July 15, 2018
Our flight from Guilin arrived in Nanjing Airport where we boarded the incredibly efficient, modern, and cheap Nanjing Metro. I really love the metro systems in China. We were going to visit a friend of mine who was a visiting researcher where I worked in Maryland, and he is now a professor at Nanjing University. His name is Hao and we got to stay with him and his family for a whole week during our stay in Nanjing. It was a excellent experience and we were shown amazing hospitality by the whole family.
On our first day we took a walk around Xuanwu Lake, the old palace gardens. It was a beautiful day and gorgeous park. So far the parks in China have been outstanding. This particular park featured a lot of blooming lotus plants. The fields of lotus with bright pink flowers are really something to behold.
We really wore ourselves out walking this day. Hao took us out for some Nanjing specialties that I had read about; tangbao and duck blood soup. The tangbao is a soup filled dumpling that has a really rich broth. The duck blood soup was a bit tough for my western taste, but I’m really glad I tried it. It had an excellent delicate broth with noodles and then cubes of congealed duck blood and a few other organ meats. The duck blood part was actually quite nice and less iron-tasting than I expected. Nanjing is renowned for its love of duck and I’m solidifying my opinion that it’s my favorite meat. So even if I’m not a huge fan of the organ meats, duck organs are much more palatable in my opinion.
For dinner Hao’s in-laws made us an absolute feast of dumplings accompanied by several other dishes. The most unusual was chicken wings cooked in Coke, a special for the American guests. They were fantastic. It was a sweet caramel-like glaze, not too different from a sweet barbecue sauce. I love the idea.
On our second day we didn’t stop the walking. We headed off to Xiaoling Ming mausoleum. The only of the emperors from the Ming dynasty that is buried outside of Beijing. The walkways leading up to the burial site are lined with animal statues and terrific peaceful gardens. We were about whipped after the heat and walking so we called it a day and had a small picnic near to a section of the Ming City wall which used to encircle the city and palace. It’s insanely impressive and large. I think it’s one of the coolest aspects of the city. An ancient defense wall still in place winding it’s way through a modern city.
For dinner Hao took us out for a fancy dinner at a famous local restaurant where we got to try all sorts of amazing dishes. It was hard to pick a top favorite but I think the salted duck (Nanjing knows ducks), and the roasted fish. The sauces here are just amazing.
The next day we needed to finish off our tour of the mausoleum gardens since our ticket was good for only 2 days or 24 hours. So we headed back, but this time early to beat the heat and that really worked in our favor. We walked around 15 km and ended up exhausted like the day before, but we covered much more ground.
Our first stop was the many-story pagoda called Linggu Tower, with a lovely view of the rest of the park and the Nanjing skyline.
Next we saw the museum and mausoleum dedicated to Sun Yat-Sen, the father of modern China. The mausoleum was very impressive. A huge set of stairs leading up to the burial place really brought a sense of awe.
That night we cooked dinner for the family. Everyone took great delight in watching us cook our weird food, there were lots of curious peeks into the kitchen and videos taken. We made spaetzle, sausage and onions, cucumber vinegar salad, a breadless apple pie. I also put together some samples of marmite on toast just to keep it weird. Everything but the marmite went over well, of course.
The big surprise was how much everyone loved the sauteed apples in butter, sugar and cinnamon. It was hands down the favorite dish. We also got complimented on representing a good range of flavors. We weren’t’ really thinking of that, just trying to provide a wide array of food. But my impression is that Chinese meals have a lot more diversity than how we usually put together meals in the west. And everything is served family style. I really love it. It’s a great meal experience.
The next day we went out with Hao to the Nanjing Museum. He had never been so it was a new experience for everyone. It’s a really great museum that covers the various developments in the history of China, from the neolithic to the dynasties. There were excellent translations in English with good background for foreigners. We did go on a weekend though so it was slammed with visitors.
My favorite aspects were the artwork and wall hangings from the Qing and Ming dynasties. Really amazing craftsmanship on all the stuff.
After the traditional exhibitions of the dynasties, the museum displays an array of digital exhibitions. It wasn’t really my thing, but they did show off some really interesting and experimental concepts for how to display traditional museum exhibits. I expect that we’ll be seeing more of this in the future. Everything was much more interactive and there were some clever overlays of 3D scans of objects overlayed on the original objects using transparent displays.
The museum terminated in an exhibit of the Republican area of the early 20th century. I was very excited about this part, but thought it was a let down. It was a scene of a town indoors, where you could enter various buildings. It looks really cool, but all of the buildings were just filled with gift shops, many of which were hawking things totally unrelated to the museum. I was bummed because I really wanted to see information about this hugely influential transitional period in Chinese history.
On our next day we took it easy on our feet since we were pretty exhausted. We only ventured out during the day to exercise in a nearby park. Not really a rest day, but relaxing nonetheless. We did try to use an ATM that just ate my bank card. Luckily it was before I entered my pin. But maybe don’t use China Construction Bank. It would have been nearly impossible to retrieve the card without a native speaker to help me out. Luckily Hao was able to call and get it sorted with the bank and I was able to pick it up the next day from their main branch.
In the evening we headed out to the Confucius Temple Fuzimiao. It’s a tourist pedestrian area with some historic importance. Now it has been converted into an outdoor shopping mall, but with traditional style buildings. It was full of locals and Chinese tourists out enjoying the beautiful night.
