Why I (still) love Beijing by Thomas O'Malley

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Just noticed that my "Why I love Beijing", a little ode to the city I've called home for nine years this month, is up on the Lonely Planet website. Here's the thing in full:

I love how Běijīng wears its many faces like Opera masks. In winter the lakes freeze as chill winds whip south from beyond the Great Wall, carrying with them the echo of Manchu rule. But summer Běijīng is all rolled-up T-shirts, icy beers and street-side lamb skewers. Then there’s government Běijīng, when socialist flowerbeds espouse civic harmony, factories power down, and the sky beams a proud blue. Or melting-pot Běijīng, defined by the millions of migrants who make the capital tick. And lastly, my Běijīng. Of moonlit bike rides when the city sleeps, of breezy cafes and culinary quests, and wild rambles high up in the Great Wall watchtowers.

Beijing's White Cloud Pagoda (Baitasi) at dusk. 

Beijing's White Cloud Pagoda (Baitasi) at dusk. 

Nanjing Fling – A Quick Stop in China’s Historic Capital by Thomas O'Malley

Nanjing River Bridge

This article (plus pics) was written for Awesome, a Chinese/Thai inflight mag for Scoot, a low-cost Asia Pacific airline. 


Defined by its position just south of the mighty Yangtze River, Nanjing (meaning ‘southern capital’) bossed China for eight dynastic periods, and again, albeit briefly, when the last Emperor left the Forbidden City and China became a Republic. Dramatic centuries of upheaval have left their mark - Nanjing is awash with historic sites, from the tomb of the first Ming Emperor to the palace of China’s first president, Sun Yat Sen. Here’s our guide to getting the most out of your stay in China’s historic southern capital.

Walk the City Walls

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An urban hike along Nanjing’s Ming Dynasty-era city wall is the perfect way to get your bearings in China’s former capital. Unlike Beijing, whose walls were demolished in the 1960s, about a third of Nanjing’s 600 year-old battlements still stand, recently cleared of vegetation and opened to the public in time for the 2014 Youth Olympic Games. Over ten kilometers of broad, weather-worn walkways await, but for a quick and satisfying hike, ascend the Taicheng City Wall section beside Jiming Temple (look for the seven-story pagoda). Here you’ll find a little museum explaining the wall’s history, followed by a picturesque 1.5km trail northwest along the Wall beside Xuanwu Lake, past rows of old cannons to the Qing-era Xuanwu Gate.

Tip: Look for bricks inscribed with Chinese calligraphy – these marks were a quality seal by the maker, made hundreds of years ago.

Chill Out By Xuanwu Lake

Just outside the old City Walls, Xuanwu Lake Park is a lovely spot for a stroll along the causeways and shorelines flanked by drooping willows and chrysanthemum flowers. Once a private imperial garden, the lake and park grounds now serve as a sanctuary for hundreds of birds, and boats can be paddled in the warmer months between lotus flowers. The lake gets its name from a black dragon, Xuanwu, who is said to live beneath the placid water, but don’t worry – sightings are rare! Much more common is the scene of elderly locals performing tai chi beside the lake in the early morning.

Tip: A branch of Huiwei, Nanjing’s much-loved fast food chain selling delectable dumplings and soups, can be found in the center of the park.

Take the Sacred Way into Ming History

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Rising up 400 meters from the foot of Xuanwu Lake, Nanjing’s Purple Mountain is a treasure trove of ancient tombs and temples, including the final resting place of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang. Built in the fourteenth century before the capital moved to Beijing, the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum is reached by the Sacred Way, an 1,800 meter-long road lined by 12 enormous pairs of stone animal guardians. You’ll pass between camels, elephants, lions, and even mythical beasts like the xiezhi (somewhere between a goat and a unicorn), Buried with the Emperor are his concubines – more than 40 – who were forced to commit suicide to accompany him into the afterlife.

Tip: Travel in autumn to see the Sacred Way under a golden canopy of French sycamore trees.

