Friday, June 15, 2012

Of the food of Nanjing;

Top L: super tender long noodles, Top R: pigeon egg, Middle: orange juice and our first round of dishes, Bottom: beef dish (tripe and other unknown cuts of meat)

After climbing to the top of the Purple Mountains with a group of friendly Chinese coworkers, they asked me if I would like to join them for dinner. That was an offer I couldn't turn down. They asked me what sort of Chinese food I liked, but all I had eaten in China was a few little noodle dishes, street food, and a feast of Peking duck. They all started throwing out ideas of where to go and they told me about their favorite restaurants in the city. They told me about Sichuanese food and they were surprised when I said I had never had hotpot (a big pot of spicy hot broth that you cook meat in at your table). They also told me about the differences between Shanghai and Nanjing cuisine. Eventually they decide on a place so we make our way down the the mountain, hop on some buses, and head across the city as they point out sites and tell me about life in Nanjing. It was awesome! They knew just where to go.

The girls having a little fun posing for photos on the way down the mountain.
I had no idea where they were even taking me, but they told me that they would help get me back to my hostel by the end of the night.
I'm not sure what the name of the restaurant was, but I got a picture of the front.
When we got to the restaurant they led us into the back where they had a private room prepared for the group of us. We all sit down around the table and my new Chinese friend Amy grabs the menu and starts order for all of us. I took a peek at the menu which had amazing photos of all these dishes for about $3-4USD each. Amy would just flip through the menu, page by page, telling the waitress which dishes we would have. She knew which dishes were best and ordered us up about 25 different ones.

The dish in front was the best thing I ate in China. It is a big bowl of broth with peppers, bean sprouts, a white fish, and an amazing spice which I think may have been Sichuan peppercorns. Eventually we picked out all the good stuff till the bowl was just full of hot peppers and broth. That isn't wine on the table. It was a sweet juice which I couldn't identify and no one knew the translation to English.
Crispy cauliflower and behind it is a dish of shrimp and peppers in broth.
As we ate our way through the dinner the waitress would take away the finished dishes and bring out even more to put on the table.
It was an amazing meal. Everything was so good. My Chinese hosts were excited for me to try the different foods. I would ask what some of the dishes were, but for many they didn't know how to translate it. Other times they would wait for me to eat it and then tell me that it was frog or something else Strange. I had so many new things. The pigeon eggs were super good. They were cooked in a dark sauce so the egg was entirely black with lots of flavor (with an odd pigeon aftertaste). I didn't like frog so much. It think it was frog hips. There were lots of chewy chunks of cartilage and bones. The rabbit was probably the spiciest thing I've ever had. Many of the dishes were packed full of red peppers. Some seemed like it was 70% made of peppers which you just pick around. With dishes like the rabbit, when we done picking out the meat, all that remained was a mound of peppers.

Lamb ribs.
The group of us after the meal. If you look closely you'll see that all that's left of the dishes are the mounds of inedible peppers.
It was so nice of all of them to show me around the city for the day and let me experience the best Chinese food I've ever had. And to top it all off, one of the guys covered the whole bill. Over my trip I've found that the Chinese people can be so friendly. I really enjoyed my time with them.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Of the scenic lands around Nanjing;

Xuanwu Lake and the Purple Mountains. The large domed building is an arena called the sun palace. I hiked to the furthest peak which is about 1400ft above the city of Nanjing.
My day in Nanjing started out awful. On my walk through the sprawling downtown core of Nanjing to find the train ticket office, I don't think I could have felt anymore lost or miserable. To begin with, the City of Nanjing is not English friendly like some of the larger cities in China are. There are little to none English signs and most other signs are only written only with Chinese characters. I could just barely find my way around town by comparing the tiny characters on my map with those written on the signs. To make things worse, the streets in Nanjing are horrible. The large tree-lined avenues are nice sight, but in the spring time they leave the streets below caked with thick pollen while the air turns into potent mixture of pollen, smog, and the ghastly smells of a crowded city.  You don't even feel safe walking on the sidewalk because it is shared with masses of bikes and motor scooters which whiz past you beeping their annoying little horns.

One of the quieter streets in Nanjing. This is the usual setup of a Chinese street. You have the roadway for cars separated from the special lane for parking and motor bikes.
A group of men were all gathered around with their cages of birds playing Xiangqi (Chinese chess).
After about 3 hours of wandering around this deceptively large town and finally buying my train tickets for the next day, I made my way to Xuanwu Lake. I couldn't have been more relieved to get out of the city and walk along the beautiful shores and causeways of this lake.

