some reason I just hadn't made the plunge yet. A few weekends ago, I finally had the chance and with my girlfriend weeks away from leaving behind her studies in China and me feeling the need to get outside of Shanghai for a bit, we decided to Nanjing. Arriving at the Nanjing Train Station (Nánjīng Huǒchēzhàn, 南京火车站) north of Xuanwu Lake, we took Metro Line 1 to the Gu Lou Station and popped out just a short walk away from our hotel. But poor directions took us on a long detour around the Nanjing Drum Tower. Even at night, the heat and humidity enveloped us like a blanket that became ever more noticeable as we trekked in a wide circle away from and then back towards our hotel. With our bags shucked and safety stowed in our room, we ventured out into Nanjing. Dinner was the first order of business and nothing spotted in our exploration of Gu Lou district fit the bill. Following a few recommendations, we made our way to 1912 Bar Street by cab. Ignoring the obligatory Starbucks and KFC, we moved into the heart of the area. The bars we poked into were the standard fare: bumping techno or hip-hop, blackened interior, lit only by colored, spinning spotlights, crowds tightly knit around tables crammed in together or a bouncing mob on a spot too small to deem a "dance floor." There are nights for these places, but we were a few drinks short and a stomach each too empty. Blue Marlin, a western restaurant and bar, seemed like a possible save, but with a live Filipino cover band on stage downstairs and what appeared to be a typical Chinese club atmosphere transplanted upstairs, we realized we were in the wrong place for a relaxed conversation over dinner. We made our way back to Gu Lou district, realizing the poorly-chosen McDonald's on the train ride negated any real need to eat another meal, and we dropped into the Castle Bar. Casting aside our previous snobbery, we bought cheap beers and hit the foosball table. Coming back quite a bit later than any determined attraction-bound travelers should, we passed out in anticipation of the day ahead of us in Nanjing.

"Walking on the Chinese Wall" and other songs of the 1980s

The Taicheng section of the Nanjing City Wall was a walk away to the northeast of our hotel. We left behind the wide boulevards of Nanjing's more commercial districts and wound through the tight streets of one of Nanjing's residential areas; open air fruit shops, tiny repair shops, hole-in-the-wall restaurants lining the side of neighborhoods of dull, concrete buildings teeming with the evidence of communal life. Our wandering took us to where the city wall runs along the western edge of Xuanwu Lake, and along a tiny, winding trail on the grassy median separating the street from the wall. Old men gathered on stools, creating a point of interest where there wasn't one. From the branches of the trees around them hung birds in elaborate wooden cages chirping to one another, some bouncing around their small cages. Passing the entrance to the Taicheng Wall, we came to Jiming Temple, a jumble of arch-roofed, yellow buildings. We had read about the temple, still an active place of worship, and decided to check it out. With buildings packed a bit tighter than I've seen at some other Chinese temples, there was plenty to explore, though from the outside the temple didn't seem terribly large. To my chagrin, the pagoda was closed off for repairs. In the temple's main hall, nuns chanted and shuffled around the center, while several worshippers outside watched or lit incense for the burners. We left the temple and walked back to the Taicheng entrance to the wall. We followed the wall through a small museum to the southern shore of Xuanwu Lake. Overgrown with grass, the wall led like a strange, thin meadow past Jiming Temple in one direction and off towards Zijin Shan in the other. After walking towards Liuhe Pavilion (Liùhé Tíng, 六和停) and Sanzang Pagoda (Sānzàng Tǎ, 三藏塔) in the direction of the mountain, we realized we both were in need of a break from the heat and humidity. On our trek back down towards town, in search of a destination that ended up forgotten, we stumbled upon the Nanjing Paleontology Museum. My childhood love of dinosaurs and current need for air conditioned respite from the heat convinced me this was a necessary stop. The museum was basically empty, helping to gloss over the discovery that the large skeletons at the front of the museum were replicas. Deeper inside, the actual fossils of plants and crustaceans gave way to smaller specimens of the dinosaur variety. From the museum, we headed to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. Right out of Metro Line 2, it was an easy trek. After exploring the memorial gardens, we spent several hours in the halls of the museum, which covers not only the massacre, but the entire history of the Japanese invasion, including the rise of militarism in Japan before the war and Japanese actions after the war. With the museum reaching its closing time, guards politely, but sternly gestured those of us remaining in the museum towards the exit. Taking in every single exhibit would have taken an incredible amount of time. The Metro Line 1 trip to the city wall's Zhonghua Gate took us to a neighborhood beneath a highway from which we navigated north to the gate. A few tour guides with flags and megaphones took groups of shuffling tourists slowly along the interior sections of the gates, but otherwise the area was surprisingly empty. Like the Xi'an City Wall, bike rentals were available and I was looking forward to riding the Nanjing City Wall, but the sight of a red sheet thrown over the chained bicycles dashed my hopes and we moved on. In our search of Nanjing's Confucius Temple, we mistakenly entered the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Museum, where we were somewhat surprised that our pricey entrance ticket (RMB 70) came with a tour guide. Luckily for us, ours spoke English and took us through what was once a Ming Dynasty general's personal garden, only somewhat recently opened to tourists. Stopping at a building in the middle of the gardens, we sipped on Yuehua Tea (Yǔhuā Chá, 雨花茶), Nanjing's most famous brew, and watched a show. After a few pitches to buy photos or souvenirs, our guide left us to explore the garden. Ready to move on, we took in the Confucius Temple and then got out into the pedestrian street. Fuzi Miao Pedestrian Street was more or less what I expected. Restored old buildings with neon-light lined arched roofs filled with a smattering of local restaurants, chain restaurants, souvenir shops and clothing stores reminded me of areas like Shanghai's Temple of the City God. Lit-up tourist boats plowed the water and tour guides shouted out through megaphones over the noise of the crowd at their groups, designated by matching hats. Before heading back to our hostel, we squeezed in a trip to the enormous Zifeng Tower, which stood opposite our subway stop and had been hovering over the Nanjing skyline almost wherever we went. From 78 floors up, we looked out over hazy Nanjing. The serpentine wall lit up stood out among the city's blanket of lights. After that, we found our bedtime slightly more reasonable than the night before, but not before late night snacks and beer from tall Behind the Wall.

