The Nanjing Adventure

Part eight in a series

Folks who know me well know I love a good adventure.

On my ninth day in China, I embark on what might be my boldest adventure ever.

At 6:00 a.m., my daughter and I get into a cab, ride to the airport, and fly to the city of Nanjing for the day—just the two of us, flying into the interior of a country where we don’t know the language, we don’t know any people, and we don’t even know specifically where we’re going.

Oh, we know where we’re going—we just don’t have a street address. I’ll have to hail a taxi at the Nanjing airport and try to communicate to the cabbie that we need a ride to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall and Museum. While we’re in the city, we’ll also visit the John Rabe and International Safety Zone Museum.

Both sites relate to the 1937 “Rape of Nanking”—when Japanese forces occupied the city and killed more than 300,000 civilians, frequently in brutal, horrifying ways. Rape and pillage was involved. The carnage lasted for months. Some estimates put the death tolls as high as 450,000, but even the officially accepted figure of 300,000 is terrible enough. To this day, the Japanese government denies those war crimes.

We’re heading to Nanjing because of Iris Chang, the American journalist whose 1998 book The Rape of Nanking brought renewed international attention to the holocaust. The book had a profound impact on me when I read it a few years ago, and I’ve wanted to visit Nanjing ever since. Steph is reading it now, and being the history buff that she is, her eyes lit up when I suggested the trip.

My first lesson is why I hear it pronounced “Nanjing” and also “Nanking.” In 1958, the Chinese government standardized Pinyin—the “Romanized” version of the Chinese language. As part of that standardization, “Nanking” officially became “Nanjing” just as “Peking” officially became “Beijing.” That standard was adopted internationally in 1982.

“Nanjing” means “southern capital.” Its history dates back to sometime around 500 BC. In 229 AD, the city became China’s capital for the first time. It would serve as the capital on and off for the next thousand years, most notably again starting in 1368, when the Ming Dynasty set up shop. The Ming emperor built a wall around Nanjing—a project that took 21 years. The wall still stands.

In 1421, though, the third Ming emperor moved the capital to Beijing, and the seat of power remained there until after the revolution that established the Republic of China. In 1912, President Sun Yat-Sen chose to move the new republic’s capital back to Nanjing, although because of post-revolutionary turmoil, the government didn’t actually move until 1927.

Nanjing enjoyed its renewed status as capital until 1949 when the communists won the Chinese Civil War. To this day, the Republic of China, holed up on the island of Taiwan after its defeat in the war, still considers Nanjing its capital, listing Taipei as its “provisional capital.”

Nanjing is also China’s largest inland port and, behind Shanghai, the second-biggest commercial center in eastern China. In fact, Nanjing is only a couple hours to the northwest of Shanghai by highway.

In fact, it might’ve been easier for Steph and I to get to Nanjing from Shanghai, but I don’t get the idea for my grand adventure until after we headed to Beijing, so Steph and I have to fly down. The flight lasts an hour and a half.

I hope to pick up an English/Chinese phrase book for travelers at the airport, just as an extra precaution, but because we’re leaving from the domestic terminal, I’m out of luck. Same’s true in Nanjing. We’ll wing it.

Not even the airport’s tourism booth has materials in English. I hope to pick up a city map or a flier for the museum or something, but the closest thing we can find is a map in Spanish: “Mapa de Turismo de Nanjing.”

“I can read this one,” says Steph, whose years of Spanish suddenly come in handy in the most unexpected place. “We can get by with this.”

At the taxi stand outside the airport, we quickly discover that most of the cabbies don’t have particularly good English, and we end up with one who knows no English at all. At the end of the trip, he’ll ask me for money to cover a toll fee, and I’ll pass him twenty yuans, mistakenly thinking I’m giving him a fat tip, only later realizing my mistake and regretting that he had to use his tip to cover the toll.

In the meantime, to let the cabbie know where we want to go, I show him my camera. I’ve take a photo of the museum’s homepage from its website, which has the museum’s name in Chinese. The cabbie nods, and off we zoom.

No amusement park anywhere has a ride like this one. It’s easily the most harrowing cab ride of my life—which is saying something considering some of the other cab rides I’ve had in China. Zip, dart, zoom, swerve, juke, swish, flash. I wonder if the car even has a brake.

The Lukou International Airport sits eighteen miles out of the city, so Steph and I have plenty of time to study our map. I find the location of the museum, situated just to the west of the city center and east of the Jiajiang River, but I also see that Nanjing has sooo much else to offer. Too bad we’re only here for the day.

Of particular interest to me is the Bell Hill Scenic Area, a national park on the eastern edge of the city. The mountain itself, also called Purple Mountain or Purple-Gold Mountain because of the way it catches sunlight in the evenings, stands about 1400 feet above sea level. The mountain is peppered with historical sites, and it’s also home to China’s first, largest observatory.

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, leader of the Chinese revolution, is buried in a mausoleum at the base of one of the mountain’s peaks. Sun died in 1925 but wasn’t laid to rest in his tomb until it was completed in the spring of 1929. One of Sun’s most famous statements is inscribed over the entrance gate: “What is under heaven is for all.” No wonder the communist government still loves the guy.

The founder of the Ming Dynasty, the Hongwu Emperor, is also buried on the mountain, laid to rest there in 1405. His funeral was apparently quite the production: a funeral procession left from each of the city’s thirteen gates in an effort to throw off any potential grave robbers from finding the actual gravesite.

The mountain is also home to the Linggu Temple, site of an ancient Buddhist temple. The temple complex was founded around 500 AD, although it was destroyed in the 19th century. It was rebuilt in the early 19th century and then, in the late 1920s, was converted to a shrine commemorating soldiers killed in the revolution. One of the most distinctive buildings is the Linggu Tower, a nine-story pagoda that manages to simultaneously look old and modern.

The map, Spanish or not, turns out to be a delight. Aside from the three-dozen smaller historical sites around the mountain, the map shows a city full of parks, tombs, universities, temples, and museums. Much of the history of the Republic of China is enshrined here (something I find extremely curious). I wish we had more time to explore.

But even the drive-by view of the city impresses me. It feels especially botanical. There’s so much green everywhere. From the highway, I see huge chunks of forest mixed with the city; on the street level, we drive along forested roads everywhere, particularly in the city center, inside the old wall. Many of the boulevards are richly canopied.

I also notice much less English than I saw in Shanghai or Beijing or Tianjin. Parts of Xian were also without English, but for some reason, Nanjing strikes me as the least-English city we’ve yet visited. No wonder the cabbie hasn’t had much to say.

He gets us safely to our destination, though. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride comes to an end, and he deposits us in front of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall.

But as it turns out, the harrowing cab ride was only the beginning.