It was a relaxed meandering crowded and so it was fun to see everyone out in a great mood sampling various treats that were for sale along the walkway. Hao treated us to some delicious ice cream from Harbin where he and his wife went to university, some mochi-like sweet gelatinous rice, and finally a local favorite, stinky tofu. The stinky tofu is pretty earthy and on it’s own can be a bit much but with the spicy sauce it was really tasty and had an excellent texture.
We didn’t go in the temple itself, but the whole thing is brightly lit up, blasting lasers off the roof, and pumping loud music. Evidently philosophy rocks in China. It was quite a spectacle.
We also wandered a few more famous alleys and ended up at Donglaomen pedestrian street which was much less crowded and bright, but had traditional style buildings and the road terminated at the city wall near to the China Gate. Overall the alleys seem like they could be kind of cheesy for a Chinese architecture buff but to ignorant foreign eyes it was a lovely mix of old and new.
On our final day we chose to go back to enjoy the Xuanwumen park by going for a run. I had this grand idea that we would go visit the Jiefangmen Gate of the city wall during this endeavor to get one last wall landmark in. We ended up going up on top of the wall and running along it. It wasn’t really the greatest running surface and didn’t have great views because of the battlements. Overall a run through the park with a nice view of the wall would have been better, which we did for about half of our run.
I’m glad I got on top of the wall even if it was kind of anti-climactic. After the run we were treated to a delicacy from Shandong province, where the in-laws are from: fried cicada. It was an interesting experience and my first one was a bit earthy but the rest were really excellent. They were seasoned with salt and cumin.
The next day we bid the family a fond farewell and we headed off to Shanghai. We stayed with a friend of Christina’s from college and her husband. Emily and Paul were awesome hosts and gave us a load of information about what to see in Shanghai and Beijing as well as a really fantastic take on Chinese culture and politics from an inside and out perspective. Christina and Emily also had a nice stroll down memory lane, remembering campus, their rugby playing days, and catching up for the first time since graduation.
While in Shanghai we went out to see the Bund which is THE skyline experience in Shanghai. The Bund is the traditional section which still feels like there should be model Ts puttering around and couples strolling. Instead there are massive hoards of visitors watching the world around them through their phones. The other side of the river is called Pudong. It is the totally nuts modern skyline full of whacky looking spaceships and LEDs that turn entire skyscrapers into moving advertisements. It’s a surreal experience to be trapped by a touristic chaos with these two incredible views on either side of you.
We also visited two museums during our stay. The first was the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre. It was a fantastic collection of posters throughout the history of the PRC. It’s a rare collection since most of the posters were ordered destroyed some time in the 70 or 80s maybe. The collection shows a interesting progression of style and message and also shows a few different versions of posters with various leaders missing or added in. It also contains a few magazine covers and posters prior to the communism which showcase the edgier and fashionable international side of Shanghai during that time.
I loved it and thought it would be some sort of underground hush hush thing. It is literally underground in a sketchy basement, but it’s well advertised and acknowledged by the Chinese government and TripAdvisor. I find the top sites lists by TripAdvisor terrible and don’t advise trusting them, but the point is everyone knows about this. The only bummer was no photos. Also the gift shop was totally worth a visit because there were prints of a lot of other posters that weren’t on display at the moment so it’s a good way to see more. Christina got a shirt with a print of art showing Russian and Chinese unity and friendship.
The other museum we attended is the Power Station of Art, housed in.. you guessed it, an old power station. The space is really cool and the balcony has a great view of more crazy spaceship buildings and the super active shipping boats on the river. The shows rotate, but we saw a collection of artists from all over the world. It was a nice diverse set of works. A decent portion of the show featured collaborations between scientists and artists in varying ways. I think the artist that stuck out the most, at least in terms of novelty, was a Chinese artist named Cai Guo-Qiang, who paints canvas by exploding gun powder. They showcased one of his large pieces along with a video showing the production.
On our final day in the city we headed out to the People’s Square which houses the futuristic looking Shanghai museum. We didn’t have time to enter the museum, and the lines were massive anyway. We just wandered through the square and the adjacent park. I found it comically hypocritical that the People’s Square and the People’s Square Park are separated by The People’s Road… but pedestrians aren’t allowed to cross it, they have to use the subway entrance as an underpass.
The high point of the excursion was coming across a public area with wooden kung fu practice dummies. I’ve never seen one in person, so I went nuts make-believing a sweet kung fu training scene. Christina was totally impressed. She didn’t realize that actually all of times during this trip when I hefted my backpack on to my back or complained about the price of hostels, I was actually learning sweet kung fu moves in the process and all of my training was realized in this moment.
Then it was off to Beijing! We bid Emily and Paul farewell and left Shanghai that evening on an overnight slow train to Beijing. We were unable to get sleeper tickets and they were over budget anyway, so we settled for the ‘hard seat’ class of ticket. I figured it wouldn’t actually be a hard seat, but more like just a regular long distance transit seat.
We received multiple warnings that we had made a terrible choice so I was pretty worried going into this. Turns out it was just fine, if a bit uncomfortable. It is awkward to sit across from strangers and manage the whole footsie situation while your trying to sleep and it doesn’t allow for reclining seats. So yes it was super uncomfortable, but it was only 15 hours so it wasn’t so bad in comparison to some of our bus trips.
[Christina’s note: No, that is not a joke nor is it sarcasm, he is being totally serious when he says “only 15 hours”. That’s just how many 24 hour plus bus rides we’ve taken, but even I had to laugh when I read that.]