 Ski-lift escape

Our next day we planned to see it all—all that we hadn't seen yet, anyway. High on the list was Zijin Shan (Purple-Gold Mountain). It wasn't far from the city center and we had both been told it was a "must-see" spot. Starting with the Nanjing Bell Tower and Nanjing Drum Tower, our cram session devolved into a slower exploration of Nanjing's tourist spots. From atop the latter tower, we surveyed Gu Lou District and spotted traditional Chinese roofs somewhere off nearby poking up from the trees. The lady working the tower that day told us we must have seen Nanjing University, which wasn't far. While most campuses I've seen in China aren't particularly picturesque, the Nanjing University Campus brought to mind an old school on the east coast of the US, with ivy cloaked old buildings lined around a wide, open mall and tree lined paths. We dropped back into Jiming Temple to eat at the vegetarian restaurant. My food allergies drove me through the usual line of question before finding a fake meat not made from tofu. The fake pork turned out to be delicious, even though the plum juice intended to refresh was served hot and tasted something like tobacco water (something I've not tried, so it’s a guess). Taking the subway out as close as we could get to Zijin Shan, we discarded the advisable idea of catching a cab up to the cable car—or at least the foot of the mountain. With Xuanwu Lake on one side, we followed the road along a portion of the city wall until we stumbled upon the plank walk. Rising up through the forested slop of the mountain, the plank walk was cooled by a breeze off the mountain. Grasshoppers bounded off the wooden path as we passed and we forgot we were still technically in a big city. At the top of the path, we found the cable car that would take us up. Laugh if you will, but the view from what amounted to little more than a ski-lift was amazing. On the way up we spotted the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum and Ming Xiaoling Tomb, which we realized we probably wouldn't get in. We turned out to be right. While we could have wandered about the top of the mountain for a bit and turned around, our time at the top ate away most of our day as we explored winding paths and enjoyed the breeze. Determined, we headed back south before our return to the train station north of Xuanwu Lake. I still had to ride a bike on the city wall. But unfortunately, as the people working the gate explained, the bikes weren't being rented due to the heat. Disheartened, we took the metro back to the hostel and a cab to the railway station. Looking back across Xuanwu Lake at the Nanjing skyline, I knew I'd be back. I had a city wall to ride. Been on a trip to Nanjing? What did you see? What do you recommend?
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