China’s Crossroads

The past and future meet in Nanjing

By: Gary Bowerman

Staring down from the 53rd floor of the Crowne Plaza Nanjing, the breakneck pace of China’s urban modernization is mind-blowing. Everywhere I looked, whole city blocks have been razed and a jungle of construction cranes worked nonstop to graft a skyscraping 21st-century identity onto this ancient walled city.

I last visited Nanjing more than a year ago, and the transformation is astonishing. My taxi into town drove past a gigantic development site, part of which will be a new Westin hotel. The downtown Xinjiekou district features 40- and 50-story towers. An entire shopping plaza has sprung up opposite the Presidential Palace and a new metro system speeds locals around the city.

Historic Nanjing

Unfortunately, China itineraries often neglect Nanjing. Located 186 miles (or a little more than three hours by train) northwest of Shanghai, this grand city of 5.4 million people is also one of China’s most historic.

China’s capital city during the Ming Dynasty and between 1911-1949 (Nanjing means “Southern Capital”; Beijing means “Northern Capital”), Nanjing is rich in culture, history and fine northern- and southern-influenced architecture.

Blessed with several parks, broad boulevards and ringed by the remains of the world’s longest city wall (which once stretched for 20 miles), Nanjing is also a revered center of learning with several historic universities tucked behind leafy avenues.

The Labyrinth

Set back from the main Zhongshan Road thoroughfare is the Presidential Palace, in which Kuomintang leaders Sun Yat-sen and later Chiang Kai-shek lived and ruled the newly independent Republic of China after 1911.

As I stepped through the triple-arched gates, I was struck by the sheer vastness of this 400-year-old labyrinth. Originally built to mirror Beijing’s Summer Palace, it became known as the Palace of the Heavenly Kingdom and is a maze-like mix of Chinese temples, gardens, water features and courtyards, as well as Kuomintang government offices, residences and even a bomb shelter to protect leaders from Japan’s aerial bombing during W.W. II.

For nearly two hours, I wandered aimlessly within its sturdy walls, drinking in its heady brew of rich history, artful landscaping and inscrutable signage. And on more than one occasion, I got hopelessly lost.

Sordid Past

Nanjing’s history, though, is also shadowed by tragedy. Japanese occupation, which began in 1937, resulted in the infamous Rape of Nanjing when 300,000 Chinese were slaughtered. Today, the victims of the so-called “Hidden Holocaust” are remembered at the Memorial to the Nanjing Massacre with monuments, excavated mass graves and graphic photos. Outside in the courtyard, elderly men stared blankly into the mist as women wept uncontrollably.

On the second day, I headed for the remains of the snaking Ming City Wall, built between 1366 and 1386. Many visitors climb the Zhongshan Gate near the Hilton Hotel, but those in the know head south to the impressive Zhonghua Gate. Climbing up the ancient ramparts, complete with kitschy soldier figures dressed in Ming armory, affords a spectacular view across this rapidly expanding city.

In summertime, Nanjing’s oppressive heat earned it the sobriquet as one of China’s four “furnace cities,” making an escape to the shaded parks of Zijin Shan (Purple Gold Mountain) overlooking the city essential. On a cool autumn morning, however, the mountain temples were enveloped in a mystical gloom. Whatever the weather, clients should allow at least half a day here.

Zijin Shan’s main attraction is the dramatic marble and granite, pagoda-style mausoleum of Sun Yat-sen. Though born in Guangdong province, Sun’s fight to overthrow China’s imperial system and his subsequent commanding of the new republic from Nanjing, means he is forever claimed as a prodigal son which explains the heavy, year-round volume of visitors to his blue-and-white (colors of the Kuomintang) resting place.

I snapped a photo of the coffin, which is lowered into a cylindrical chamber, before retreating down the 329 steps and making for the nearby Ming Tombs.

Sacred Way

Lining the way to Ming Xiaoling Tomb of Zhu Yuanzhang, China’s first Ming Emperor is the Sacred Way, a stately guard of 12 pairs of life-size stone animals including lions, elephants and camels. Maneuvering past the grand beasts, I found a series of palaces and shrines climbing the pine-covered mountain.

More than 600 years after being ceremonially laid to rest, the Emperor’s serene choice of burial ground which actually sits unexcavated beyond the main palaces and temples seems even wiser. I sat on a small bench and cast my eyes around. The views were stunning with neither a crane nor skyscraper in sight.

Where to Stay

Crowne Plaza Nanjing
Commission: 10 percent

Currently the tallest hotel in town, the Crowne Plaza Nanjing occupies floors 37-54 of a 60-floor tower. The hotel features 452 rooms and suites all of which offer comfortable modern facilities. Located in the heart of downtown Xinjiekou, the Crowne Plaza provides a central base for exploring all parts of the city. Room rates start at $67.

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