<A> Nanjing: Sights, Sounds and Sandwiches

Written by Dec 19, 2005 02:12
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Nanjing: Sights, Sounds and Sandwiches

Upon our arrival, we both felt pretty unimpressed by our surroundings. The road into the city was lined with factories spewing nasty smoke out of tall stacks. Interspersed amongst these looming towers were bright yellow fields of canola where farmers still toiled despite urban encroachment.

The famed Yangtze River also looked grey and dirty. Dozens of commercial boats chugged up and down its shores as we crossed over the bridge in to Nanjing.

The bus depot, as is the case in most cities, was not in the most scenic of locations either. There were overpasses heading every which way and we really had no idea which direction to go in. After a fruitless search for the bus into town, we decided it would be worth it to flag a cab. Soon we were headed for Beijing Lu and Shanghai Lu where we hoped to book ourselves into the Nanjing University Hotel.

We managed to book ourselves a room with the usual twin beds, which we promptly shoved together. This is what you get if you ask for a double in China. If you want one big bed, then you usually have to get “the suite” which includes a sitting room as well, and costs twice that of the double.

Well, back to Nanjing then. Our impressions improved considerably the next day when we went to the local temple. We walked along a beautiful street lined with cherry blossoms and the weather was sunny and warm, though rather smoggy I’m afraid. Because it was Saturday, there were lots of families out as well. It was a great day for a walk.

We had not planned to visit this temple (Jiming Temple), but since we stumbled upon it, we decided to join the ranks of Chinese and give it a go. Inside the complex were small wooden buildings housing various shrines to Buddha and Bodhisattvas. In general, a shrine consists of an elevated, large, gold, plastic Buddha and beneath it lay red and gold pillows for worshippers to kneel on as well as a glass box for them to drop money into. Sometimes there is also a pile of gray sand on top of a concrete slab to burn incense.

Chinese Buddhism tends to be more ornate and symbol enhanced than other forms of Buddhism. At times, all the worshipping of fake plastic deities seems almost anti-Buddhist—if that’s possible. But plastic buddhas aside, the Jiming Temple had a friendly relaxed atmosphere as it was mostly locals visiting.

We climbed all the way to the top of the tallest pagoda and looked out over the city. The view below included the remains of the city wall, which was constructed during the Ming Dynasty (about 500 years ago). The wall separates the city, the lake and the river in kind of a V shape. It’s quite a dramatic sight and you can almost imagine how it used to look five hundred years ago. The lake, Xuanwu Hu, is gorgeous. Looking out, we realized that this city had much more green space than was at first apparent; however, the thick haze of pollution blighted the pretty picture somewhat.

We decided to make our way to the Sun Yatsen Mausoleum via the scenic lake route, so on we went through one of the gates in the city wall and walked along the lakeside pedestrian path. Eventually we had to turn off this route to head towards the Mausoleum. We really didn’t think it was that much further, but of course we were wrong. It turned out to be a considerable distance. Why don’t guidebooks give details like that?

The road to the Mausoleum was hell. We walked along the side of the road with many others, putting up with honking cars, swerving bikes and just general havoc, thinking it wouldn’t be far; otherwise, why would all these people be walking? Well, it turned out there were a number of tourist stops along the route and after having passed a couple of these we realized we still had a ways to go, so we cut our losses and hopped on a bus.

Although the road was ill equipped to deal with weekend traffic, it did have one saving grace: it was surrounded by forest with real, honest to goodness, big trees. Forests are not exactly common in Jiangsu province. We decided to take a side trip through the trails to check it out, and amazingly, not three metres off the road, the cricket-like chirping of the cicadas (we think) was so loud it drowned out the traffic noise. As we wandered further down the trail we felt so at peace listening to the chattering cicadas and watching people quietly bending to pick herbs that it was hard to believe there was a noisy road just a stone’s throw away. Further along the route we encountered some families picnicking and fishing at a large pond. They didn’t seem to be catching anything, but that didn’t seem to be the point.

Eventually, we made it to the Mausoleum. It involved more walking, climbing quite a number of stairs, and wading through loads of Chinese tourists, but setting eyes upon the immense structure on the hill made it all worthwhile. There is an awe-inspiring presence about it, and looking down from the top of the massive stone stairway at the surrounding green hills and beyond to the city, makes the climb that much more rewarding. Even with the smog, it was a stunning vista.

Some of the other highlights of Nanjing include: the traditional, peaceful grounds of Nanjing University; Xuanwu Lake Park; Skyways European bakery; and all the bars, pubs and nightclubs that are much cheaper than Shanghai’s. The people in Nanjing are friendly and helpful toward foreigners rather than stunned and mystified by our presence.

There are a few drawbacks to the city. Despite the many parks, which are wonderful, the city itself is poorly laid-out and mostly shrouded in smog. But hey, what city in China isn’t polluted? The city is huge in its scale, the buildings are mostly big and boxy and the roads are wide with multiple lanes making pedestrian underpasses an absolute necessity. Hence, surveying the city on foot can be noisy and slow; far better to catch a bus or cab to the area you want to be in then explore from there.

I would also like to mention a few of the establishments we frequented. We had some excellent meals: fajitas, burritos and sangria at Behind the Wall, sandwiches and cappuccinos at Skyways European bakery, and hamburgers and beer at Phil’s. We hung out in the 1912 area which is where the cool new cafes, bars and clubs of Nanjing are. We discovered “Rothenburg,” a German brewpub that brews its own dark and light beers, which are served in beautiful tall mugs. The beer isn’t that great, but it’s a change from Tsingtao. Additionally, the place had atmosphere, live music, wood finishing, casual décor and soft lighting, very comfortable. The 1912 area is an open walkway with a courtyard square containing tons of trendy bars and clubs. Music from each can be sampled as you wander past.

Over all, Nanjing is a relaxing place to spend a few days, but I certainly wouldn’t go out of my way to put it on my travel itinerary if you have only got a short time in China. For those living in China, it is a worthwhile trip just to get a sandwich and a loaf of dark rye bread from Skyway’s Bakery.

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