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

Should I Visit Beijing... Ever? by Thomas O'Malley

According to this WSJ blog, Chinese state media revealed that inbound tourists to Beijing had decreased by 50% in the first three quarters of 2013, with air pollution the prime cause. 'Airpocalypse' in Jan '13, when the PM2.5 particle count reached dizzy new heights (albeit briefly), was reported around the world. Since then, bogus stories like the public  TV screenings of sunrises to satiate smog-addled citizens have added to the city's woes, picked up on by global news outlets that frankly should have known better. Throw in infuriating visa red tape, rising prices, the language barrier and occasional food scandal, and that cheap package holiday starts to look even more appealing. So, with all this in mind, ask yourselves... should I visit Beijing?

I wrote the words that follow for a travel guide back in 2011, but I'm convinced it all still stands (though prices have gone up a bit). Beijing isn't a reliably pleasant city for travellers. There are lots of capitals with prettier architecture, more walkable streets, better museums, green spaces and entertainment. But it's Beijing. You don't come for the cafe culture and farmers markets. You come because you're curious, adventurous, and perhaps a little bit reckless. So, with that in mind...

9 Reasons Why You Should Visit Beijing

Six ring roads, four – no wait - FIVE million cars, air pollution off the charts, rampant urban development, an indecipherable language, and ever more KFC branches. Well, that’s one way to look at China’s capital. What about hundreds of miles of ancient hutong alleyways, the steam and sizzle of 40,000 eateries, a world-beating contemporary arts scene, some of Asia’s best hotels, layer upon layer of tumultuous history … not to mention a certain Great Wall and Forbidden City? At the vanguard of China’s breathless charge to super power status, Beijing is staking an indefatigable claim as the new stronghold of global power and influence in the 21st century. It’s a fascinating, infuriating, thrilling place to be, right this very moment. If nothing else, make sure you can look back and say, “I was there”.

1. BECAUSE YOU CAN! | The myth persists that the language barrier is an insurmountable hurdle. “Pi!” as the locals would say. (It means “nonsense”– it literally means fart.) With a phrasebook to point at, a smile and a sense of adventure, you’ll have a hugely rewarding trip and discover China’s capital at your own pace. Since the Olympics in 2008, subways and buses have English route-maps and announcements, most restaurants have at least a picture menu, and even basic Chinese-run hotels usually have a member of staff who knows enough English to point you towards the nearest Peking duck.

2. RIGHT UP YOUR ALLEY | Beijing’s major avenues are broad enough to park a column of tanks side-by-side with room left for a bicycle or ten. But veer down any side alley and you’ll find the hutongs: grey-brick, tree shaded lanes where the old boys play chess in their pyjamas, where caged birds out-sing car horns, and fruit hawkers, knife sharpeners and coal merchants still peddle their wares from roving bicycle carts. The beating heart of Beijing, the hutongs are where traditional residential architecture juts up against the demands of a modern urban infrastructure - and frequently comes off worse. The moral? Visit soon. Despite the preservation orders, nothing is sacred.

3. HAVE YOU EATEN? | Forget everything your local Peking Palace has taught you. Alas, you won’t find “deep fried chicken balls” in China. You will, however, find infectious delight in a populace so stomach obsessed, the phrase “have you eaten” is simply a way of saying hi. From the mouth-numbing surprise of lamb hot pot to hearty, pork-filled buns eaten on the hoof to Beijing’s centuries-old signature roast quacker, delicious discoveries await. And all the icky stuff you might have heard about – dogs, snakes, bugs – worry not: that’s all down south. Beifangren (northerners) don’t suffer any of that tripe. Although they do love tripe.

4. LAOWAI! | Whether it’s gossiping grannies minding infants trussed-up like arctic explorers (though note the split trousers for drafty toilet relief), or rag-tag rubbish collectors picking up after the man-purse toting nouveau riche, Beijingers in their multitudes are as fascinating a cast as you could wish for. And most of the time, you – the ever intriguing laowai! – (foreigner), will be the star of the show.

5. A REALLY GREAT WALL | Full disclosure: you can’t see it from the moon and it’s not one long, unbroken “stone dragon” sprawled the length of the country. But Beijing’s Ming-era Great Wall, snaking across saw-tooth peaks an hour north of the city, is sheer, pant-wetting eye candy. Best of all, it caters to every energy level, with touristy battlements fitted out with cable cars, hand-rails and – yes - even a thrill ride, to off-the-beaten-track, gravity-defying hikes for the serious enthusiast.

