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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.