Discover Imperial Fashions

Sun Yat Sen played an instrumental role in overthrowing the Qing Dynasty, whose rulers and administrators would go about their business dressed in fine silks. Rich with Imperial symbolism, many of these garments were made in Nanjing. The Jianging Imperial Silk Manufacturing Museum documents this craft, dating back over 1,500 years and since 2009 a UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage. Woven on four-meter-high looms operated by two craftsmen simultaneously, the process is incredibly complex and results in stunning patterns, including the famous Nanjing Cloud Brocade pattern produced for the royal family.

Tip: A silk brocade fashion show takes place most days in the morning and again at 4pm. 

Meet the (Former) President

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Even more famous today than the first Ming emperor is the founding father of the Republic of China, Sun Yat Sen. His provisional government was formed in Nanjing, and his office is still visible in the Presidential Palace, sometimes called China’s White House, and one of the city’s most fascinating historic sites. Here you can learn about the Taiping Rebellion, the founding of China as a republic, and the subsequent rise of Chiang Kai Shek (his Kuomintang headquarters is also here). Nanjing also serves as Sun Yat Sen’s final resting place; his mausoleum on top of Purple Mountain, accessed by a 480-meter long stairway, is one of China’s most important pilgrimage sites.

Tip: The Presidential Palace is closed on Mondays.

Understand Nanjing’s Tragic Past

No visit to Nanjing would be complete without paying your respects at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial, a monument to the memory of 300,000 civilians killed by Japanese soldiers in 1941. A sobering experience, exhibitions reveal exhumed mass graves and go into grisly detail; if it all gets too much, retreat to the statue outside simply called Peace – depicting a woman cradling a white dove in her hand, above long pools of calming water.

Tip: Arrive early to beat the crowds.

Browse China’s Most Beautiful Book Shop

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Librare Avant-Garde is surely the last kind of place you’d expect to find in an underground car park close to Nanjing University, but this humongous book store is a bibliophile paradise. Opened in 1999 by Christian owner Qian Xiaohua, the motif of a cross has become the symbol of the shop, because, as Qian says, reading is their religion and the place is a ‘heaven for book lovers’. The shop has become so popular there are now eight more across the city (though none other in car parks)!

Tip: Although there is only a small English-language section, the shop is a great place to stop in for a coffee, and has an excellent range of souvenirs.

Eat Nanjing Duck (In all its forms)

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A Nanjing saying goes that ‘no meal is complete without duck’. The city is even more quackers about duck than Beijing, and the most famous dish is Nanjing salted duck, with a recipe dating back hundreds of years. The duck meat is marinated in a salt, spice and osmanthus brine, before being boiled and served sliced on the bone. Nanjing’s most popular restaurant chain, Da Pai Dang (Nanjing Impressions) does a fine rendition, along with delectable soy sauce noodles and other treats. But many locals will say they actually prefer Nanjing roasted duck, with its crisp golden skin and sweet, piquant sauce. Best to try them both and make up your own mind.

Tip: The recently restored streets of Laomendong, a historic district, are a popular spot to pick up a freshly roasted Nanjing duck, as well as other snacks like Nanjing’s famous beef dumplings and duck fat ‘shaobing’ bread.

Stay in the Heart of the Capital

Only a year old, The Grand Mansion, A Luxury Collection Hotel is fast becoming a landmark destination in the city, thanks to its beautifully-appointed rooms, rooftop sun terrace (complete with duck pond) and commanding position overlooking the Presidential Palace. Many of the city’s best sights are in easy walking distance, including Nanjing 1912, the city’s premier nightlife district, amply stocked with bustling bars, restaurants and nightclubs.

Tip: For decent western and Asian food, cold beers and live music, seek out Blue Marlin in the center of the 1912 complex.

Nanjing: A Walk Along the Watchtowers by Thomas O'Malley

Nanjing city wall

This article (with pics) was penned for Aspire, the magazine of Hong Kong Airlines. 


