The South Capital

Greetings From the Future, in the South Capital, Dear Readers!

Apologies for the tardiness in our dispatches from a tomorrow, which due to VPN issues, fun and an explosion of learning about Chinese culture, is actually some time last week … or earlier. Let me catch you up to speed.

After visiting Beijing, Qingdao and Tai’an, we stopped through Nanjing. With a population over eight million, Nanjing is one of the largest commercial centers in eastern China. While, the idea of touring mega-cities raised second thoughts, we were fortunately convinced to make the trip.

Maria’s former co-worker grew up here, while a friend of mine is currently studying at Johns Hopkins’ Nanjing University partner program for graduate students studying Chinese. Needless to say, my poor attempts at Chinese (beginning with pointing and ending in frustration) were not needed for our dinners with Brett.

Let’s back up and give some historical context to Nanjing fueled by little more than my curiosity and wikipedia …

China’s history goes back thousands of years, but we can break things into dynastic blocks to make the more modern end of things understandable: (Is it more complicated than this? You bet! While I recognize some of our readers are Chinese citizens and brilliant westerners with advanced degrees, we’re just trying to explain why this city is so interesting. Also, I’m not going back thousands of years to neolithic stuff. We’ll start year 1000.) 960 AD-1279AD is the Song Dynasty, 1279-1368 A.D. is Yuan Dynasty (Ghengis Khan’s grandson, Kublai started that one), the Ming Dynasty was 1368-1644 A.D. (ceramics, vases…you’ve heard the name) the Qing Dynasty was 1644-1912 (The Last Emperor … go watch that movie tonight), followed briefly by the Republic of China at 1912-1949 (Chang Kai Shek lost a war to Mao and ran off to Taiwan, bringing that government to the former island of Formosa), and the People’s Republic of China from 1949 to the present.

The city’s name tells us a bit of its history. We began our sojourn in Beijing, whose Chinese characters are 北京. “北,” meaning “north,” and “京,” meaning “capital.” Nanjing’s characters are “南京,” or “south capital.” It was actually the capital of China for some time. After the Ming Dynasty tossed the Yuan out of power (the Mongols) they moved the seat of power to Nanjing, from Beijing, and built a city wall that still surrounds much of the city, providing gorgeous views of Xuanwu Lake (stay tuned for video footage). There are numerous reports that Nanjing was the largest city in the world during the early Ming rule, before the Ming relocated the capital to Beijing in 1421.

In an effort to keep this readable, I will now fast forward hundreds of years to several historical facets of Nanjing, which coincide with places we visited. There are, literally, thousands of books to expound on how important this city is, but we were only there for a couple days, and I want to talk about a Jesus cult that started a war involving people who abstained from sex and didn’t cut their hair. On to the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. Haven’t heard of it? Are you a movie producer? Take note and do further research!

Ever have a bad day? Ever failed a test? Have you ever watched those ads at 3 a.m. after a couple beers and thought, “I could totally become a motorcycle mechanic!”

Hong Xiuquan wanted to work for the Qing Dynasty. As such, he took the requisite civil service exam, which had a very low pass rate and was very stressful. Hong failed this test four times in a row. After a defeat, some people turn to a bottle, some to the Bible, some to yoga. Hong was likely trying to turn to the Bible, but with a bottle in his hand, all while in downward dog.

Hong met a Christian missionary while at a low water mark. There was likely some depersonalization going on, a bit of depression, and a whole lot of “what does it all mean?” Hong began to believe that he was Jesus Christ’s brother. Hong then believed his brother wanted him to set up a heaven on earth. Fast-forward a bit and you have the Taiping Rebellion, one of the largest wars in history.

Haven’t heard of it?

More people died in the Taiping Rebellion than the Civil War … and it was contemporary to the Civil War.

Also … more people died in the Taiping Rebellion than WWI.

The Taiping Army, headed by Hong Xiuquan, overtook Nanjing and used it as the capital for their briefly-lived empire. The city was renamed “天京” or “Taijing”, which means, “Heavenly Capital.” They ran their affairs out of the Presidential Palace, which is the same building complex that Chang Kai Shek and Sun Yat Sen ran the Republic of China from during the years proceeding Mao.

(For more on the Taiping Rebellion, read “Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom,” by Steven R. Platt.)

