Last weekend John, Liam and I visited the city of Nanjing. The capital of our province (Jiangsu), it is about an hour away by bullet train. It is known for its mausoleums (it has the only tomb of a Ming emperor outside Beijing, as well as the tomb of Sun Yat-Sen, the father of modern China), its 600-year-old city wall (one of the few the communists didn’t tear down) and, of course, the Rape of Nanking (the horrific massacre by the invading Japanese of approximately 300,000 people in one month in 1937).
The kids were taking a field trip all day Friday so we left Thursday evening after school. In a harbinger of things to come, our cab driver did not have the faintest idea where our hostel was, even with the address in Pinyin. He had to stop and ask people for directions (I called Alexis and asked her to search for it online). Eventually we found it, but in all our time in Nanjing, we never once had a cab driver who was able to get to our hostel without asking for help!
When we walked into the lobby a woman said to us, “How many tapes would you like to buy?” We stared at her in surprise until she consulted with some other women in Chinese and then rephrased herself to say, “Do you have a reservation?” (!!!) We did indeed have a reservation, for three single rooms for $10 each per night. She informed us that they no longer had those rooms available, but we could share a room with a queen-sized bed and a single bed for the same price. Being laidback people, we agreed. It was a very nice room—the only problem was that it was freezing! Unfortunately, I am so used to being cold that it didn’t occur to me to ask the front desk’s help with turning on the heat until Saturday night. When I asked, they opened a drawer in the front desk, which turned out to be full of remote controls for each room’s heat. They located my room’s, came upstairs, and turned it on. Why don’t they just do that automatically, you ask? Good question!
After we dropped off our bags we decided to go out and check out the city. We asked the women at the front desk where we should go, and they suggested 1912. I recognized that as the clubbing street (the one in Wuxi has the same name. It has the craziest night clubs I have ever seen, ever. In fact, let’s take a little break to appreciate them:
I call this one “Reno Honeymoon Suite Circa 1983.”
Anyway, none of us wanted to go dancing, so we asked for another suggestion. They conferred for a long time, and I was getting impatient, so when I caught the words “Shanghai Lu” (Shanghai Street), I said, “Shanghai Lu? Sounds great.” So we went outside and hailed a cab, and told him to take us to Shanghai Lu.
He brought us downtown to a neighborhood that looked like it might be busy during the day but was pretty dead at night. He dropped us off right outside an expat bar, which wasn’t exactly what we had had in mind—we were in the mood to walk around somewhere lively. But since we couldn’t explain that to the driver, we got out and went for a walk. Since it was a Chinese city, it was easy to follow the neon, so after a few turns we found ourselves in front of a giant screen at a major intersection with huge luxury stores like Burberry and Rolls Royce. We walked around for a while, but there wasn’t much going on, so we decided to get some rest and get an early start the next day.
The next morning we asked the ladies at the front desk how to get to the memorial to the massacre. They told us a bus number, and we caught it very easily across the street. The bus cost 2 yuan (6 yuan to a dollar). The ride took about half an hour, through a bustling city (minus tall buildings—they are in a different part of Nanjing). Once we got to our stop I had to ask a few people where the memorial was before we found it. Once we spotted it, it was unmistakable.
The Rape of Nanking doesn’t mean much to most people in the West. I wrote both my graduate and undergraduate dissertations on World War II and if I hadn’t read a book on the subject before I came to China I would only have been able to tell you that the Japanese killed a lot of people when they came to Nanjing.
The details are so much worse than I could have imagined.
I don’t really want to go into them here—it’s just too sad—but imagine lakes disappearing because they are completely filled with bodies, and women of all ages—and I do mean all ages, from childhood on—being raped. (If you take into account the fact that I am holding back the worst parts, you will have some idea of how bad it was.)
The museum was incredibly well done. It reminded me a lot of the Holocaust Museum in DC. In addition to telling the story of the massacre (and the entire war), it had extensive grounds with gardens (some of the flowers were donated by Japanese people) and numerous spaces for reflection and remembering the victims. The foreigners who were living in Nanjing at the time and who risked their lives to (successfully) save people were honored at length. After Vietnam, it was really nice to see images of Americans heroically saving lives. (One of the Americans, Minnie Vautrin, a female missionary from Illinois, was so traumatized by what she saw during the massacre that she later committed suicide.)
