I don’t like Nanjing. Never mind the fact that on both of my visits, dorm A/C has been either ineffectual or non-existent. Nanjing is a part of the world where good A/C is very important, or at least it is in the Summer. What in Shanghai is mostly-bearable musk becomes full-on sweat-drenching in the former capital (Beijing and Nanjing are two respectively Northern and Southern sides of the same coin, so to speak).
We didn’t start well. Our hostel was in tourist central (groan), though nestled away enough for the bustle to fade away, and I arrived with a generous coating of natural coolant (it’s sweat. I’m talking about sweat). Sunflower Hostel’s comfortable lobby-come-restaurant had uninspiring prices (disappointingly expensive water, for a hostel) and we mostly lingered for its air conditioning. Rooms were up a flight of stairs, like some bizarre reversal of the descent into Hell, in the sense that I could practically feel my skin blistering by the top. Our windowless dorm was of a similar temperature, barely lowered by the pathetic dribble of in-flow from the A/C in the corner. I have seen units literally dribble, but this one was not pushing enough air through for the dehumidifier to form actual droplets.
Evie found a Lonely Planet recommendation for tea, but from that we decided not to trust the online guidebook again, after thankfully inexpensive but distinctly sub-par noodle soup (did not trust the colour of that meat). Staff were lovely, though. We ate ice creams and watched a dancing group of grannies, lone man twenty paces back, surreptitiously trying to join in; Wake and Shake is clearly not just a provincial Chinese pastime (Leap and Sleep, perhaps, at this time of night).
Storm broke and we bickered, most parties going to bed a little bit hurt, I think. We’d done amazingly well to get this far almost argument free, and although some personal space would probably have worked wonders, with even a little hindsight it feels unimportant and minor. Exhaustion and illness meant that I didn’t leave our dorm-cell the next day until it was time to guide my friends for an evening meal of Dim-Sum at a place I’d found. Nanjing Impressions certainly provided just that, and while it wins the award for best looking, they didn’t have our beloved pork-buns and some of their dishes were just, eh.
That night I didn’t feel much better, and contacting home from my sweaty bunk was the only channel through which I could begin to feel brighter. But the next morning saw a double resolution as our squabbles were also put behind us (I would have made some comment about the Sun rising with a new dawn, but from our dorm-cell we couldn’t see the Sun and had literally no perception of dawn). We were promised cooler climes up the Purple-Gold mountain parks. Zijin Shan is a popular inner-city getaway for Nanjingers as a day trip with easy metro access.
They lied about the cooler-ness. It was just as stuffy, and sweat flowed like so much proverbial wine. Our student cards got us cheap entry again, and we started with the tomb of the first Ming emperor. This took the form of a ‘sacred path’ past pagodas and compounds to the tomb itself, all with the pleasingly genuine feel of un-restoration. That said, we did come to a raised dais on which a very modern gift shop had been literally dropped on top of the original structure – you could even see the original column bases on the floor. Despite the stuffiness, the site was interesting, terminating at a mound masking the un-excavated tomb with the inscription, ‘here lies the first Ming emperor’.
From here we wound through the trees, past a man occasionally shouting at..? We weren’t sure what. He was loud and unsettling. Anyway, we reached the Golden Cloud Pond, popular with locals as a watering hole for cooling off; the ‘no swimming’ signs were universally ignored and completely unenforced. It was… green, and rather deep, and the steps down were jagged, slippery rocks, so I didn’t go in beyond my feet (didn’t trust my swimming ability), but Kirsten and Evie had a whale of a time. We left half an hour later, one of us dripping with body water and the other two with pond water, then walked through to the next park area: the mausoleum of Dr. Sun Yat-sen.
This 1920s structure was built by the Kuomintang (Republic of China; Taiwan) but survives because the good Doctor was, unusually, beloved by both republicans and communists. The first gateway displayed white-and-blue KMT colours, tiled, and marked the several hundred metres up a gentle (and weirdly disorientating) slope to the base of some bloody steep steps up to the mausoleum itself. Sunny day, mid-thirties, saturating humidity and what do we do? Climb a hill. I did it in one go, filming a time lapse, then retreated to some shade to allow my body to shed half its mass in sweat in more privacy. The mausoleum itself was grand and imposing, the red floors an attempt, I think, by the communists to stake their claim.
We took a tourist train-bus (train of cars made up to look like a steam locomotive) to the last park area, and by chance had the entire thing to ourselves. Zoo factor was high but we did enjoy having lots of legroom. The Beamless Hall was our first stop, utterly unique in that it was built from stone (no wood) in a time when stonemasonry wasn’t a thing in this part of the world. Unfortunately we didn’t possess enough expertise to be properly awed, and coming from the UK the musty stone-brick structure was underwhelming at best. After the next temple (the name escapes me) we gave up and went home. Templed out; I feel bad being this blasé but I’ve seen so many recently.
That night it *rained*. Like, Guangzhou level pouring. Splash-back from the ground soaked our feet and legs, umbrella or no, and if you made the mistake of passing under a gutter, you could expect the apparent weight of the umbrella to double. My flip flops made a reappearance and the next morning I slid my way with the others to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. This pays homage to the victims of the Japanese occupation of Nanjing, in which over 300,000 civilians were executed. We expected an emotional morning, but the sheer amount of text and displays rendered this a museum: shocking, and numbing, but not emotive. I think less is often more – Evie recalled a row of metal shoes along a river in Europe commemorating an execution there; they don’t say what happened to the children but the presence of tiny shoes says enough.
The emptiness lingered, but we were also museum-ed out which put paid to our plans of a visit to Nanjing Museum. We went to see the Incredibles 2 instead at a fancy-ass shopping centre. China does fancy-ass shopping centres extremely well, but I doubt I could have bought anything there. The cinema complex was split into two, so a staff member had to show us the way around the escalators, into a second lift, up three floors and then through a couple of designer stores to the virtually-unmarked entrance.
The film was just what we needed, though its vaguely feminist story was clearly written by men (dad *finally* learns to look after kids while wife works is not groundbreaking, Pixar, and Elastigirl was given no character development), and returned to check out of the hostel. A new guest took one look at the pathetic A/C, pressed a button on the remote and watched as it came to life. I could’ve cried. While the heavens continued to empty themselves on Nanjing, we stopped off at a hole-in-the-wall Xinjiang noodle shop we’d grown attached to, before slipping to the railway station by metro (slip being literal; whoever thought polished marble floors were a good idea? In this climate?!).
We arrived to a list of red (red meaning delays). Clearly the storms had upset the train-sprites, so we settled down to wait. Anxiety kept me from my seat (from which the information boards were not visible), and I yo-yoed between sitting and pacing over to look for updates. When the backlog started to clear, somewhere around midnight, I realised that trains were being announced then leaving very quickly and with little warning, so we relocated to the gates to avoid missing our boarding window.
Unfortunately this happened anyway, and upon showing Evie’s ticket to a station official by chance, we were suddenly surrounded by what I can only describe as a panicking mob of megaphone-wielding uniforms who pushed us bodily through the waiting crowds while shouting something to the effect of, “get on the fucking train”. Picture us then, running across the platform access bridge, backpacks moving faster vertically with each step than they were horizontally. The sheer weight of the damn things caused us to bound, kangaroo-like, down the platform to our carriage. I took a large, measured step across the gap and- my flip-flop slipped on the damp metal floor of the car, leaving me in some bizarre sort of splits between the platform edge and train-loo doors. I recovered, but left my dignity behind somewhere around the waiting room (to be honest, I think it was lost long before that).