For the duration of my Spring Festival travels I will forgo the usage of song lyrics as titles as it’s just too damn hard to think of them for the locations to which I traveled. The trip started on January 14th and wrapped up on February 20th and included the following cities:
- Vang Vieng
- Luang Prabang
- Chiang Rai
- Chiang Mai
12 cities. 12 blog posts. This first post will cover Nanjing.
January 15th, 2011
On January 14th around 8 PM I left for the Kaifeng train station accompanied by Ben. It was nice to have the company on the departure trip as Ben’s face would be the last truly familiar face I would see until Thailand. We failed at catching the last of the number three buses to the train station, so instead caught a taxi cab and got to the departure point with ease.
The Kaifeng train station is easily the worst terminal I have ever had the displeasure of spending time in. It’s overcrowded and cold, with an overabundance of old, vile Chinese men lacking in any kind of manners. They hack and cough and spit on the ground all around, wallowing in filth. They open the gates to the platforms about 5 minutes before the trains leave, so of course the process of actually boarding the transportation could be referred to as a ‘shove-war,’ despite the fact that everybody (or at least the people in my car and most cars) have assigned seat numbers. It’s a bit ridiculous, but then who am I to judge?
So I made it safely onto the 21:35 2596 overnight train bound for Nanjing. Each Chinese hard-sleeper car holds 10 open compartments separated by a narrow wall. Each compartment has 2 sets of beds stacked 3 high. The lower beds are the nicest and most expensive as you can sit up fully in them. The middle and upper beds are less expensive (by about $1) and are favored by those who wish to secure some privacy on the trip. For some reason I had chosen the middle bunk for this particular ride.
They turn the lights off on the train at 22:00, so from the time I boarded I had just enough time to write a one page entry in my journal expressing my anxieties and fears about the coming month. After the lights went out though I quickly fell into a deep slumber. Hah. That would have been nice. The truth of the matter is that the compartment that I was in was filled with old Chinese men who insisted upon talking incredibly loudly and hacking their lungs up. I slept, but to call it restful would be a farce.
I had arranged accommodation with a Couch Surfer named Linda Xingyao– a native of Nanjing who runs the Jasmine Youth Hostel and a helpful Expat Services Center. My train arrived at 7 AM, but Linda had not yet awoken to get me information on how to find her place. So, backpack strapped on tightly I made my way to the Nanjing subway and began trying to decipher the system. To my pleasant surprise I discovered that the subway consists of only two lines and is incredibly simple to navigate.
Here’s a little background on Nanjing: Nanjing is the present day capital of Jiangsu province (one of the richest provinces in China). It is recognized as one of China’s four great ancient capitals, serving as the capital at numerous times throughout China’s long history. It gained international fame when in 1937 the Imperial Army of Japan invaded Nanjing and proceeded to massacre and rape the city for a six week time-span. Even today the atrocity that was the Nanjing Massacre serves as a contentious issues as China and Japan continue to squabble over the particulars (such as the death toll, rape statistics, and war crimes committed). China puts the death toll around 300,000, while Japan claims a more conservative 40,000 – 200,000.
The Nanjing Massacre was a definite source of interest to me in deciding to travel to Nanjing first, and so at 7:30 in the morning I made my way to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial via the metro. By the time I’d figured everything out and arrived it was 8:30 and the memorial was just opening.
The memorial is a large and sprawling complex, with a lot of open space and outdoor stone gardens. It was built in 1983 nearby a mass burial pit where the remains of some 10,000 people had been recovered. The approach to the memorial begins with a series of statues, captioned with outcries of horror regarding the advance of the Japanese Imperial Army into Nanjing. The statues are a bit horrific looking in themselves, but the quotations inscribed upon them really do help to achieve a sense of terror.
Entering through the main gate brings you to a large stone yard filled with open space. Scrawled across a large wall is the death toll, 300,000, along with the year 1937. As one continues into the memorial exhibits there are a variety of stones with the history of the massacre. Perhaps the most chilling experience at the memorial is the bit of human remains that they have on display, preserved in the way in which they were excavated. The skeletal remains are each denoted with the tell-tale signs indicating how the person experienced their death, and includes the remains of old Chinese women, small children, and a plethora of other innocent civilians.
Finally, the memorial ends with a walk along the peace pool and statue, surrounded by a large number of trees which were once taken from Nanjing by the invading Japanese scientists, cultivated in Japan, and then returned to Nanjing as a gesture of peace. The memorial ends on a display of hope and peace rather than on the horrors of the past– I appreciated this.
Linda still hadn’t woken up, so I decided to head back to the main area of town and check out the Gulou (drum) tower. The tower is a remnant of the ancient drum tower, and is located on a center island in the otherwise urban jungle of downtown Nanjing. In order to get to the hill I had to precariously cross over a couple streets, but the adventure was well worthwhile. The juxtaposition of ancient China and modern day buildings is truly gripping from the top of the hill.
