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.


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.


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.


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.


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

China's Best Boutique Hotels by Thomas O'Malley

I wrote this piece for the launch issue (December 2012) of Higher View Magazine, for China Eastern Airlines. A year (and a bit) is too long to expect a round-up of China's best boutique hotels to remain the same. For starters, here are two boutique hotels I've discovered since that would certainly have made the cut:

The Temple Hotel, Beijing

I wrote a 'first-look' review of this property here, part luxury heritage hotel, part contemporary art piece, part living archeology. Here's a taste:

"Over 600 years in the making, The Temple Hotel Beijing is at long last rolling out the red welcome mat. A beguiling combination of boutique luxury and ancient temple architecture, is this Beijing’s most exciting hotel opening, like, ever? Read on and find out."

Pig's Heaven Inn, Annhui

Nestled in a heritage village within range of Yellow Mountain, this was a more recently discovery I made when researching the Anhui chapter for the Fodor's 8th Edition China Guidebook. Here's my book entry:

"Wake to the crowing of roosters in this 400-year-old stone house on the fringes of Xidi, a village an hour's drive from Tunxi. Opened by a Shanghai artist who scoured the surrounding villages for curios, it's a rare chance to experience ancient village life—without giving up air-conditioning and Internet access, of course. The staff prepares tasty home-style meals for lunch and dinner using whatever's in season. A driver is on hand for local tours, airport pick-ups, and trips to Huangshan, making this a good base for exploring the area. A second, larger location is a 10-minute drive away."

The other point about the Boutique Hotel article is that only six of the ten venues I wrote up made it into the final piece. So in the interests of posterity and to give those four other venues their dues, here they are:

The Orchid, Beijing

For an upmarket hotel, The Orchid is refreshingly down-to-earth. Billed as a ‘hostel for grown-ups’, communal breakfasts and weekly wine tastings on the garden terrace (free for guests) promote a convivial bonhomie, but you can always retire to the Zen-like surrounds of one of ten guest rooms, furnished with goose-down beds, rainforest showers and Apple TVs, some with cute private gardens and terrace space. The owners are fully clued-up on their thriving hutong neighbourhood, providing killer tips on local restaurants to aid your culinary explorations.

65 Baochao Hutong, Dongcheng District, Beijing, Rooms from 700 RMB

Grace Beijing

If contemporary art is your bag, this bijou bolthole sits within Beijing’s 798 Art District, ensconced by world-class galleries, art shops and style-conscious cafes. 30 guest rooms, from boxy singles to spacious suites, come with lofty ceilings, original Bauhaus windows (that open), luxury linen and lots of arty prints. Grace’s trademark service is VIP all the way: champagne at check-in, champagne at breakfast … you’ll do well to stay upright. So line your stomach with some of the terrific modern European fare at Yi House Bistro - they have a great two-course lunch deal, too.

Jiuxianqiao Road, 2 Hao Yuan, 798 Yishu Qu, Beijing, Rooms from 900 RMB

The Brickyard, Beijing

Beyond the chestnut orchards skirting this eco-conscious retreat, the Great Wall crowns the jagged peaks of precipitous mountains. It’s a glorious panorama you’ll rise early for, especially as curtains don’t figure in the Brickyard’s contemporary room design. Fashioned from a derelict glazed tile factory, the former kilns house the reception; nearby 18 newly built glass-fronted guest rooms with outdoor patios line up in awe of the ‘Mutianyu’ section of Wall. Delightfully manicured grounds enclose a pool, spa and al fresco yoga yard; all you need to work off the organic sausages and homemade blueberry muffins at breakfast.

Yingbeigou Village, Huairou District, Beijing, Rooms from 1,200 RMB

Homa Chateau Guilin 

*Since time of writing this place has been taken over by Club Med and it looks pretty impressive*

This glossy design hotel refuses to be outshone by its natural surroundings. The hotel structure juts from the earth like an abstract sculpture, managing to be both harmonious and at odds with the mountainous karst landscape around it. Although some distance from the touristy centres of Guilin and Yangshuo, there’s plenty here to keep you occupied, with pools, guided hikes, boat trips and other excursions. Guests can choose to dine privately and al fresco at a number of lavishly back dropped beauty spots, or even in a candlelit limestone cave. Guest rooms are bulbous and arty, with comfy nooks and confounding angles. It’s all rather special.

