Nanjing should be oozing with history. Every square meter of the city should have a story to tell. Disappointingly, the throes and turmoils of its past have been swept from view and neatly cordoned off into the odd museum or overpriced tourist attraction. There is little in the nondescript, modern city that stands today that harks back to Nanjing’s tumultuous past. It seems almost an intentional renewal; as if the more difficult points of the city’s history were too painful to allow any daily reminders.
Nevertheless, there are pockets of Nanjing capable of catching the imagination. Wandering some of the backstreets with their 1920s European-style villas conjures images of the prosperity of the city as the capital of the Republic of China in the lead-up to the Japanese invasion. Meanwhile, the older attractions in the city show off the other glory era of Nanjing, as the first capital of the Ming Dynasty.
And as detached and partitioned as much of Nanjing’s past might have become, the city’s history is so important that it is worth making the effort to seek it out. In particular the ‘Rape of Nanjing’, one of the most terrible genocides of modern history, should not be forgotten, while the Taiping Rebellion and the Chinese Revolution were other important periods when Nanjing served as a pivotal backdrop.
The modern city of Nanjing could not be called attractive, or even likable. But it does have its good points. Much of the City Walls still stands proudly and the city is dotted with a few nice lakes and parks. In addition to its noteworthy tourist attractions, Purple Mountain provides the chance for longer strolls (if you don’t choke on the pollution). Meanwhile Nanjing’s renowned universities are very popular with foreign students (and teachers) and as a result there is a solid western-style nightlife and restaurant scene. The city’s general prosperity means that there are a number of more upscale Chinese restaurants and entertainment venues as well. Oh, and it has one of the nicest train stations in all of China…
Who should travel to Nanjing?
Nanjing is undeniably a second-tier tourist city in China. It’s unlikely to be on the itinerary for a first trip, and probably not even a second trip. It’s a big city, not dissimilar to many others in China, but doesn’t have the same allure of a Beijing or Shanghai or Guangzhou.
People who might want to visit Nanjing are those who are particularly interested in the different aspects of its history, whether it be an interest in the wartime atrocities or to make a pilgrimage to the mausoleum of the founder of modern China, Dr Sun Yatsen.
How long is needed to see Nanjing?
Two days is enough to cover the major attractions and develop a feel for the city. Allow three days if you do things at a leisurely pace.