Thursday, June 25, 2009

Nanjing, here we come!


T
oday we begin our journey from Shanghai to Beijing. First destination on the travel route is Nanjing which up until the Cultural Revolution was the capital of China. I have to admit, I wasn’t really looking forward to Nanjing as I knew the two places we would be visiting would invoke intense feelings.

On the humorous side, the Chinese refer to Nanjing as one of the “Three Furnaces” so called because they are blisteringly hot places to be in. Oh, now they tell me. :-) (The other two “furnaces” are Wuhan and Chongqing.)

The group gathered in the hotel lobby bright and early. We then split up into 4 groups to catch taxis that would take us to the train station. 15 minutes and 15 RMB later and were at the train station.

We would be taking the China Railway bullet train for the two hour journey to Nanjing which lies 300km west of Shanghai. The bullet train travels at speeds between 160 and 250km per hour. China is planning on expanding and upgrading the bullet train network between the two cities and beyond so future train rides will even take less time. Wow!

Jenny bought our tickets and we followed her to the departure lounge. I think it was the group’s first taste of standing out like “sore thumbs” in the Chinese crowd. Of course, I blend in physically though I think the locals wonder why I’m hanging around with a bunch of foreigners or as we would say in Cantonese – “gwai lo” :-)


It was not a long wait before we had to board the train. We were in first class. The seats were very comfortable and spacious. I settled in for the ride. I had a window seat which gave me opportunity to see the countryside. Well, at least I thought there would be countryside. In fact, for pretty much the entire trip to Nanjing, all I saw was factories and one industrial complex after the other. I even saw several structures that I imagined were nuclear reactors but I think they burn coal……just my paranoid imagination at work. For nearly two hours, I did not see anything that resembled farmland or anything agricultural….not a single rice paddy field, not a lotus pond, not a fruit tree.

On the train route to Nanjing, we stopped at a handful of stations. Otherwise, the train zoomed along at a fast speed. The world outside whizzed by my window.

If you've never ridden a bullet train before, here's your one minute on the one from Shanghai to Nanjing. The train travels at such speed it's hard to focus on anything passing outside the window....worse even when you're trying to capture video :-)

The train pulled into the station in Nanjing shortly around 11am. I had my first taste of the Nanjing “steambath” the moment I exited the station. I knew we had about a 15 minute walk to the hotel (with our backpacks on our backs) and I was not relishing the thought of exerting all that energy in this heat and humidity. But, I slung the back on my back and marched on. Conversation with my fellow tour mates took my mind off the oppressive weather. We soon made it to the hotel and the first thing I wanted to do was find the air conditioner blower or a fan – something to cool off my face. I followed a cold draft and a split second later was practically kissing the free standing air conditioner. Mairead (pronounced "Mah-rage" in Irish) and I were sharing a room and we quickly settled in so we could join the rest of the group for lunch in the hotel restaurant. Another totally satisfying and belly filling Chinese meal. I am definitely NOT starving on this trip! The Chinese foodie has found her home. :-) After lunch, we piled into a van for the first sightseeing spot on our agenda – Sun Yat Sen’s Mausoleum. (Hey, speaking of vans, where was the van when we could’ve used a ride from the train station to the hotel??) According to the history books, Sun Yat Sen is the *founder* of modern China and he is a revered figure in this country. Sun Yat Sen’s Mausoleum is housed on the grounds of a park dedicated to his name. The road leading up to the main entrance of the park is lined with beautiful maple (??) trees. A nice bit of greenery. I was hoping trees would mean it would be relatively cooler but no luck :-( We got out of the van and the heat and humidity hit hard. Ugh. On went my sunglasses and hat. We started our walk towards the mausoleum which sits at the top of hill overlooking the city. We started the climb, stopping at pavilions along the way. With each stop, we could get a better view of the city below. It was another hazy day so not much of a view to admire. By now, I’m beginning to think that hazy skies are the norm in China. I’m not sure if it’s smog or the humidity or a combination of both. All I know is that I rarely saw sunny, blue skies. Ironically, if it is smog, my lungs are holding up okay…..better than I can say for how they burned after 30 minutes of wandering around in Lima, Peru! The oppressive heat and humidity made the climb up the steps to the mausoleum a laborious effort. I took breaks every now and again….wherever I could find shady shelter under a tree. Eventually, I made it to the top. Whew! Immediately inside the mausoleum is a statue of Sun Yat Sen carved in stone….similar to what you see at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. The inner room housed his actual coffin which had a full figure of Sun Yat Sen carved on the coffin’s top. I’ve seen my share of mausoleums and unless they are as magnificent as the Taj Mahal, I really don’t linger. I headed back out, took a few minutes for a photo op and started my walk back down. By now, I was really beginning to wilt in the heat....even sips of water were no longer satisfiying as all I had to sip was tepid water. Ugh.
Part way down, I came across Jan. Poor thing. She was not looking good. She looked like she was just a few degrees from suffering from heat stroke. She said she was not feeling well so Jenny came to her rescue…..bought her a towel and a bottle of cold water to cool off her head with. Jenny also got some Chinese herbal medicine from one of the vendors – a small vial containing liquid that she was to dab drops off on Jan’s temples and under her chin. I fanned Jan with Jenny’s fan. It took nearly 20 minutes before Jan felt she could stand and continue walking. On the way, she commented she didn’t feel like she was walking straight so I took her elbow to give her support and to gently guide her.

