For most of my life, China has been a bit of a mystery.
In primary school, I learned about European royalty, the plight of the Native Americans and the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln. In high school, I had an animated history teacher who worked himself into such a frenzy during lectures that his stories became more like theater. I could close my eyes and, with his vivid descriptions, picture a stumpy Napoleon riding horseback into the teeth of a thousand bullets.
Sadly, Asian history was boiled down to just a few major events: a country that bombed us (Japan, at Pearl Harbor) and a country we bombed the hell out of a couple of decades later to stop the spread of communism (Vietnam). In college, I bought a book about a World War II mission to rescue US and British POWs, including some survivors of the Bataan Death March, from a Japanese camp in the Philippines.
So it wasn’t until I moved to China in 2010 that I began to understand the country’s history. I didn’t even know that Beijing was not always the national capital. In April, I traveled to Nanjing, the seat of power from 1368 to 1420 during the Ming Dynasty and again in the early 20th century, before the Communists “liberated” China in 1949.
To third Ming emperor Yongle, who moved the capital to Beijing in 1420, I’ve got to ask: Dude, what were you thinking? Beijing doesn’t get much precipitation, so it can be brutally dry. It’s prone to sandstorms in spring, which leave a red film over everything unfortunate enough to be left outdoors. The winters are long and, when the winds whip down from Siberia, bone-chillingly cold. And unlike many major cities in the world, it isn’t located near any large body of water.
Nanjing, in the southeast, is much warmer and very green. It’s located along the Yangtze River, which spills into the Yellow Sea and is a major shipping thoroughfare. Perhaps it’s the weather or the wide streets shaded by tall trees, but the city had a laid-back feel when I visited, vastly different from the hustle and bustle of Beijing.
I stayed at the Crystal Orange Hotel, a couple blocks from the Confucius Temple area. The neighborhood is one of Nanjing’s most popular tourist destinations, with markets, restaurants and bars. At night, red lanterns and orange lights atop the temple’s many arches give the busy streets a pinkish glow.
Nanjing is one of several Chinese cities that was surrounded by a city wall in imperial times. Some of the sections have been preserved and are open to the public. The section I hiked in the afternoon was mostly empty, with the exception of a few young couples and an old man practicing tai chi under the shade of a tree.
The wall ran above Xuanwu Lake Park, home to the largest lake in the city. In the late afternoon, I stopped to watch the boats sailing across the water as the sun began to drop behind the tall buildings that dominate Nanjing’s skyline.
Seriously Yongle, what were you thinking?