A Weekend in Nanjing

Jiangsu Province, China 

Sep 18th - 21st, 2015

The city of Nanjing (which used to be spelled Nanking in English) is the capital of the Jiangsu Province. It is located in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River Delta about 300 kilometers to the Northwest of Shanghai. Modern Nanjing has a population of just over 8 million.

Nanjing is one of the most important and most prominent cities in Chinese history. Having been the capital of several kingdoms and empires, Nanjing is recognized as one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China (together with Beijing, Xi'an and Luoyang). Nanjing's recorded history goes back more than 2,500 years, with the first fortification built here in 495 BC. The city became the capital of the kingdom of Eastern Wu during the Three Kingdoms Period (220 to 280 AD). It also served as the first capital of the Ming dynasty from 1368 until 1403, when the emperor moved the capital to Beijing. In the 20th century it briefly became the capital of the Republican government until 1949.

Nanjing also has the dubious honor of being famous for one of the most gruesome atrocities of the 20th century, the Nanjing Massacre. Over a period of about six weeks starting in December 1937, the forces of the Japanese Imperial Army went on a brutal rampage throughout the city killing an estimated 300,000 people, mostly civilians. The massacre is also often referred to as the Rape of Nanking, as ten of thousands of women were raped. For more information about this harrowing chapter of 20th century history I can highly recommend the book “The Rape of Nanking” by Iris Chang or the very interesting documentary “Nanking”.

Trip Report:
I left Hong Kong on a direct flight on Cathay Pacific Friday morning, which got me into Nanjing at around 1pm. A (unfortunately) rare sight in China greeted me on my arrival, a beautiful clear blue sky. Immigration at Nanjing airport was very quick with no lines anywhere. The taxi into town took about 40 minutes. I staid at the very nice Intercontinental Nanjing Hotel, which occupies floors 42 to 81 in the highest building in Nanjing, the 450 meter high Zifeng tower (which is among the 10 tallest buildings in the world). Since I still had a few daylight hours left on Friday afternoon, I decided to walk from my hotel across the Xuanwu Lake. The lake has five beautiful islands that are all linked by causeways and bridges. Parts of the ancient city wall runs along the Western side of the lake, and you enter the scenic lake area through the very impressive Xuanwu gate:

The lake is full of little pleasure boats and the views of the modern downtown area across the huge lake a very impressive.

There is lots to see on the island themselves, from colorful fish ponds, strange elephant topiary to beautiful water lily ponds and various pagodas and temples:

I spent a couple of hours walking across all the islands before getting back to the the hotel taking the metro from the other side of the lake.

Getting around within Nanjing and to all the main sites is very easy using the very fast and efficient metro system. Trains and stations look exactly like they do in Shanghai. Station names, ticket machines and announcements are all provided in Chinese and English, so it’s very easy to figure out how to get around. The metro is also very cheap, each trip within the city costs 2 Yuan (about 30 US cents). So I never bothered taking a taxi here, except to and from the airport.

Saturday, Sep 19th
I had two main reasons to come to Nanjing, one was sightseeing, the other one was the Nanjing International Art Fair, which was held at the International Exhibition Centre. I wrote about the art fair in more detail on my art blog here. After spending the whole morning at the art fair, I started my sightseeing in the late afternoon at one of the main sights here, the famous Zhonghua Gate, also called the ‘Gate of China’. To call it a gate is a bit of an understatement. I have seen whole castles smaller than this fortified city gate. It is a huge fortification consisting of four lines of defense, which were never tested, since no enemy ever even attempted to attack the city at the Zhonghua Gate.

What is even more impressive than the gate itself, is the huge city wall stretching out on either side of the gate. It is absolutely enormous. The only other place I had ever seen walls this formidable and impressive is Xi’an. The gate and the city walls were constructed from 1368 to 1386 by the first Ming emperor during the time when Nanjing was the capital of the empire.

