So I Went to China

So I Went to China


Going to Nanjing for tourism is like going to Pittsburgh for the same, except you get the “Where?” before the “Why?” Mention the Rape of Nanking, and that sometimes rings a bell – though distant and unfamiliar locations of historical tragedy are typically conceptualized in the abstract rather than as modern cities of eight million.

Nanjing was my requested extension to the base Rewards Travel China tour, which had ended upon the return to Shanghai from Chongqing. This gave us an odd schedule – a lunchtime arrival on Friday, a Rewards guided tour on Saturday, and a Sunday return to Shanghai for the flight home. With most of Friday to ourselves, we hired an independent guide, Sam, to show us around.

This part of the trip was fraught with fear. Fear that I would fail to connect with Sam with no phone and very limited email over wi-fi. Fear that we would miss the train out of Shanghai that we were to board by ourselves. Fear that the city would be choked with smog, obscuring the beauty and charm I had seen in travel photos.

As it turned out, Eric let me use his cell phone to finalize our arrival time with Sam. The train was a snap. Our Rewards guide, Fei Fei, met us at the station and transported us to the hotel. It was just us three and a driver in a van – a much more personal relief after the whole bus experience. Fei Fei said we were the first to request an extension to Nanjing through Rewards. She had grown up in the city and returned from her home in Suzhou upon her boss’ request. He didn’t understand why we wanted to go. They won’t know anything about it.

Meanwhile, I was trying to figure out the best time to pester her for a trip to Sun Quan’s memorial when we hit up Purple Mountain.

Day 1

Our hotel had a mahjong room, ashtrays everywhere, and no floor numbers containing 4 – or adding up to it, which naturally excluded the international unlucky number 13. The room smelled vaguely of smoke and overlooked a stockyard of individual storage stalls. It was urban. It was fancy, but well traveled. It was perfect.

Stockyard Behind Hotel

Sam met us in the lobby, and we were off to Yuejiang Tower, which overlooks the Yangtze from the top of Lion Mountain. It had been planned by Zhu Yuanzhang, the first Ming emperor, to commemorate his 1374 victory over a much larger army. Construction was repeatedly delayed, and the tower remained incomplete until the turn of the 21st century.

We hiked up to Yuejiang Tower through a green and largely vertical park. Stone patterns embedded in the paths are popular with locals for giving a pleasant foot massage. Lion finials on the staircase show a variety of expressions.

The tower itself was under regular maintenance necessary to keep the paint fresh. Thus we were allowed to touch it, as Sam did to point out how the colors were layered. There was a tall tiled mural of Zheng He, explorer and admiral of the Ming imperial navy, and an engraving of one of many famous works that Chinese students must memorize. (My best guess from search engines – Yuejiang Lou Ji by Song Lian.) We looked over the Yangtze River Bridge itself, double decker with a road above and train tracks below. We discussed infrastructure, from the bridge’s story – involving Mao getting pissed off at Russia, as Sam put it – and our delight with the high speed trains as contrasted with the slow and freight-preempted rail travel in America.

Yuejiang Tower - Ceiling

Throughout our tour, I had seen about as much visual propaganda as I expected, which was minimal. The rare Mao image was far less prominent than the huge poster of Nicolas Cage on the mall where we went for lunch. Sam mentioned that he’s very popular in China. Spousal Unit was amused because he’s also a popular meme.

The Nanjing International Center – or the Nic Cage Center, as per that aforementioned poster – was quiet on a weekday, from its wide open garage to the many Coming Soon signs on its vacant retail spaces. Sam’s dad, our awesome driver, parked under some sort of double decker car lift.

We ate at Nanjing Impressions, a local chain serving traditional street food in a clean environment rather than carts that have largely been regulated out of commission. ¬†We had eggplant and tofu balls, radish pancake, pot herb and bean curd, and a taste of eight treasure rice. The sour plum juice with lemon was amazing. Despite Sam’s warnings, Spousal Unit felt adventurous enough to order a local specialty – duck’s blood soup. It smelled like a slaughterhouse, but I figured that was my non-meat bias talking. As it turns out, the flavor is very much an acquired taste and has a way of sticking.

Our admission fee to Jiming Temple included three sticks of incense. Sam showed us how to hold it, light it, extinguish the flame by swatting downward – never by blowing on it – and to pray by holding it up to our foreheads and bowing in all four cardinal directions while thinking of a wish. I wished for our Nanjing trip to educate and inspire me. It seems I must now return to give my thanks.

Jiming Temple also connects to Nanjing’s city wall – a well-maintained and nearly complete artifact spectacularly contrasting with the contemporary skyline. Bricks were stamped with the bricklayers’ signatures so the emperor knew whose family to kill if any failed. Some marked the boundaries between territories of the city. A friendly cat wandered around for petting. A nearby museum displayed a scale model of old Nanjing and a root removed from the city wall, bent vertically and showing the imprints of brick signatures.