After we finished the museum it was mid-afternoon and we were starving, so we went to the first restaurant we could find. Unfortunately, it did not have a picture menu, so I ended up having a conversation like this:
“Do you have dumplings?”
“Not too spicy.”
(I can say dumplings, chicken, pork, beef, rice, noodles, cola, beer, tea, coffee, water, fruit, and the names of a few fruits… Not a very impressive food vocabulary for someone who eats out at least once a day in China, but hey, it’s a lot more than all my friends can say…)
She ended up bringing us a chicken and peanut dish that was actually very good, so clearly I am brilliant.
After lunch we decided to try to find the Confucian temple area that is sort of the Nanjing equivalent of Quincy Market. I had emailed myself some information about Nanjing which fortunately had the names of places in characters, so I was able to show someone the name of the temple at a subway station and she pointed out the stop that we needed to go to on a map. Once we got to the stop, the same technique got us to the temple. (I know how to say left turn, right turn, intersection, etc.)
The Confucian Temple area, from the other side of the river
The area was very touristy but it was nice to see so many people (despite being a larger city on paper, with over 6 million people to Nanjing’s 5 million, Wuxi does not feel nearly so busy). We paid (an exorbitant) 30 yuan to go into the temple, which was rather cheesy. You could pay 2 yuan to ring the temple bell; the courtyard was full of Disney-like figures; and there was some sort of pay-as-you-listen concert going on in one of the halls. After visiting dozens of superior temples in Thailand for free, I was not impressed.
After the temple we walked around and admired (or, rather, did not admire) shop windows. The ugliness of clothes in Chinese stores never fails to amaze me. I just don’t get it—how can a whole country have such bad taste? It’s good for me, I guess—I haven’t been tempted to buy any new clothes!
We thought it might be nice to sit somewhere with a view and have a snack (getting a cup of coffee here is not really a thing, except at Starbucks. People also don’t linger over meals—they eat and run. So it’s hard to figure out where to go if you just want to pay to hang out somewhere pleasant). We walked up a staircase to a restaurant that overlooked the plaza only to discover that it was a hot pot place—not exactly snack material. Hot pot is also really hard to order at because they give you a page full of meats and vegetables (in Chinese) for you to check off. So your waiter has to speak very good English in order to translate it all, or you have to speak very good Chinese to explain what you want. In this case, the waiter very helpfully found us the menu in English—and then after we only checked a few things he proceeded to read it to us! “Spare ribs?” “No.” “Mushrooms?” “No.” “Chicken?” Finally I said, “I can read English!” And he went away. He was very nice, though!
After dinner we decided to see if we could find a traditional Chinese theater I had read about. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any information about it except the name. I asked a man about it and he said that it was very, very far. That was rather discouraging, so we decided to see if we could find a movie theater and see a movie in English. Some women in the subway station directed us to a stop where we found an absolutely giant mall with an unbelievable number of shops. I think it might be as big as the Mall of America. It took us a long time to find the movie theater (even with help), and when we got there the English-language movies (the Oz and Die Hard sequels and that giant movie) were not very exciting to us and the prices were just as high as in the States (surprising in a country where you can buy a pirated DVD for $1.50), so we decided to save our money and find something else to do.
When we left the mall we were surprised to realize that we recognized where we were—we were at the corner with the fancy stores that we had walked to the night before. So we decided to find that expat bar where the cab had dropped us off and play some cards.
The bar, Blue Sky, had a very cozy atmosphere. They also had a lot of treats you can’t usually get in China, like popcorn. Liam and John taught me to play the card game they are currently obsessed with, Rummy 500. It’s very addicting, so we played until about 1:00am, at which point we found it virtually impossible to get a cab. Taxis in Wuxi display a little green light when they are open and a little red light when they are occupied, but for some reason taxis in Nanjing do exactly the opposite. Almost every taxi passing us was green, and even when they were red, they wouldn’t stop. After about twenty minutes we were getting pretty desperate. We started walking up the street, towards another group of people. I’m slightly ashamed to say that we basically stole a cab from them (just by virtue of being downstream), but since it’s China, I’m sure they would have done the same to us.
Our guidebook said that you should devote a full day to Purple Mountain, where the tombs of the Ming emperor and Sun Yat-Sen are located. Our hostel happened to be right up against the mountain, so in less than five minutes we were at an entrance to a path that led into the forest.