The northern gate of the city wall.
The Buddhist Pagoda at Jiming Temple.
A lakeside pavilion.
Xuanwu Lake sits just outside of the northern walls of Nanjing. Surrounding the shores is a park filled with several pavilions and a collection of causeways which connect several small islands with the shore. The islands in the lake center are filled will gardens, temples, statues, and a number of small stone bridges. I hopped on a small tourist tram-car tour which sent me around the islands.

My tram-car made a few stops along the tour for us to get out and walk around the island gardens.
Me and the Guanyin (Goddess of Mercy) statue in the lake.

You can see that building from all over the city.
My tour tram stopped at this small temple where I was offered incense sticks, lit them, and then bowed three times in front of an alter. Since the tour was all in Chinese I didn't really know what was happening so I just went along with it.
From the lake, I made my way to the Purple Mountains just outside of the city. Around the two peaks are a number of trails, large mausoleums, and military areas where photography is restricted. I started hiking the mountain, but I had no idea where I was actually going since there were no signs I could read. Eventually I met a group of Chinese coworkers all out on a fieldtrip around the Purple Mountain for the day. Several of them could speak English and they offered to show me around the mountain and even gave me a few bottles of water. I ended up spending the rest of the day going around the city with them.

The group of us nearly to the top of the mountain.
A view looking over Northern Nanjing.
Amy, a super friendly local who went out of her way to show me around the city.
Me at the top of the Purple Mountain.

I love the look of Chinese characters carved into trees.

A radio tower with Xuanwu Lake and downtown Nanjing in the distance. Most of my days in China had smog like this. It makes it hard to get a nice clear picture of of the view from the mountain.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Of the city of Nanjing;

The skyscrapers of Nanjing.
The second city on my tour through China was the city of Nanjing. With a population of about eight million people, the city is one of the smaller places I visited in China. I had a few people ask me about why I chose to visit Nanjing since it isn't a major tourist site in China. My response was that I came to Nanjing for its history. While studying the Ming Dynasty at my university I would occasionally hear about the importance of the city of Nanjing. It has been the capital city to several dynasties and its position on the Yangtze River led to its growth as a major trade city. For a time, it was even the world's most populated city.

Nanjing is about 2 hours northwest of Shanghai by high-speed train.
The name "Nanjing" shows its importance in Chinese history. While the name Beijing means Northern Capital (Bei = North; Jing = Capital) Nanjing means Southern Capital (Nan = South; Jing = Capital). It was capital of the Six Dynasties (229 AD), the first capital of the Ming (1368), and was even capital of the Republic of China in the early 20th century. Around the city I was still able to see elements remaining from its past as an imperial capital.

Right outside of my hostel I kept seeing signs for the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing on the walls around a park, but I couldn't ever see the tower. Eventually I found out that the tower is actually one of the seven wonders of the medieval world, but was destroyed in 1856 during the Taiping Rebellion led by a man who claimed he was the brother of Jesus. Today, there are still signs for the tower because there are plans to rebuild it.

Fischer von Erlach's 1721 illustration of the Porcelain Tower.
The city walls of Nanjing are longest city walls still standing in the world.

Japanese forces entering the city of Nanjing.
 As capital of the Republic of China, the city of Nanjing was captured by Japanese forces in 1937 as part of the early Pacific-Theater of WWII. In the months following the fall of Nanjing, and estimated 250,000 Chinese civilians were brutally killed in what is known as the Rape of Nanking. Today the massacre is still a touchy subject since some Japanese officials are denying the massacre ever took place. After the war, Nanjing was able to develop into the important industrial city it is today.

A Japanese soldier standing over the massacre victims
A park dedicated to the nation's martyrs.
A view looking over Nanjing and the 89 story Zifeng Tower, the 8th tallest skyscraper in the world.
One of the canals in downtown Nanjing. It is horribly polluted and (other than stinky tofu) was the worse thing I smelled in China.

A cleaner and more pleasant canal.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Of train travel through China;

I started my trip in Beijing, but I still needed to get to Shanghai; 800 miles to the South. I could have hoped on one of the trains that speed across the country at 185mph, but I wanted a slightly slower sleeper train so that I could hop on at night and wake up in my destination. I booked a ticket through my hostel for a bed on one of the first class sleeper cars and headed off to the train station.