The juxtaposition of history and flux continued at Gan’s Grand Courtyard, a historic estate turned cultural museum near newer buildings designed to coordinate with its classic black and white style. The gardens of Suzhou had suitably impressed me. Gan’s Grand Courtyard took my breath away – a lush riot of blues and greens and browns, manicured yet wild, against a backdrop of careworn concrete and gleaming high rises. The impeccable preservation of this place amid Nanjing’s urban bustle made it even more impressive.

Music emanated from somewhere, and Sam pulled us into a room of retirees performing opera tunes on erhu and other traditional instruments. We sat to listen. A woman next to me excitedly asked us where we were from, with Sam bridging the twin barriers of language and background music. Upon learning that we were American, she showed us iPad photos of her son, his wife, and their two young daughters in kindergarten graduation robes. Between the passion of the musicians – retirees who practice each Friday and are sponsored by the government to promote classic arts – and the eager sharing of a stranger, I had more of that proverbial dust in my eyes.

Gan's Grand Courtyard - Opera Singer

Exhibits included residential rooms, school desks for the children, and a diorama of an old Nanjing street, featuring a sound recording of city noises and the individual market stalls still seen today in modern architecture. There were artifacts related to marriage and child rearing – a bridal carriage, a tray of the implements laid out for a baby to crawl to and select to indicate their future aptitude. Bronze statues echoed local life as well.

The Confucius Temple area is one of the few touristy areas in Nanjing, and I say that in a loose sense. It’s a pedestrian shopping area and a popular place to visit, but not overloaded with insistent salespeople. It was under heavy construction – a surprise to Sam, as that had all begun after her last visit. The Confucius Temple area had become too commercialized and lost some of its character, and Sam had known that the city planned to rebuild it. She was mainly surprised at how extensively and how soon. A McDonald’s had already been moved to the next block over, with other incongruously modern storefronts soon to follow.

The teahouses on the Qinhuai River had back doors through which students would sneak out to cross the river for female companionship. The neon lights along the river wall and building roofs were partially dark – perhaps due to the construction – but nice to see in person nonetheless.

Sam apologized for the traffic, also explaining some of the roadwork we saw. In preparation for the 2014 Youth Olympic Games, Nanjing was adding a subway line from the airport to supplement its two tracks running north-south and east-west. We assured her it was no problem, as we were having so much fun talking and answering questions about our respective cultural miscellany:

  • Supermarkets – those in China aren’t as huge as America’s.
  • Pie – with photos of Spousal Unit’s apple and pumpkin creations.
  • Bagels – good for any meal depending on the toppings.
  • Pets – Sam’s dad’s spoiled German shepherd, who gets breakfast before anyone else, and our spoiled cats, who get their choice of seating. Many photos were exchanged.
  • American tourist destinations – I suggested the southwestern desert, which I saw at age ten and loved, because of the historical and cultural appeal and uniquely beautiful landscapes.
  • Government – we can watch proceedings on TV, but there are closed door committees and other such business we have no direct say in.

Spousal Unit had been coming down with respiratory crud from the cruise ship. He crashed when we returned to the hotel. I went across the street in search of medication and snacks to clear the lingering flavor of duck’s blood. Suguo Supermarket had a huge selection of sweets, including multiple varieties of Haribo gummies. The neighboring pharmacy had all the medications behind the counter and me running back for Spousal Unit’s phone and a phrase book app that he had foresightfully purchased.

Thanks to the understanding pharmacist and specificity of the app, it was a breeze.

Me: *smiles*
Pharmacist: *smiles back*
Me: *selects “Do you have anything for a cough?” and hands over the phone*
Pharmacist: *mimes drinking cough syrup to inquire about the preferred style of medicine*
Me: *nods*

Lather, rinse, repeat. I ended up with bilingually labeled ibuprofen, throat lozenges, and the aforementioned cough syrup, which – as I later discovered – tasted like Jagermeister and seemed commensurately potent. On the way back, some vehicle was playing an ice-cream-truck style instrumental version of “It’s a Small World”.

Spousal Unit, stuck on some menu: I fail at TV.
Me: Did you read the instructions?
Spousal Unit: There’s instructions?
Me: *retrieves the paper standup next to the TV*
Spousal Unit: How do you see these things?

The remote had two power buttons – one blue, one red – for the TV and receiver. (Spousal Unit: “SEE?!”) I managed to get to the channel guide, at which point Spousal Unit complained that I beat him at TV. We found some food show, had no idea what was going on, left it on anyhow for the bouncing captions and cartoon sound effects.

Day 2

Hotel breakfast was Chinese style, featuring steamed buns, cooked vegetables, and other such savory foods commonly eaten later in the day as well. There was one plate of Western cake – rather like a lighter pound cake. I was glad I had been rotating more traditional foods into my breakfast selection. I easily found enough of appeal, especially because I could fill up on hardboiled tea eggs. The round tables sat ten apiece, as contrasted with the variety of small tables in the Western hotel chains. We ate with random folks.