It was lovely to be in the woods for the first time in I don’t know how long. There were long stretches when we didn’t see any people, which was even lovelier.
Eventually our path met a long stone staircase that led up the mountain.
Lots of people were climbing it, and we soon joined them. We couldn’t see the top, so we kept expecting to reach the tombs and be finished. Everyone was panting and sweating. I took off my coat, then my sweater. Every time the staircase leveled off for a small landing we were disappointed. It turned out that the staircase went all the way to the top of the mountain, and—the real kicker—that the tombs were not at the top!
Liam later said that about nine other people were taking our picture while we were posing…
After the climb we were both hungry and exhausted. We decided to take a random bus and get off when we saw some restaurants. Unfortunately, this strategy brought us to a restaurant where we had the most unsatisfying meal of the trip. It had lots of pictures of food on the walls, but everything I pointed to, they didn’t have. Nobody liked what we ended up getting, so we had a lot of rice and vowed to find something better for dinner.
We decided to try one last time to see a tomb, and took a cab to the Ming emperor’s. Traffic was so terrible (it’s a very popular tourist attraction) that our taxi dropped us off down the street and we had to find it ourselves.
We bought our (approximately $10) tickets at the gate, then walked into the park. On either side of us were walkways guarded by stone statues. To the left were giant stone people, to the right giant stone animals (elephants, camels, etc). We decided to follow the people. We passed many flowering trees, and a creek. We saw views like this:
One large avenue lead to a very attractive building—which turned out to be a gift shop.
Farther down was the tomb itself, which I thought was pretty darn spectacular.
The grounds were very extensive.
There was a lake, surrounded by “no swimming signs,” in which we counted no fewer than four swimmers. (It’s funny—people in the West seem to think of China as a totalitarian place where rule-breakers are severely punished, while in reality, nobody in China obeys the rules. People swim next to “no swimming” signs, drive the wrong way down one-way streets, laugh at police officers who tell them not to push their way onto subway cars, and pee wherever the hell they feel like it.)
Anyway, the grounds also had a field where people were picnicking, and even some amusement park rides. We were only there for about an hour and a half so we missed a lot of the sights. John said it was his favorite thing he’s seen in China so far, and I have to agree—it was so peaceful and so beautiful. It’s rare in a country of 1 billion people to get to appreciate nature.
When we left we decided to try to find a busy pedestrian area described in my guide. We tried to get a cab but it was impossible, so we decided to get on a bus.
Drivers in China are very impatient, so someone tried to go around our bus—and completely sideswiped it. So our driver stopped, got out, and yelled at the woman, and everyone on our bus got off and got onto another bus—except the three of us, since we had already climbed a mountain that day and didn’t mind sitting still for a while.
Eventually we got downtown. I was debating where we should get off when I saw a sign for the street we were looking for. So, almost totally randomly, we had ended up on a bus going to almost exactly the place we were headed to. Now that’s what I call great navigation skills!
I had read about this street in the book “Chinese Lessons” by John Pomfret, which I highly recommend. He attended the University of Nanjing in the early ‘80s, and one of his classmates later became a big shot in the local Communist party. If I remember correctly, he visited Las Vegas and returned to Nanjing determined to create something similar. And now, having visited his creation, I have to admit that he succeeded. (Think old Vegas, a la the Golden Nugget, as opposed to the Luxor—lots of neon.)
After dinner we ended up playing cards at Blue Sky again. I really like that place—none of the expat bars in Wuxi feels as much like a pub. I don’t understand why pubs are so hard to find in China. (Pubs, cheese, tampons, salons that do eyebrow waxing, pedicures, and attractive clothing of any kind. Life’s little mysteries, I guess.)
Sunday morning we checked out a section of the city’s 600-year-old city walls.
Nearly all the city walls in China were destroyed years ago, but not Nanjing’s. They are quite impressive—some of the rooms in them were so deep you could fit hundreds of soldiers. Many of them were empty, but some were used for exhibits. The English was humorously bad—to the point that I usually didn’t bother reading because it didn’t make any sense. I did learn, however, that the man who built the city walls once had a dream that he should help people wearing green, and so the next day he bought all the frogs from the local market and released them. And then a frog fairy gave him a magic bowl that made whatever he put into it multiply. And so he put gold into it and got very rich. (From that point on I couldn’t really follow the story, but once you’ve read about a frog fairy, you feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth.)
And that is the story of my weekend in Nanjing.