Posted by: daradoodle | April 8, 2009

Nanjing (南京)


Sun sets on Nanjing

After spending two amazing weeks in Taiwan, my batteries were recharged and I was ready to get back to Shanghai. The Chinese New Year was quickly approaching and based on what I learned during the National Holiday, traveling in China is extremely hectic when the whole country is on vacation. Having just finished reading the book Chinese Lessons by John Pomfret, a reporter at The Washington Post who spent some of his college years in Nanjing, I was inspired to travel to the former capital of China. As one of the first Americans to live and study in China after the revolution, he used the lives of his classmates at NANDA (Nanjing University) in the early 80s to shape a tale of the history and evolution of China. I eagerly anticipated going to Nanjing, a city oozing with ancient history and only two and a half hours via train from Shanghai. I decided to go this trip alone.

Just as I located my aisle seat on the train, the young lady sitting in the window seat asked if I wouldn’t mind switching seats with her. I always prefer the window seat, so I was happy to make the change. Almost immediately after sitting down, the man occupying the middle seat asked me (in English) where I was going. That question spiraled into an hour and a half long conversation about the real estate business in China, the television business in Hollywood, and which tourist attractions I should check out in Nanjing. He had traveled from Beijing to Shanghai for business and decided to pay his in-laws in Nanjing a visit, as is customary to do during the Chinese New Year.

The train arrived in Nanjing and I said good-bye to the friendly fella. I bought my return ticket to Shanghai then located the Nanjing Metro. I got off at the SanShen Lu stop to find not one, not two, but three people from the Sunflower International Youth Hostel waiting to escort me. They even had a piece of paper with my name on it, very cute. However, there was no need for the sign because they spotted the foreigner a mile away.

As we began making our way down the street, I asked the young man in the welcoming committee if he had any plans for the Chinese New Year. He told me that this would be the first year he wasn’t traveling home to Sichuan province because all of the train tickets were sold out. I had recently heard on the news that mobs of people were turning up to train stations and tickets were not available. Unfortunately, YuanHao Zhang (English name, Shayne) fell into this category. The alternative was to take a job at the Sunflower Hostel until his university resumed classes after the holiday. Since his school is on the outskirts of Nanjing, he hadn’t seen much of the city, so I told him where I planned on going and invited him to come along. He gladly accepted the offer.

Less than two hours after I arrived in Nanjing, Shayne felt compelled to bring me around the hostel’s surrounding area. A few blocks away is a maze of pedestrian walks with intertwining shops, restaurants, temples, canals and arched bridges. There was an amazing neon light display of dragons on one side of a building. Shayne offered to buy me a snack called xiangjiaozhu (香蕉竹). Rice and something that tastes like orange (very well could’ve been orange) is stuffed into a piece of bamboo then steamed. The person serving up the snack takes a butcher knife and hacks off the sides on the bamboo leaving a paper-thin layer on the sides. Peel back the excess bamboo and you’ve got yourself a tubular rice snack. Take a look.



Shayne with his xiangjiaozhu (香蕉竹)







That night, I shacked up in one the hostel’s six-person dorm rooms that provided a shared bathroom down the hall, and a cheerful gal from Japan as my roomie. We did the name exchange thing then I headed upstairs to the common area to check my email. A group of hostel patrons were watching the Leonardo DiCaprio film “Blood Diamond” projected on a wall. I was getting sleepy so I headed back downstairs to get cleaned up for bed. When I got to the bathroom, I learned that everyone who works at the hostel also lives at the hostel because they were getting ready for bed too. This was a bit awkward because there were two sinks and both were taken by the employees, so I was lingering around waiting for a sink to free-up. I didn’t know what the appropriate protocol should have been in this situation because I was the guest… but they lived there. Weird. Anyway, I waited for them to finish then did my thing.

Something to note about this hostel is that there are no “Western” toilets. If you’ve traveled to remote places in the world, you know what I’m talking about. I usually refer to this type of toilet as a “hole in the ground.” I’m proud to report that I recently stopped having issues with the “hole in the ground.” If you’re staying overnight in Nanjing, seeking a dorm-style accommodation and have issues with the “hole in the ground,” the Sunflower Hostel is not the place for you .

I woke up super early the next morning and realized that I had another roommate. Maria from Costa Rica was traveling from Beijing where she’s studying Chinese. She didn’t have any plans for the day, so I invited her to join myself and my new buddy from Sichuan province. She accepted and we set off for Purple Mountain.