As with yesterday, it was just us, a guide, and a driver. Underrated destination tours are awesomely personalized like that.

Nanjing Bridge View

The Nanjing Massacre Memorial was extensive and heavy. A pit of bones had been unearthed during excavation for some other project, so it was decided to build the memorial on this site of discovery. That pit still remains inside the museum. Its exhibits – labeled in Chinese, Japanese, and English – were rich with context and displayed horror honestly without overdoing it. The museum ended with a focus on remembrance, moving forward, and repairing international relations.

We ate lunch at a restaurant with throwback propaganda decor, but not quite the overall theme of the Cultural Revolution place in Shanghai. This was one of the best meals of the trip, with menu selections based on our tastes. My favorite of all was steamed white fish with red chilies. Fish is served whole to show that it is fresh – the eyes should appear white and cloudy. This one was cut in slices and much easier to cleanly share with chopsticks than the open book style fish we had seen elsewhere. Spousal Unit peeled shrimp for me, as they were too hot to handle, and I wasn’t used to eating them. Fei Fei said he was a good husband. The driver complimented our chopsticks skills – a surprise, as I handle mine in some nonstandard way that somehow works.

Purple Mountain - Golden Road

Afternoon was a four hour walk around Purple Mountain – a UNESCO heritage site, a popular place for locals to come and spend time outdoors, and the lung of Nanjing, removing a fair amount of the urban pollution. We visited a trio of monuments – Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s tomb, the Ming Xiaoling mausoleum, and upon my request, the memorial of Sun Quan, emperor of Wu from the Three Kingdoms era, and the first emperor to be buried on the mountain. The early fall greenery was resplendent gold. Fei Fei described some of the other seasonal beauty, such as the purple, white, and green flowers covering Plum Blossom Hill in early spring.

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s Tomb and the Ming Xiaoling mausoleum came with a load of historical context that didn’t quite stick to my information-saturated brain. I was surprised to see a museum along with Sun Quan’s statue. The bilingual introductory placard gave him lots of credit at leadership and foreign trade. The rest were mostly Chinese, the displays self-evident enough with my understanding of Three Kingdoms history and lore. There was a diorama of Lady Sun’s marriage to Liu Bei. A display of the straw boats designed by Zhuge Liang to catch Cao Cao’s arrows at the Battle of Red Cliff. A touch screen game with the same theme, in which you caught certain colored arrows and avoided the other. A Red Cliff diorama on the floor of an alcove with overlaid fire effects.

The merchandise selection made me sad that the store was closed. On sale were big-head coin banks of Three Kingdoms leaders and generals – and a Chinese checkers set based on the character designs from Dynasty Warriors 5. I must admit to expressing extreme and high-pitched audible interest in that.

Three Kingdoms Eggheads

Dynasty Warriors Checkers

Day 3

I went out for a misty walk before our noon train back to Shanghai. The area by our hotel was more rustic and working class than the tree- and high-rise-lined boulevards around the Nanjing International Center and Gan’s Grand Courtyard. There was a scrap metal stall, a shop with heaped leather hides and a sewing machine. A mini mall of household goods – from what I saw through the window, one shop sold mostly clocks and trash cans. A service garage, and a man brushing his teeth in the gutter.

Having circled the block, I returned by way of a park along the canal behind the hotel. Someone was sleeping in the corner of a pavilion, and a sheltered area had been cordoned off with rope and hanging plastic bags. Inside were a shiny new SUV and patchwork tent of old blankets. I passed a person walking and an old couple cranking away on public exercise equipment. Though now suffering from Spousal Unit’s respiratory crud, I was also suffering from the Weight Training Inactivity Itch. I did a few awkward chin-ups on the bars in the following plaza.

Back in Shanghai, the pouring rain and assorted stages of snuffling kept us in lazy mode for the rest of the day. We enjoyed a leisurely dinner at the hotel – by ourselves, as the rest of the group had taken their own extensions and would be connecting to our shared outbound flight the next morning.


14 hours of airborne hell, in a tweet – Sinus infection. Constant child noise. Crap movies. Can’t sleep. Nauseating food. No more protein bars.

I stumbled off the plane like pasty death to endure the hour plus van ride back through New Jersey traffic. At Breanna and Brian’s, I didn’t bother to wait for air mattress inflation. I passed out on the floor until pizza arrived.

Spousal Unit took enough of a nap to drive us home late that night and through part of a snowstorm that would have been exponentially worse in a few hours. Our cats ran downstairs to greet us. When we hit the hay, Chester burrowed under the covers and kneaded my arm into a pincushion.

I fail at elegant endings for chronological recollections. Suffice to say that it was a great trip – about as good as a big bus tour can possibly get, especially with the extension to Nanjing – and I hope my writing and photos conveyed the wonder of our whirlwind sampling of China.