Tom O’Malley embarks on an urban hike into the past atop Nanjing’s city walls.

How many bricks does it take to build a wall around a city? This thought nagged at me as I scrambled up the stone steps to Taicheng, a section of weather-worn battlements that still wrap around much of the former Chinese capital of Nanjing.

Popping out on to the crenelated top reveals what must be the most wow view of any city in China. The wall, wide enough for two cars to pass each other, winds away in front and behind like a medieval Mario Kart track. To the north, the glassy expanse of Xuanwu Lake, flanked by willow trees, sparkles in the sun; rising in the east is Purple Mountain, a forested hillock of tombs including those of Sun Yat-sen and the first Ming Emperor; to the south, the seven tapering tiers of a temple pagoda; and to the west, framed against a great curve of the wall, the space-age skyscrapers of modern Nanjing.

About 350 million, by the way. Bricks. That’s according to a small museum I discover inside one of the wall’s restored towers. Equally astonishing is how many of the bricks are inscribed with Chinese characters. These, I’m told, are a maker’s mark, recording the name of the craftsman that made it over six centuries ago. Kilns hundreds of miles away supplied the bricks, and woe betide any that fell short of the required quality. With your signature stamped on it, there could be no excuses for shoddy workmanship.

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From the museum, I hike along the Wall for about a mile northwest, skirting the shoreline of the lake, until I reach the Xuanwu Gate, a decorative addition from the Qing Dynasty allowing traffic to pass from the old city to the lakeshore below. From here you get a sense of another feature of the Nanjing Wall – it’s irregularity. The wall traces the city’s natural contours, skirting around the lake and utilizing natural defensive features like river channels and Purple Mountain. It seems an almost organic component of Nanjing’s urban landscape.

But what’s most remarkable is that the walls are still here in the first place. Despite demolition work in the 1960s, two thirds of the 32km-long structure remain, which is more than can be said for poor old Beijing. In the same decade, Chairman Mao presided over the wholesale demolition of Beijing’s walls to make way for a ring road and subway line. As the capital, Beijing had to be shown to be modern, efficient and forward-thinking. In Nanjing, parts of the old wall were torn down to make way for roads and buildings, but the rest was left to fend for itself against time, weather and brick thieves.

Fortunately for Nanjing, the first Ming Emperor was a stickler for quality. Zhu Yuanzhang saw off the Mongols and declared Nanjing the capital of China in 1368, under the new stewardship of the Ming. Pretty much straight away he got busy constructing the city wall atop remnants of wall from older dynasties. It took 20,000 workers 20 years to complete.

All those signed bricks were held together by an innovative mortar of lime and glutinous rice, which helped preserve the remaining Nanjing walls well enough so that it was decided, in the 1980s, that they should be looked after a little better. From then on, restoration occurred a bit at a time – a gate here, a few metres there. Several years ago previously unrestored sections were spruced up, cleared of vegetation and opened to the public in time for the 2014 Youth Olympic Games. Today, over 12 kilometres of broad, weather-worn walkways await the wall-walker, while many of the demolished sections are marked by connecting urban parkways or walking routes. 

“In the early twentieth century, major Chinese cities like Guangzhou, Shanghai, Wuhan and Changsha all had their walls knocked down as they modernized, but Nanjing was lucky.” Liu Bin is a Researcher at the Nanjing City Wall Museum, and full of facts about what he sees as Nanjing’s unique cultural treasure. “Most people don’t know that not only is Nanjing’s city wall one of the longest in the world, it’s moat is too,” says Liu Bin, explaining that it cleverly incorporates two lakes and rivers in its design. 

Not all of Nanjing’s ancient structures have fared so well, however. Heading south, I discover very little left of Emperor Zhu’s palace, Nanjing’s own ‘Forbidden City’ built by Zhu in the 14th century. Left to ruin over the centuries, a few broken stone gates and column bases are all that remain, set inside a quiet park close to the Zhongshan Gate, another traffic portal hewn into the city wall. From here I hike a further mile or so south along the battlements to the wall’s south-eastern corner, taking in the sheer scale of urban Nanjing along the way.

