The second half of the semester, actually the second half of living one year in China, is always a much better deal. The first half has too many relaxing entrapments in the form of ridiculously long holidays of which, if you are not financially prepared, can lead to weeks on end with very little structure. I prefer structure. I like knowing I have things to do Monday – Friday, and weekends are my own time to do with as I please.
However a short and sweet holiday is not something to poke fun at, and April 5-7th was indeed a short holiday in China – Tomb Sweeping Festival. Alas, no tombs are actually swept. What I saw happening instead was large cemeteries all ‘dressed up’ with bright red decorations, and people gathering near the burial mounds of their loved ones to let off flash-bang fireworks (the need for fireworks for every single celebration that ever occurs in China is just mind boggling).
As I had Monday off I decided a short trip to somewhere that isn’t Beijing would be a nice adventure. Thoughts of Xian immediately came to my head, but after conversing with another friend who also wanted some holiday plans it changed to a different city: Nanjing. This friend lives in Shanghai, so it was a very easy day trip for her, and for reasons that are still slightly unclear to me the plan ended up like this: I was to go to Shanghai for one night, take the fast train to Nanjing the following morning to spend one night there, and then go back to Beijing the final day of Tomb Sweeping. This was the first mistake I made. I wish I had spent two days in Nanjing to properly see the sights (that I didn’t really research, mistake number two), but nevertheless it was a holiday and it was outside of my city, so it sufficed my needs. However I did eat camel in Shanghai, so that’s something.
Before all this occurred it was left to me to find a place to stay. Hindsight has revealed that when one plans a trip with another person financial aspects should be discussed with. I didn’t want to cause any trouble over money as I find that to be one of, if not the, pettiest of arguments, so my findings were tailored to cheap instead of other vital things like accessibility. I found one for 94 kuai total, and didn’t think much more of it.
Arriving in Nanjing mid-morning I jumped into a taxi and proceeded to tell him the address saved to my email. He said after a brief look at it he definitely knew where it was, and so we drove off.
After asking the fourth random person via yelling out his driver window where ‘such-and-such’ address was, I was feeling very disheartened by the driver’s quite obvious lie. What wasn’t helping my situation was the fact that we had driven right through the city centre, over the Yangtze River, and into a desolate wasteland of broken houses and unrecognisable signs of semi-functioning life. The entire one-way trip had also cost me half an hour, due to the fact that any distance between two points in Nanjing is unbelievably stretched out. Such a sprawl this city is it’s no wonder there haven’t been any massive issues due to their newfound desire to construct a subway system under an already well established city centre. I’d hate to see the traffic made in Nanjing when work finishes for the day.
Arriving at the hotel I had pre-booked, with my friend waiting for me, I was so enraged at my driver (who also tried to steal 50 kuai from me in a half-assed plea of ‘I had to call friends to find this place, you owe me phone money’ (not my problem asshole)) that I immediately dumped my clothes out of my backpack and walked out of the cesspit that was our un-cleaned hotel room (footprints on bed sheets and mysterious piles of crumbs lining the windowsill were our welcome gifts) and set off down the deserted street to find any transportation that would take me away. A black cab took us into the city centre for a sweet price, and to avoid the toll routes he gave us an impromptu back-alley tour of coal stations, suburbia, and other sites we would have missed had I booked a more expensive room in the city centre. For this I am a little happy, I got to see the effects of a city that isn’t the capital and is now playing catch-up to more successful, and bigger cities. Nanjing to me is like an unfinished Wasgij puzzle (those puzzles where upon completion you have a new image that links to the image on the box and tells a story) where parts are close to being a full reveal (the sweet city centre with it’s massive roads, abundance of nature, and great walk-ability) and other parts are still missing a lot of pieces (the lego-like construction/de-construction around every corner).
My research into Nanjing prior to visiting was almost non-existent, bar the few friends I spoke with who had already been. All three of them concurred with one idea: the museum. Now this is where another big mistake happened. Nanjing is home to many museums, and some of these showcase the atrocity known as the Rape of Nanking, but alas, either the keyword ‘massacre’ was muted from these discussions or my brain simple didn’t register it in passing, I was confident that my friends meant the normal museum of Nanjing.
No, no they did not.
I am yet to see any of the locations in Nanjing that were scarred from bloodshed and violence, and will indeed make a solo day trip back there at some point, but for all intents and purposes the normal national museum served well in satiating my need for good architecture and good story-telling environments, even if it was at the slight disappointment of seeing countless more pots and jade objects. The museum really was one of the best I’ve seen in Asia, for the fact that they understood how to correctly light exhibits. Museum etiquette on the other hand is not something you find in most Chinese museums, the amount of smudge marks and rambunctious children disturbing the space was enough to make me squirm in disgust.
Even though I missed the infamous parts of the city it made me semi-reflective as to why people enjoy saying they’ve been to places where absolutely vicious acts have happened. What is it about the nature of genocide and torture that is appealing to everyday folk? Is it the illusion that it could never happen to them, that the types of people who caused it are only found alive in the pages of history? That we always learn from our mistakes?
After the museum our stomachs told us that touring any more on empty tanks would lead to bickering, and an unmemorable evening, so we used what parts of the subway station we had access to to move closer into the city centre, and towards Blue Frog (a restaurant that makes reasonably cheap burgers, found in most major cities). As we dined at Blue Frog we came to the unanimous agreement that the hostel I had booked sucked, and that we should change it. Using the Wi-Fi we found on booking.com another room going at a reasonable rate and promptly put my name to it. We then high-tailed it out of Blue Frog and back to the first hostel to cancel our stay.
The taxi driver we had was a younger guy, and absolutely wonderful for conversing in small chatter, asking all the usual questions a foreigner is asked in China. However my Chinese skills have not really progressed much this year (lack of having a regular teacher) and the majority of the car ride was spent in a pseudo-silence, punctuated by the driver singing a few bars of a song before silencing himself, and after a few minutes of silence starting the process again with a different song. We asked him to stay while we collected our belongings, and then reversed our route to arrive precisely where we started, on the main road near the entrance to our new hotel.
A mere thirty seconds after that we were homeless.
Turns out the new hostel we booked online had absolutely no space for us. We should have rung them to confirm, but both of our phones were dying and we didn’t think it was necessary.
Walking around Nanjing with nowhere to stay felt slightly invigorating. I’d never been somewhere without plans or a place to stay before, so I can tick that feeling off my list. As we walked the main city street we concluded that the worst option would be sleeping in McDonald’s. But a mere five minutes after being kicked out we ended up paying for a room in a luxurious space called Yishiyuan, I intend to stay there again if I ever return. There was a bath in our room, which I almost fell asleep in. I awoke early, but refreshed, and made my way back to Beijing on one of the first fast trains out of the city. Nanjing, you can expect me again.