Thursday, 13 September 2012

Fatigued in Nanjing

I'd decided to travel to Nanjing at pretty much the last minute. I realised that I was cutting it short on time if I wanted to head west from Xi'an to Chengdu, as I'd have to take a 30 hour train back to Shanghai in time to catch my boat to Osaka in Japan. Instead I decided to head east, so I wouldn't be doubling back on myself when I only had five days left on my visa. I'd poured over the map looking for places to visit and break up my journey back to Shanghai, and opted for Nanjing, a previous capital and only a few hundred miles short of my final destination for departing China. 

Crowds in Xi'an's train station
I departed Xi'an in late afternoon.
The sleeper train I took from Xi'an to Nanjing took about 15 hours, a journey time I would normally balk at, but having come so far and spent so long on the railways a trip like this feels unsatisfactorily short. The train again was comfortable, I shared with three Chinese, two quiet men and a woman in her 30s who yakked on her phone for hours, her shrill voice and razor tones penetrated my ears like some aural rape. There was something about the pitch of her voice, like those draconian sound devices aimed at dispersing teenagers in shopping areas that only they can hear, that I would have preferred hot jets of piss to be spurted into my ears than continue listening to her. Thankfully her phone battery died after a while and she went to sleep.

Arriving in Nanjing at breakfast.
I arrived in Nanjing, one of China's old capitals, the following morning. It was wet with both drizzle and humidity when I exited the subway, the air felt so thick you could almost eat it. After having once already walked past it but not noticed due to some large construction works, I found my hostel and checked in. The rain had cleared up a bit once I'd settled in and so I went for a walk as I always do to explore the neighbourhood. By chance and not design, I was staying by a large pedestrian shopping area that was interesting to explore, a picturesque canal system and a temple dedicated to Confucius. I spent my afternoon rooting around all three. The side and back streets off the main shopping precinct were by far the most interesting. There were many pet shops, selling everything from puppies and kittens, pygmy pot-bellied pigs and terrapins, tortoises and tarantulas. Terrapins of different species seemed to be very popular, and were packed into small glass tanks and crawled over each other in a writhing mass of green limbs and shell. I was reminded of my childhood and the cartoon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Exploring the side streets where the more interesting shops were found.
Pigs and tortoises.
Heroes in a half shell - Turtle Power!
Rows of shops away from the air conditioned and glass fronted shops of the main streets,
I'd seen these a few times in China, air-con units in the street that cool an area no bigger than a pool table. A perverse attempt at global cooling?
The canal area was pleasant and boats for tourists pootled up and down all day, but I could tell it would look better at night once it was all lit up, and so planned to come back that evening for some pictures and combine it with dinner.

Qin Huai River and canal complex.
I had plenty of time and no map or clue of what there was to do in Nanjing, so I went into the Confucius Temple complex. Apparently the site was about 1000 years old, but it only felt about 30 years old, having been rebuilt and restored and certainly wasn't a genuine article, just like most heritage sites in China I'd been to. The Japanese had caused a lot of damage to the temple during the Second Sino-Japanese War, and from a bit of online reading it appears some ghastly things went on in Nanjing during this period. History aside, the temple was alright for passing half an hour but not particularly captivating, it's restoration and commercialisation was too much of an intrusion to find any genuine pleasure in it, but I'd ticked off one of the city's attractions.

Confucius Temple
Hanging lantern off the eave of the temple.
These things are prayers/wishes/good luck things - they tried to sell me one to tie on but I told them I was born lucky.
That evening I returned to the waterfront and it was lit up as expected. Crowds were flowing over the bridge and along the streets, it was busier than the day time and the little barge boats were constantly in and out of their moorings as they ferried Chinese tourists up and down the river front. It was both tacky and quaint at the same time, and I spent 10 minutes taking a few pictures and long exposures before my stomach demanded I go and find some food. I waked for a while but really struggled to find many restaurants. Those I did find I just didn't fancy the look of, and on my way back towards the hostel where I knew there was an eatery next door, I came across a large shopping mall which I knew would have plenty of restaurants in and so sat down and had some Japanese food.

The Qin Huai River front at night.
Rickshaw men wait patiently for business as crowds flow by.
Some plate spinners entertain the masses in the shopping mall.
My hostel in Nanjing, whilst pleasant enough, was thoroughly boring. I was pretty much the only foreigner staying there, everyone else was Chinese and so I had almost no social interactions for a good 48 hours or so. I was also experiencing a little fatigue, not a physical fatigue, and not of travelling per se, but I'd been in Chinese cities for almost a month and by the time I'd reached Nanjing they were becoming a much of a muchness. The excitement I had been feeling for China was wearing off and I felt like I needed a few days off. The combination of my boredom and fatigue meant my defences were down and I let my mind drift to someone from home who I'd hoped to get in touch with to find out how they were; they'd never responded and their silence became a heavy coat to wear. I managed to shrug it off as there's nothing more you can do.

The following day after having successfully purchased an onwards train ticket to Shanghai, I forced myself out to go and look at some of the attractions in Nanjing. I knew my heart wasn't in it but I also knew I might never be back in this place. I took the subway to part of town where quite a few sites were located in a kind of park area, and walked along the boardwalks uphill following the signs to a number of things including some Ming Tombs. Upon arriving at the entrance to the tomb site, it looked closed with an unmanned gate blocking the entrance. Next to this was a ticket office, which was staffed, but having read online it was free to enter I was slightly put off by the ticket price, about £8 if I can remember. At this moment thunder rumbled like heavy furniture being dragged across a room upstairs, and rain began to lash down. My half uninterested heart decided to chalk the day up as a loss and head back towards the hostel. I walked the twenty minutes back to the subway in warm tropical rain and without a coat or umbrella, but I didn't mind I was glad I'd been given the excuse to do nothing like I'd wanted to. That evening I had planned to venture out to forage for food, but the rain never ceased and so I ate the adequate food offered in the hostel. Whilst sat about I was asked by some Chinese who were making a student film if I would mind doing some acting. I was only browsing the web and so thought it would be half entertaining at least. I said acting but they only wanted me to sit at a bar with a few of the films cast and pretend to talk and joke - I was pretty sure I knew how to do this. The Chinese kept cracking up and lost their straight face every time action was called, which became a little frustrating as we could have done it in one take, it was such a simple scene and I could have got back to wasting time on the internet. They also kept looking at a script of some kind, but as there was no recorded dialogue in the scene, I couldn't understand why they needed this in sight and couldn't just wing it. I tried to ask but nobody's English was good enough to understand or explain. Eventually and well after I was bored of it they decided the scene was a success, and I was free to dwindle away the rest of the evening in my own company.

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