Without doubt the single most impressive feature of Nanjing’s walls greets me when I reach the narrow Qinhuai River. The Zhonghua Gate, or ‘Gate of the Nation’ as it was whimsically renamed by Chinese Nationalist Leader Chiang Kai-shek, is a Ming Dynasty fortress gate guarding the ‘front door’ of Nanjing. It looks like a castle, and anyone coming into the city would have had to pass through a series of connecting courtyards overlooked by deadly firing positions, described by one observer as like “catching turtles in a jar.”

In fact, the Zhonghua Gate together with Nanjing’s walls were pressed into service once again in 1937 during the war with the Japanese. The walls were studded with machine-gun placements, ready to defend against the coming Japanese army, who had just taken Shanghai, and they proved a formidable barrier for their better trained and equipped opponents. But as history has proven, the Japanese forces eventually smashed through and what happened next – the Nanjing massacre - is considered one of the darkest episodes in the country’s recent history.

But fortunately, the future for Nanjing’s wall is bright. For 2018, the Municipal Government have announced plans to continue with various restoration projects, including cleaning up the moat, planting more trees alongside the wall, and adding more lighting along its length. Then, explains Liu Bin, they will apply to UNESCO for World Cultural Heritage status.

“Nanjing is one of the four ancient capitals of China with a history of over 3,000 years. We need to remember that history is one of our most important resources, and we must work to keep a memory of our history and culture, and also improve the whole city and make it more attractive.”

During China’s breakneck development in the last few decades, heritage has undoubtedly been an area that has suffered. Wholesale modernisation has meant the tearing down of old neighbourhoods and defunct relics like city walls. Only with time and reflection are people now taking stock and looking back with some regret on the decisions that were made.

And so, appropriately, the last word must go to another Chinese city, 1,300 miles to the north – Datong. Like many others, its walls were lost to time, decay and demolition during the twentieth century. But thanks to the work of an unusually impassioned and motivated mayor, Geng Yanbo (known, somewhat affectionately, as ‘Demolition Geng’), Datong now has an almost complete set of city walls once again. Built from scratch at great expense, and forcing the displacement of thousands of city residents, it was a controversial project designed to ignite tourism in this dusty coal-mining city. Questions have also been raised about its clear lack of historical accuracy (UNESCO status is out of the question), but the Datong walls have drawn great praise from locals and visitors, are a boon to tourism, and lit up at night really are are a sight to behold.

Whether “Demolition Geng” has ushered in a new era of Chinese wall building remains to be seen, but in a strange twist it does go to show that city walls still have a value in modern society – not for defence, of course – but for leisure, and winning hearts and minds.

WHERE TO STAY:

The Grand Mansion, A Luxury Collection Hotel

This newly-built palace of hospitality boasts beautifully-appointed guest rooms and a commanding location overlooking the Presidential Palace, with many of the city’s best central sights within walking distance.

InterContinental Nanjing

Occupying the uppermost floors of the 450-metre tall Zifeng Tower, the InterCon has been the city’s most glamorous hotel since it opened in 2010. Tastefully decked out rooms come with panoramic views as standard, while Prime Bar on top is a great spot for classy cocktails and juicy steaks.

WHAT TO EAT:

Dapaidang (Nanjing Impressions)

Nanjing’s most popular traditional restaurant chain, Dapaidang is the place to come for traditional ‘Nanjing salt duck’, marinated in a salt, spice and osmanthus brine, as well as delectable soy sauce noodles and other treats.

Loamendong

This restored historic neighbourhood backs on to the southern-most stretch of the city wall, and offers a number of traditional vendors selling hearty beef dumplings, freshly roasted Nanjing duck and duck fat ‘shaobing’ bread.

See more of my Nanjing photos here

Instagrams from the road by Thomas O'Malley

Testing out the Squarespace social media embed function with this self-updating Instagram feed. That's all, folks. <3