We toured the presidential palace, which I would highly recommend even for those that aren’t particularly interested in history. The grounds were an interesting mix of traditional Chinese gardens and modern architecture with a heavy western influence evident throughout.

Other places worth visiting:

The Nanjing Massacre Museum: While my tone is normally sarcastic, I’ll have to leave that at the door for a moment. Japan’s treatment of Nanjing during WWII is a part of history that most Americans are not completely aware of. I would implore you to do your own research on this incident as I am not rightly qualified to do it justice. What I can say is that while numbers from differing sources vary, 200,000-300,000 deaths (noncombatants) is a fair number, reflected in Nanjing’s well curated and viscerally moving museum. Spending an afternoon here tells a grim tale of what happens in incidents of extreme tragedy: the best and worst of humanity both available.

The Old City Wall: Like most Chinese tourist sites, this costs money to use. I forked out the 30 yuan to go for a run here, twice, but was a bit heartbroken to think, “why can’t everyone use this?” I have since been told that one can purchase a yearly pass at a fairly reasonable price. (My debt to the U.S. Forrest Service in unpaid car passes for access to trailheads have spoiled me.)

The wall gives one an interesting view of both old architecture (the wall itself, several pagodas in the distance), the naturally gorgeous (Xuanwu Lake), and the progressive (buildings like rocket-ships and mildly polluted sunsets that glow orange and allow you to stare directly into the sun).

Experience Local Hospitality  (“我请你”or, “let me treat”): We met a group of three locals who invited us to dinner and refused to let us pay. There were raised voices, I had my hand on my wallet, there was good food, I kept my money. If you ever get a chance to repay the favor, buy somebody from China a snack today.

(Starting to the right of Maria) Meet Egeria, Joy and Chao!

(Starting to the right of Maria) Meet Egeria, Joy and Chao!

Furthermore, our friend Brett, who is American but has been in China long enough to become unduly generous, took us out to dinner. Brett was able to show us a bit of the nightlife and how a foreigner might find creature comforts in Nanjing. Want to know where to get Indian or Tibetan food on a Tuesday in Nanjing? How about a Belgian wheat ale? Brett’s your man and can explain it to the cabbie in numerous Chinese dialects.

Meet Brett!

Meet Brett!

Zebra Bar (a shameless plug for new friends): Across from the hostel we were staying at was a typical foreigner-friendly bar, which for three days a week is run by Gael (from the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Paa (from Ghana) who have built an entire menu around African food. As a former D.C. metro resident, I’ve had Ethiopian sponge-bread, but this stuff was otherworldly. Fufu, spicey fish, and chicken … it was great.

Did I bury the lead about two Africans living, working and studying in Nanjing? Possibly.

Both Gael and Paa are studying architecture in a language they began learning within the past three years. They both speak three or four languages. How’s that for impressive?

(From left to right) Meet Paa and Gael!

(From left to right) Meet Paa and Gael!

Purple Mountain: We didn’t get there but are told that it is great. To be honest, Taishan was the preceding trip to this, and I couldn’t deal with another stairstep-to-oblivion day trip. That said, we could totally live in Nanjing and will give it a shot the next go-round.

Signing off … from the Future!!!!



The Poodles of Nanjing

Greetings from the future!

Our next series of tales of tomorrow come to you from Nanjing in the Jiangsu province in eastern China. Chris is preparing our substantive dispatch from this future outpost. In the meantime, I wanted to share a short piece reporting on a furry phenomena here in China.

In the future, people love their pets just as much as we do back home in the present. At all times of day, you’re likely to see dogs being walked and caged birds being fed. Look around and you’ll see pampered pups on every street, strutting along in the height of doggie fashion. Sometimes, owner and pet may even be donning matching outfits. Now that’s love.

From our observance, the most popular breed by far is the poodle. We noticed this soon upon arriving in the future, but poodles are turning out in unparalled numbers in our current locale, Nanjing.

An animal photographer, I am not. Those curlycued canines move too fast for my iPhone shutter. I assure you, for every poodle depicted below there were 10 more that escaped my lens. When close enough to the dog owner to ask permission, Chris would politely express our request in Chinese. I took a simpler approach of pointing at my camera and smiling and nodding frenetically at the owners until they indicated consent. My interest in their dogs seemed to please most.

This goes out to our animal lovers back home. Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you, the poodles of Nanjing!