Yuzi Paradise, Dabu Town, Yanshan District, Guilin, Guangxi Province, Rooms from 2,000 RMB

Are travel guidebooks dead? Not yet, people by Thomas O'Malley

Last year I updated the Beijing to Shanghai chapter of the Fodor's China Guide 8th Edition, covering the provinces of Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu and Anhui. It's out now - more on that here.  Well done to Fodor's (Random House Publishing) for continuing to have faith with traditional printed guidebooks when so many others are pulling out of the game (Frommers, Forbes etc).

I actually had the opportunity to road-test the book by giving it to my parents for their visit to Nanjing and Suzhou (in Jiangsu Province). Their verdict was generally positive, but they noted that some of the maps lacked enough detail to pinpoint the exact road or alley that a restaurant was situated on, for example. Also - alas - a bar I'd listed in Nanjing had become a live jazz venue (which in the circumstances didn't prove to be a problem). Both definitely areas where travel guide apps kill it over print (provided you have credit for roaming / sufficient battery etc). But, at the risk of sounding like a luddite (I'm anything but) - what are the advantages of old school printed guidebooks?

1. Story-telling | The writer has the opportunity and obligation to make a place come alive. Guidebooks are not just information; they should have colour, drama, comedy, historical anecdote and opinion to elevate them above - or at least distinguish them from - the 'wikitravel' type guides.

2. They never run out of batteries or credit | Obvious point, but with a book you'll never need to find a cafe with a plug socket and order an unwanted drink just to put some juice in your tablet or smartphone.

3. You can scribble on them. | Annotate maps, underline or circle things you want to see, write down phone numbers or email addresses of people you meet. I don't think digital note-taking is quite the same as a good scribble. Yet. Although a pared down combination of Evernote with INKredible - on an iPad Mini 2 - would come pretty close.

4. You can share it | Say you are staying in the hotel for a day but your companion wants to sightsee? Do you give them your phone / tablet? Probably not, but you'll certainly chuck them the guidebook to carry along with them.

5. In years to come they become historical documents | OK, more of a curiosity than a reason for their continued existence, but the perpetual updating of the web means you rarely have the opportunity to see a snapshot of somewhere captured in time. While researching Qingdao for the Fodor's Guide I discovered this old Frommers in a hotel bookshelf. Which also neatly illustrates the guidebook's one unassailable failing. Can you spot it?

I would delicately suggest this might be termed a GUIDEBOOK FAIL.

Singapore Airlines Magazine: Soul of a City by Thomas O'Malley

This 13-page cover feature was for the April 2013 issue of Silverkris, the inflight mag for Singapore Airlines. It's all about Beijing's zhong zhou xian - the central axis that takes in the Drum and Bell Towers, the Forbidden City, Coal Hill, most of the former Imperial City and a big swathe of the capital's most fascinating historic and cultural real estate.

Props to Shanghai-based photographer Charlie Xia who rode the rails up to Beijing to shoot some incredible pics for the article. Sad we didn't quite get to meet up and share a craft ale in Great Leap Brewing.


The Great Wall is getting shorter, not longer by Thomas O'Malley

This column was inspired by a headline in the People's Daily, the CPC media organ, which said "GREAT WALL MUCH LONGER THAN PREVIOUSLY THOUGHT". Right! A bit misleading taken at face value. In fact, an archeological survey measured every scrap of wall existing or long vanished from 20 plus dynasties, to come up with a figure of 21 thousand kilometres.  Well, that's marvellous, but without more attention on the tiny proportion that has actually endured, there won't be much left for future generations to enjoy.

I'm the travel columnist for Higher View, the magazine for China Eastern Biz and First Class on its new daily Australia routes. The mag is published by Citrus Media in Australia and it's a great-looking publication with accompanying iPad download for each issue.