The Beijing Railway Station.
When I got to the station I had no idea where to go but I had 30 extra minutes so I wasn't in any huge rush to get to my train. In the huge station I looked around for the waiting room for my train, but I couldn't find anything with my train number. After looking at my train ticket a few times I noticed that it said it was departing from the Beijing South Rail Station. That is when I got my first idea that something was wrong. I took out my city map and saw that about 8 subway stops from the Beijing Rail Station was the Beijing SOUTH Rail Station. I had that awful feeling where your stomach sinks and you know you've made a mistake. I had gone to the wrong station and my train, which I had already paid for, was going to be departing in less than 30 minutes.

I grabbed my bags and ran out of the station to the plaza outside. As I was sprinting across to the subway entrance a taxi driver noticed me and pulled me into his unmarked taxi. I was able to tell him about my mistake and show him my train ticket and departure time. We made the deal that I would pay him 200 RMB ($30 USD) if he got me there in time. In China, 200 RMB could buy you about 15 taxi rides so this driver really wanted to get me there on time. We sped off the the craziest and most terrifying taxi ride I've ever been on. We blasted through a few red lights and drove on the shoulder of the freeway all while the driver was honking at cars and flashing his lights so they would move out of the way.

We pull up to the rail station with about 4 minutes till my departure time. I run into the terminal. Throw my bags through the security x-ray and ask which way the gate from my train is. I get all my bags back on then sprint across the terminal to my train. I probably looked like I was competing on the Amazing Race. I made it to my train just in time. As soon as I boarded the train and found my cabin we started moving and pulled out of the station.

My train in the Nanjing Rail Station.
Now that I was finally on the train I could relax. I was exhausted, sweating, and jittery from my suspenseful and adrenaline filled taxi ride and sprint through the train station. I shared my sleeper cabin with 3 Chinese men who could speak a little bit of English. After talking with them for a little bit, they invited me to the party in the next cabin over with their coworkers. About eight of us crammed into this tiny sleeper cabin where they start offering me beers and food. My new Chinese friends were all young car designers on their way back to Shanghai from a car show. Some of the people in the group could speak English well so I told them all about my experience so far in China and how I came to China to perform with the marching band. They didn't know what a marching band was so I showed them some of the videos of the Husky Band field shows I had on my laptop. We had a great time swapping stories and sharing photos till late at night. Then they made sure I knew which stop to get off at in the morning and double checked the arrival time for me. What started as a miserable train experienced turned into a fun night thanks to these people. They were excited to have an American with them in their cabin and hear about my home, and I was just as thrilled to meet them and hear about life in China.

Our train cabin party at about 120 MPH.
The station I arrived at in Nanjing (just north of Shanghai)
The view of the city of Nanjing from the train station.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Of the Forbidden City;

A gate tower which separates some of the courtyards within the Forbidden City.
The major site to see in Beijing is the Forbidden City. It was built in 1406 as the emperor's palace. Today it is no longer forbidden to enter since it is now a huge heritage site and museum, but there are still some sections which are off limits for visitors. It is incredible how gigantic and elegant the city is. There are 9,999 rooms and it takes up 180 acres in the center of Beijing. It is surrounded by a moat and large walls with high gates and watchtowers.Within the Forbidden City are huge courtyards, gardens, narrow walkways, and large temples all decorated with traditional Chinese designs.

A view looking down at the Forbidden City and its moat and walls.

I spent several hours wandering around the Forbidden City. One of the first things that you notice are the huge crowds of people. The courtyards are filled with packs of tour groups and as you walk around the narrow corridors of the palace you feel like a cow being pushed through a stockyard. It was rare to find a nice quiet place to sit and appreciate the sites of the palace. I ended up taking a wrong turn through an unguarded door and entered a completely empty courtyard. It was amazing. There were no crowds, it was quiet, and I guess it was also forbidden. I poked my head into the Ancestral Temple and was spotted by several of the workers of the Forbidden City. They yelled a few things at me in Chinese and then escorted me back to the main palace grounds.
The Hall of Supreme Harmony, the largest of the buildings in the Forbidden City, was used for important imperial ceremonies during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

The whole Forbidden City is considered a museum because of all its history as the palace of the emperors, but within some of the buildings are museums (which you have to pay extra to visit) which showoff some of the valuable treasures of the Chinese empire. There were rooms of carved jade and other precious stone pieces and a huge collection of 19th century European clocks.

Every corner of the Forbidden City has little elements of Chinese design.