The Soup Incident

Air quality be damned! Here in the future, exercise is just as valued as in the world we left behind. Despite varying levels of pollution, Chris and I have been starting off our days with a morning run. It’s a great way to cover a lot of ground, sight seeing while getting our heart rates going.

The mornings are great for people watching too. From what we observed, the people of Beijing lead very active lives and enjoy physical activity. Many are out running and walking, swimming in the city lakes, and doing exercises and playing ping pong in public parks.

As an added bonus, running in the morning gives me the opportunity to practice my Chinese, “Zao sheng hao (good morning)!” is warmly received and returned by most, along with the occasional laughter (which can be attributed to Chris’ short running shorts and/or my running tights).

On our runs we also observe the morning commuters making their way to work or school on foot, bicycle, motorbike and car. It’s a busy time of day but not as chaotic as I had expected a city of more than 21 million to be come rush hour. That is because Beijing is an extremely vast city, geographically. Beijing’s population of 21+ million is spread out over 6,487 square miles, making for an estimated population density of about 3,300 people per square mile. Whereas New York City, for example, has more than 8.4 million packed into just 302 square miles, amounting to a population density of more than 27,000 people per square mile according to the United States Census Bureau.

On one morning run, we popped into a local eatery buzzing with morning commuters, mostly solo, quickly grabbing breakfast and heading on their way. The interactions were short and meals were efficiently consumed with little time wasted. No morning papers being read or chit chat exchanged; just order, eat, leave is the way of a busy Beijing commuter.

Undoubtedly, Chris and I were unexpected patrons for this restaurant — foreigners, red faced and sweaty and sporting running clothes — and we bumbled through our exchange with the woman dishing out the food. Chris wanted baozi (steamed buns and a safe bet when it comes to eating local food), but I wanted to try something new.

Along with baozi, soup is a common breakfast food in China. There were a few different options, and I chose one with a hearty looking redish brown broth. We attempted to ask what it was, and the woman said doufu, which means tofu and sounds pretty much the same as it does in English. I’m fond enough of tofu, so I gave the thumbs up. (Note: when you find yourself in a country where you don’t speak the language, you end up giving the thumbs up a lot. This is likely where the perception that Americans are constantly giving the thumbs up comes from.)

I wish I could report that my exploratory order was happily received by yours truly, but I must confess I had my first food regret leading to a mild crisis of weighing rudeness and embarrassment against my distaste for what turned out to be a thick, gelatinous stew of brown syrupy broth and mushy tofu. The white soft tofu was recognizable enough, but the texture of the broth, unnoticeable in its pot prior to being ladled into my bowl, gave me some alarm.

What could this strange dish be?

My mind immediately leapt to my guidebook’s mention of blood soup. Though uncommon in the U.S., many countries’ cuisines use blood as an ingredient in different foods. The Irish and British have their blood (black) pudding and the Chinese have duck blood soup. And now I was concerned I was eating it.

Chris astutely pointed out that there were no ducks in sight so my fear was highly unfounded. Still my mind had made a leap of logic and the irrationality proved hard to dispel.

I turned to my neighbor who was eating the same soup and gestured toward the soup and said the word, jiurou (pork), trying to guess at what this could be. She laughed and said no. I didn’t know the word for blood and even if I had, pointing at soup and uttering, “blood?” to a stranger, if in fact it wasn’t blood, I realized could understandably frighten said stranger. Furthermore, knowing that an open ended question of, “What is this?” would only get me an answer too complicated for either Chris or me to understand, I gave up trying to figure out what it was that my bowl contained and set about finishing as much of it as I could. With Chris’ help, we ate more than half of it. Since we also finished up all 12 or so baozi, we figured this effort would satisfy the restaurant owners and not offend too greatly.

Upon arriving back to the hostel, I promptly showed the English speaking staff a photo of the soup and to my great relief, they told me it was bean curd soup — also called tofu jelly (hence the texture).


So, no blood. Phew.

Since this incident, I have done a little research into duck blood soup and found that it is a signature street food of the city of Nanjing and is listed as #4 on a list of iconic Nanjing foods to try. Chris and I will be visiting Nanjing in a few weeks and now that I know what goes into the soup, I may be up to trying this local staple. I just wasn’t mentally prepared for spoonfuls of blood quite yet, especially first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. Of course, traveling is all about trying new things, so bring on the duck blood soup please!