Nanjing may be my new favorite place in China. It had the perfect combination of history, culture, nice people, surprisingly clean air, and Western stuff. I did not want to leave. For those of you following these adventures at home, the word Nanjing means "south capital," in contrast to Beijing being "north capital." Nanjing has a very, very long history of being the seat of the Chinese empire -- it has been the capital several times over the past several millenia, though never for very long. It was the capital in 1937, when the Japanese invaded and killed a bunch of people. It's a very old city, with pieces of various old empires still left standing all over town. In the meantime, it is a very beautiful and prosperous city that today has a huge population of foreign students.
In the four and a half days I was there, I met and had interesting conversations with more people than ever before while traveling - and that's saying quite a bit. When foreigners go to Beijing and Shanghai, we are told to be wary of Chinese people who come up to us and tell us they just want to practice their English, because they are usually trying to scam us into something. In Nanjing, on the other hand, they genuinely want to practice their English, and talk to new people. Here's a brief (and incomplete) rundown of the different people I met.
- The first night I was in town, I mistakenly stumbled into a restaurant holding a private party. Everyone was drunk, and trying to talk to me in Chinese. Finally, a man came up and tried to talk to me in about five different languages: he knew about five words in each. We settled on Russian. He said, "Tovarisch!" (which means "comrade), and I said, "Tovarisch!" for the sake of agreement, and he called his drunk friends over and we all had a toast to "Tovarisch!"
- I met some British tourists while waiting in line at a mausoleum on top of a mountain. They were nice. We had lunch together, and decided to join forces for the day. Then I lost them at a pagoda. No, really. I thought we were supposed to meet at the top, but then they never came up. I was sad. I'd never lost friends so quickly before.
- At my hostel, I met a French girl who works as a teacher in Qingdao. She and I bonded over how annoying it is that most laowai never want to talk to other laowai, because they are so set on thinking they are having their own private Chinese adventure. We agreed that these people were silly, partly because it's China and there are 1.3 billion people here, so you can't have your own anything. We defied this annoying laowai habit and became friends.
- One night, me and my French friend were sitting in the hostel bar trying to come up with dinner plans when a Chinese girl started talking to us. She said she was a university student studying English, and came to the international hostel to talk to foreigners and improve her language skills. It seemed like such a classic line that we assumed she was a scammer, but talked to her a for a while anyway, delaying our dinner plans. Finally, the Chinese girl checked her phone, panicked, and said that her Mom was telling her she had to hurry home for dinner. She was not a scammer after all. We felt bad. We should have invited her to go out with us.
- When I was out walking on top of the old Nanjing city wall, a Chinese man started a conversation with me. We ended up walking around for several hours, talking about all sorts of things, especially Chinese history and politics. At one point, he mentioned that he'd lived and worked in Sudan for a year. I asked him what kind of work he did, and he said he couldn't answer that because it was classified information because he worked for the Chinese government. So, uh, if I disappear without a trace one of these days, go to Nanjing and find a Mr. Li.
I spent my first couple days in town doing all the mandatory touristy things, but after a while you just sort of reach your fill of temples and pagodas (much like in Europe, where you quickly reach your fill of old churches). So I headed to the area around Nanjing University, which was amazing -- lots of little Western-style coffeeshops and restaurants, Chinese places with English menus, people from all over the planet milling about reading books in the sunshine. There's a laowai family that owns a restaurant in one of the side streets that serves the most genuine Western food I've had since I've been here. I had a salad for the first time in more than two months. And the next day, I went to one of the bakeries run by the same family. I don't know if I've mentioned this on the blog before, but the Chinese don't understand about bread. These people that run the bakeries, however, understand perfectly. I had the best sandwich in the world. It was on a freshly baked baguette, with good salami and European cheese. Gawd, it was wonderful. And there are coffeeshops all over that serve real coffee. Sigh. You might have to be a laowai to understand the true wonder of all this.
The time that I didn't spend wandering about the university area, I spent wandering around Fuzimiao, the area where I was staying. It is one of the liveliest areas of the city, right by a big Confucian temple, surrounded by tons of shop and situated next to a creek. Also lots of tasty food, albeit of the Chinese variety. Like, see that picture above? That's me eating a barbecued squid on a stick. It was good.
Do I sound like an advertisement for the city of Nanjing yet? I probably do. That's ok. I have not clicked with very many things about China, but this city on the whole was one of them. If any of you out there are looking at an opportunity to tour China, do not skip Nanjing.