One of the most popular tourist sites in Nanjing is Zhongshan Mountain National Park (钟山风景名胜区), which is where the “father of modern China,” Dr. Sun Yat-sen, was laid to rest… allegedly. His mausoleum is located at the top of Zijin Mountain (资金山), however, Shayne told Maria and I that there’s speculation that his body wasn’t in the coffin that was sent over from Taiwan. In any event, an award winning mausoleum was designed and intricately constructed less than a year after his death. To reach the mausoleum, you only have to climb 392 stairs.


Dr. Sun Yatsen Mausoleum


392 steps later...

The most peaceful location in the park is the Linggu Temple (灵谷寺). Incense were burning, like they do at temples, “Buddha music,” as Shayne called it, was playing, and colorful flags draped above the worship area waved as the wind blew. Shanye showed Maria and I how to pray to Buddha by kneeling on the square cushions in front of the statues. When we had our fill of zen, we walked over to the adjacent Linggu Pagoda (灵谷塔). Good thing we had a moment to relax beforehand because the pagoda’s unique spiraling stone staircase winding up to the ninth-storey was quite the workout.


Linggu Pagoda (灵谷塔)


Spiral stone stairs inside the pagoda


Hence the "Purple" in Purple Mountain


View from the top of the pagoda


Me & a bixi (赑屃), one of nine children of the dragon


Linggu Temple (灵谷寺)


We ate lunch at an overpriced vegetarian restaurant behind the pagoda then walked away from the park’s major landmarks to a remote area where we found “The Collective Burial Place for Compatriots Killed During the Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Aggression.” The memorial… I guess you could call it, was weak, and you could tell by the old flowers and decrepit stand that the shrine hadn’t received any visitors lately.


We took the Disneylandish shuttle to the opposite side of the park to checkout the Ming Xiaolong Tomb (明孝陵). It wasn’t till after we had already paid the admission, walked a good 10 minutes, made a cameo appearance on a TV show (see photo below) that we discovered the Tomb was under construction. Big time bummer. We kept on moving and made our way up a beautiful sidewalk called the Sacred Avenue (神道) that’s lined with larger than life stone statues of animals. This landmark has been recognized as a World Cultural Heritage property and deservingly so.


Ming Xiaolong Tomb (明孝陵) entrance

Under Construction... booooo

Under Construction... booooo


Maria & I ended up on the China Educational Channel's special on plum blossoms


Sweet smelling plum blossoms


Sacred Avenue (神道)



Me, Maria & Shayne

Me, Maria & Shayne at the end of the day

A piece of ancient architecture surrounding (literally) Nanjing is the Ming City Walls. Standing 12 meters high, 7 meters wide and stretching over 33 kilometers, this is the longest city wall ever built in the world. Between 1366 and 1386, the emperor during this time (Ming Dynasty) had the wall constructed to keep invaders out. Today, only two-thirds of the wall remain along with 13 of the original Ming City gates. On the bus ride to the Memorial Hall of the Nanjing Massacre, we drove through one of the gates.

Approaching Nanjing's City Wall

Ming City Wall gate


Ming City Wall

Saddly, the Nanjing Massacre Museum has become a key stop for tourists visiting Nanjing. I was very naive as to what this museum was about before my visit. In 1937, Japan occupied Nanjing killing between 300,000 and 400,000 Chinese civilians. The curators did an exceptional job with the layout and design of the museum. The heart wrenching stories told by survivors on videotape (now elderly), are haunting and devastating. To understand why the older generation of Chinese might have a negative sentiment toward Japan, this museum explains a lot.


Nanjing Massacre Museum





Feeling a bit somber after viewing the images at the museum, Shayne, Maria and I headed back to the hostel so I could grab my belongings and head to the train station. We exchanged information and said good-bye. I was ahead of schedule and had just enough time to stop by Pomfret’s NANDA. I was working with a terrible map of the city and couldn’t seem to find the street that I needed to turn down. A young gal saw me looking at a map and pointed me in the direction of the university… then proceeded to escort me there… then walked around with me… for a second I thought she was going to come to the train station with me, but she stayed behind. Sometimes I break down and let people practice their spoken English on me, even if that means walking around with a stranger for 30 minutes or so.

Nanjing was a good time. Met some new people. Saw some historical sights. Oh yeah, I also ate a Hot Pot dinner that was a bit… under cooked. Take a look.

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  1. Hi there
    Enjoyed your post about Nanjing. You said your trip was inspired by John Pomfret’s book. Can I invite you to comment on this book on Amazon? I am sure the author appreciates.

  2. I got really sick when I was in Nanjing. It’s a cloudy city…

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