On the way back to the van, we convinced Jan to buy a hat which she did. She wore it for the rest of the day.

Next on the sightseeing agenda was the Nanjing Massacre Memorial which is a memorial park and museum dedicated to the memory of a horrific episode in Chinese history. Also known as the Rape of Nanking, the Nanjing Massacre took place in 1937 when Japanese forces invaded the city. A large number of civilians chose to stay behind instead of fleeing the invading Japanese forces. What resulted was a brutal campaign of murder, pillage and rape by the Japanese army against the innocent civilians of Nanjing. Over the course of six weeks, 300,000 people lost their lives. I don’t think the Japanese have ever issued a collective apology for their actions and because of this, there are still lingering tensions between the two nations.

Jenny led us to the museum and then set us free to wander about on our own. I have to admit that it was difficult to see some of the photos. One human losing their life at the hands of another is not a pleasant image to take in. For someone like me who has a very good memory, bad images live in my memories as long as good ones do. I don’t think I will forget one particular photo I saw. It was of a Japanese soldier holding up the blade of his sword to the throat of a young child. The look of absolute fear in that poor child’s eyes broke my heart. I had to turn away but the image of what I saw will be burned into my memory forever. Very, very sad.

Though Jenny had given us about an hour and a half to go through the museum, I was done pretty quickly. It does not take many photos and letters and other historical items to get the point across that this was an inexplicably horrible event in Chinese history and China does not want either its own people or the world to forget.

After the museum visit, we headed back to the hotel. Jenny took us to a nearby supermarket so we could stock up on supplies for our road trip the next day. On the way back, we stopped to buy some fresh fruit. I was happy to see lychees – big, fat, juicy, sweet ones that I could not resist. I bought a small bag.

While the rest of the group opted to go for dinner along the riverside, Jan and I chose to stay back. Jenny had pointed out a few restaurants, including one serving *Western* food near the hotel. I’m not a fussy eater, pretty much will devour anything, so I let Jan choose where we would dine. She wanted to go *Western* so we picked a place named “Tacos” :-) Turned out to be the usual, “Chinese-attempting-to-serve-Western-food” restaurant. The atmosphere was more like a bar but they did have a dinner menu. Jan’s eyes fell on the French fries and mine on the pizza so that’s what we ordered. She treated herself to a Budweiser beer. Over dinner, we chatted and laughed and laughed. The meal was so-so but the company more than made up for it. It turned out to be the perfect way to decompress from the day!