As I was heading back to the metro I received a call from Linda with instructions on how to find her place. With the help of some shoddy Chinese and my lame attempts at asking for directions I was soon at her doorstep.
We went out to grab a bite to eat (it was about noontime now) and I had the absolute best bowl of la mien noodles that I have ever had in China. Most of you are probably familiar with ramen noodles, the overly popular college student meal. La mien noodles were taken to Japan and translated as “ramen” noodles as the ‘la’ sounds very similar to the Japanese ‘ra,’ and the ‘mien’ has been translated as ‘men.’ Anyway, they were effing delicious.
Afterward we walked for ten minutes or so to Linda’s hostel (the aforementioned Jasmine Hostel) which I was able to use as a base during the day. We discussed my plans and, unfortunately, she was too busy to hang out and show me around for the day. Instead I decided that I would continue moving around the city and so I boarded the metro to the Xuanwu (玄武) lake and islands.
Xuanwu lake is located nearby Zijian mountain (purple mountain) and the Nanjing Railway. The lake contains 5 large islands (all interconnected now) and is 15 kilometers in circumference. It’s entirely possible to wander around the islands all day and still have missed a great many things. According to legend there was once a large black dragon seen in the lake which later became the Taoist god Xuanwu.
Each island featured its own specialty, from far sweeping fields of flowers to stylized rockery (this is a Chinese word, not mine). Every island was a treat, and the 3 hours or so that I spent walking around in the freezing cold was an incredibly worthwhile adventure.
Cold, but not yet tired, I decided to head to the far south and explore the ancient Ming city wall.
Of the 18 original ancient gates there are only two remaining now. The Zhonghua gate in the southern part of the city is the only one open to the public, and it certainly gives a spectacular view of the city. Walking up the 600 year old wall really has the ability to make one feel like they’ve gone back in time 600 years (but then so do many other things in China!). The entry fee of 20 RMB was a little steep, but still nice to interact with such ancient history.
It was becoming night now and I had the urge to head Northeast to the nearby Confucius temple.
Again, I managed to find my way without too much trouble. The Confucius temple was once an imperial testing center for greater Jiangsu province, but has today become little more than another temple in China. The area surrounding the temple has become a bustling center of shopping and gaudy neon lights. Across from the temple is a superbly lit dragon screen, which was actually really cool to look at closely. I spent a few hours wandering in and out of shops and trying to stay warm as the sun set so that I could see the cool lights.
Finally it had grown late and I headed back to the hostel. I went out to some bars that night, and for the first time since August (excluding the Ai Pai trip) I was out past 10:00 PM! A couple of gin and tonics and some more good food and I was happily back at the hostel waiting for Linda to come back. Eventually we headed to her place and watched an old episode of South Park, just enjoying each other’s company.
January 16th, 2011
The day started around 9 AM as I departed from Linda’s house. I had done pretty much everything that I wanted to do in Nanjing on the 15th, and as it was really too cold to be hiking up and down the famed Purple Mountains I opted instead to spend the day primarily inside. I went out and adventured a little bit in the morning while trying to find some delicious foods, but eventually ended up reading at the hostel for the better part of the day.
My constant companion on my trip was my Kindle, which contained Lonely Planets and a delicious selection of reading content. It was a truly indispensable tool in the early part of the adventure, and it always provided me with a sense of comfort and a reminder of home. The Kindle was never far from me. It accompanied me to every meal and on almost every adventure. This is my PSA for buying a Kindle. They are great tools for traveling!
I ended up reading and finishing “Helment for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific” by Robert Leckie. It was recently used to create the HBO Original Series “The Pacific,” and I thought it would be a good read. It gives a good insight into the American Marines during World War II, but to be honest I found Robert Leckie to be such an unlikable character that I struggled to get through the book. I also read (finally!) the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Although I’ve always been a fan of the movie I’d never bothered to read the original. It was in Nanjing’s Jasmine Hostel, of all places, that I finally made time to do so.
Some might point to my lack of adventure on the 16th as me being lazy, but remember that this trip was my vacation from Kaifeng life, and I chose to spend it doing exactly the things that I wanted to do. Nanjing was a lovely start to the month long adventure, and although I didn’t do too much on my second day in the city I really enjoyed my time there. Linda and the staff of the Jasmine Hostel were spectacularly hospitable and I found the city to be delightfully clean in comparison to Kaifeng. As someone who hasn’t traveled for some time now Nanjing did an excellent job of firing me up and preparing me for the big city that was Shanghai.
I awoke at 6 AM on the 17th and caught the bus outside of Linda’s apartment bound for the train station. It was the beginning of a whirlwind 3 days involving one of the most populous cities in the world… and it was an adventure that did not disappoint… Until next time, smile!
For more pictures you can head over to the Facebook album and check them out!