From here I walked up along the small Qinhuai River towards the Confucian Temple and the Jiangnan Imperial Examination halls. I first visited the very interesting museum of the history of the Examination hall, which is full of old photographs and documents explaining the Imperial Examination system. Every aspiring government official had to pass the Imperial Examination, which to a large degree consisted of the classic teachings of Confucius and his disciples. Only a small part of the examination buildings are left today, but at its peak during the Qing dynasty there were over 20,000 examination cells here. (The below right showing rows and rows of these examination cells is an on photograph from the late 19th century). The museum also had a replica row of examination cells, which each were only about 100 by 130 cm in size and 180 cm high (in feet that's 3 by 4 feet and 6 feet high). The exam lasted 9 days (yes, you read this right, I did say 9 days), in which the  students were not allowed to leave their cells. They would write and read all day and sleep at night in these tiny cells. Based on accounts from students who went through this ordeal, even back then it was considered rather extreme hardship, but everyone who wanted to enter the Imperial Civil Service had to go through it. And to make matters worse the exams had a tiny pass rate of often less than 2%.

There were lots of little tourist boats going up and down the river. So I took a boat trip as well, which took about an hour. It was quite pretty, not really a must do in my opinion (maybe it's more interesting when you can understand the guided instructions in Chinese), but I didn't think you saw much on the boat that you couldn't see by walking around.

It was getting dark by now, but fortunately the Confucian temple is open until 10pm at night, which is unusual as most other sights here close around 5pm. It turned out that visiting the Confucian temple at night was probably the best time, since the whole temple is spectacularly lit. There are lights all over the roofs, which gave the whole place a magical athmosphere.

Sunday, Sep 20th
I started my day at the Ming Palace ruins. There is very little left of the palace, just a few carved stones. The whole area is now a very lively park, where people sing, dance and do their exercises (some of which involve swords). On the Southern end of the park is the very impressing Wu Gate. It is about 30 meters wide at the bottom, so the narrow tunnels through it have amazing acoustics, which are used by people to sing and play music.

From here I walked to the Purple Mountain. It iss about an hour walk to get up to the Ming tomb scenic area on the mountain. Parts of the walk go along some impressive non-restored sections of the huge city walls, which are almost completely overgrown.

You could easily spend a whole day on the Purple Mountain. It is a huge area and there are numerous scenic tourist sites, including three National Historic Sites. There is a cable car to take you to the observatory, but I didn't do that. My first stop was the Mausoleum of the first Ming Emperor. The Ming dynasty had 16 emperors, and each one of them built himself a huge mausoleum. The one here is the Mausoleum of the Hongwu Emperor, the first Ming Emperor. He grew up as a peasant, and rose to power by commanding the forces that defeated the Mongol Yuan Empire. He founded the Ming dynasty in 1368, which lasted for 276 years until 1644.

From here I walked to the Mausoleum of Dr. Sun Yat Sen, which clearly is a very popular sight on a Sunday afternoon in Nanjing. The place was totally packed. The Mausoleum is huge, built high up on the mountain. It involves a lot of stair climbing to get to the top. And the views from up here are spectacular.

Dr. Sun Yat Sen (1866 - 1925) was the first president and the founding father of the Republic of China, after playing a leading role as a revolutionary in the otherthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911. He is still considered a huge national hero, even though the Republic he founded was defeated by the communists in 1949.

From here it was another 30 minutes walk to the Linggu scenic area. You could take a little tourist train to get around here quicker, but I decided to walk it all. The Linggu temple is a very important and historic temple. It was first built in the 6th century at the location of the Ming mausoleum, but the first Ming Emperor had the temple moved to its present location.

The Linggu pagoda is higher up on the mountain above the temple. It's a much newer construction built in 1929.

You can climb all the way to the top of the pagoda along a very narrow winding staircase. The views from up there are even better than from the Sun Yat Sen Memorial. You can see the skyscrapers of modern Nanjing in the distance above the green forests of the purple mountains.

I really enjoyed my weekend in Nanjing. It should be on anyone's travel list of cities in Eastern China. I flew back to Hong Kong taking the early Monday morning Cathay flight, which got me back to Hong Kong at 11am.


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