6. ANYTHING BUT SPINELESS | Beijing’s compass-perfect layout unfurls chess-board style from the zhong zhou xian, the all-important north-south spine that has for centuries marked the spiritual middle of the Middle Kingdom. Dating back to the rule of Kublai Khan, it takes in the majestic Drum and Bell Towers, hops over serene Jingshan Park and into the Forbidden City, then southwards through vast Tiananmen Square, over the Great Helmsman slumbering in his mausoleum, under Qianmen Gate and on to the incomparable Temple of Heaven. That’s some prime tourist real estate.

7. STATE OF THE ART | Chinese contemporary art has gone mega global in recent years, but its spiritual home remains the sprawling 798 Art District on Beijing’s outskirts. Once an East German electronics factory, inside its cavernous warehouses is where superstars like Huang Rui and Ai Weiwei first set up shop in the 90s. Today, though rampantly commercial, it’s a must-visit gaggle of domestic and internationally backed galleries, arty book shops and boho cafés.

8. ECONOMIC MIRACLE | Yet to come close to Hong Kong or even Shanghai in the price stakes, you need part with only a little in Beijing to get lots in return. Here’s the price of some everyday essentials, converted to GBP for added wow. Subway ride: 20p. Bowl of delicious Shanxi noodles: 50p. 600ml bottle of Tsingtao beer from local shop: 35p. 10km in a taxi: £2.40. An hour foot massage: £6. Call it a tenner for the lot. Bargain, eh?

9. WATER CITY | What Central Park is to New York, the breezy lakes of Shichahai and Beihai are to Beijing. Surrounded by Taoist temples, royal mansions and neon-festooned beer bars, Shichahai promotes restful wandering by day and boozy fun by night. To the south, Beihai boasts pedal boats, classical Chinese gardens, and perched on an island at its centre, the magnificent Bai Ta, a 40 metre-tall Buddhist shrine of white stone.

First impressions of Beijing (or Chairman Mao vs Princess Leia) by Thomas O'Malley

The most wonderful, intoxicating part of travel is the strangeness. The unfamiliar sights and smells, the brand names on bottles and billboards that hold no sway over us - it doesn't even matter where you are all that much, as long as it's somewhere else and somewhere new.

So being asked to write about Beijing, a city that's been my home for over five years, from the perspective of a new arrival is a tricky proposition.  I attempted to do so in a 'Travellers Tales' feature for ABTA, the magazine of the UK's leading travel association, but I reckon it's fairly clear the author ain't no noob.

Actually, on my first visit to Beijing in February 2008 I kept a basic diary (on a Word doc - thanks, original Asus Eee PC 701 - best travel laptop in history, but that's another post right there). So it's pretty easy for me to open it up and see what my actual first impressions of Beijing were / are. Here are some:

On Tiananmen Square:

  • Old men flying kites (sadly they don't allow this any more)
  • Police rescuing a kite from a tree (I can't remember this or even imagine it)
  • Chairman Mao had the same haircut as Princess Leia (yeah, kinda...)
  • China is the spiritual home of the megaphone (I guess there were lots more megaphones in general use back then)

On the Lantern Festival (15th and last day of Chinese New Year):

People come on to the streets at night to set off snaking trails of firecrackers and fireworks as loud as mortars. Sounds like a warzone, with the distant crack of guns, thump of shells and the ratatat of machine gun fire. The air is thick and choking with firecracker smoke (as if Beijing's pollution wasn't bad enough already...) and the streets are covered with shreds of charred red paper and empty fireworks boxes. All of which is dutifully cleaned away without a trace by the following morning.

Interesting to see the pollution was something I thought about then (3rd day of the trip). People claim it's worsened over the last few years but I'm inclined to think it's about the same - more that the awareness has grown.

On the train to Harbin:

Sinking cans of Harbin beer at 5 yuan a pop in the dining car, all frilly tablecloths and dusty old Christmas decorations, with Police Academy 2 playing noisily on the flat screen Chinese TV on the wall. Groups of Chinese men including police and young soldiers played drinking games and getting sloshed as the conversations got louder and more animated. “I  have one car, he has two cars, etc"

I can't quite believe that Police Academy 2 was playing on the TV. In 2008.

The Guardian: A Train For Two Cities by Thomas O'Malley

To mark the opening of the high speed rail link between Beijing and Shanghai slashing journey times from 12 hours to 4.5 (it's actually slowed a bit of late due to safety concerns), I was commissioned to write the Beijing half of this Guardian article focusing on hidden gems in the capital. 2013 UPDATE:Beijing Postcards has closed its Nanluoguxiang store, but they have opened a gallery space and showroom nearby and will soon open another store soon in the Gulou area.