Nanjing Discovery: Books, Cooks & Looks

No bodyguards needed in Nanjing, but who doesn’t love a few escorts?

 

Just as most tourists to Italy choose Rome or Florence as their first time destination, most pick Beijing or Shanghai for their inaugural visit to China.
But, my first trip to The People’s Republic of China led me to discover Nanjing.  Never heard of it?
Well, either had I until I began my research which started with randomly flipping through On Demand and finding a recent movie called “Flowers and War” starring Christian Bale about the horrible 1937 Nanking massacre of 300,000 Chinese by the Japanese during World War Two.
Nanking, now Nanjing, suffered atrocities ranking among the worst in human history. And now I was going there, coincidentally the very week the city would commemorate the 75thanniversary of the massacre. But, there’s more to Nanjing than dark history. 
Art class at East Beijing Road Elementary School, Nanjing

It’s a bright and beautiful place, boldly stepping into the future of China and the world, as I would soon learn.  Hey, there’s an H& M here and a Ritz-Carlton hotel under construction. Also, they’re super excited about being chosen as the site of the 2014 Youth Olympic Games.

Nanjing Now

Known historically as the ‘southern capital’ of China, Nanjing (the capital of Jiangsu province) is a bustling city of eight million people and over 50 universities and colleges.

View from the backseat of cab. Nanjing at night.
Riding alone I made sure to have my intended destination
written on a card in Chinese.  I can fake Italian and French
but can’t fake Chinese.

Surrounded by the longest city wall in the world, built during the Ming Dynasty in the 1300’s, Nanjing’s beauty is a contrast of silver skyscrapers, pretty pagodas, architecturally impressive tombs, tree lined streets, lakes, rivers and mountains.  

Nanjing is ready to welcome you!

An evening cruise in a painted boat past temples, palaces, pagodas and dragons on walls all lit up with brightly colored neon lights on Qinhuai River took me back in time to old China as we sipped hot tea in the cold December night.

So why was I there?

Look up, there’s a bar on the 78th floor.

The 89-story Zifeng Tower, the tallest in the city, was the setting for the Sino-American Media Exchange I was invited to attend by Emory University in conjunction with Chinese hosts from Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Conference tables and talks around them are high art in China.

 

We stayed at The Intercontinental Hotel, located in the tower and my room was literally in the clouds on the 52ndfloor with Nanjing’s city streets far below.

Yup, that’s my view of Nanjing. Former President Jimmy Carter was apparently there this day.
From Kindergarten to College in One Day
Our days were focused on meeting students and teachers at schools from kindergarten to college. 

 Sissel McCarthy of Emory University with me and festive students at Jingling High School
Cutest kids at Nanjing Gulou Kindergarten founded in 1923

 

What Do You Think That Is? 
I swore I wouldn’t eat anything that looked  like an eyeball


The evenings brought Chinese and U.S. journalists and academics together for extravagant dinners. The most memorable moments of Chinese hospitality and cultural exchange involved the sharing of food and drink. “We’re a city of books and cooks,” explains Nanjing native Liu Kang who is the Director of Chinese Studies Center at Duke University and Dean of the Institute of Arts and Humanities at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Prof Liu Kang and I at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Mausoleum
We climbed the 392 steps to the top and back down again.
A good thing to do to prepare for yet another glorious banquet!

We sat at huge round tables with a Lazy Susan set up in the middle to facilitate presenting and sharing dozens of dishes in a mind-boggling series of flavors, textures and colors. 

 

“The banquets were relentless, gorgeous, terrifying,” said Daniel Wagner, a financial reporter from Washington, D.C. “Everyone warned me not to stuff myself on the early courses. Nobody mentioned that all 20 dishes that come before the whole fried fish count as ‘early courses.'”
Daniel Wagner and Gary Xu favorites to win the Lazy Susan Chinese Banquet Contest

Added Wagner: “The food really helped me understand how similar to the Chinese we are, and how different. Similar because we all love gorging on delicious food; different because there is simply no excuse for sea cucumber.’”

Salted Duck shows up on every Nanjing table

Nanjing’s Own Cuisine

Expertly carved vegetables

Nanjing’s unique Haui Yang cuisine may not be as well known as Szechuan-Hunan’s hot and spicy dishes or the shark’s fin soup of fancy Cantonese cooking and that’s what makes it an exciting taste discovery.

Fresh water fish in light soy

“The dishes are lighter with less oil and more vegetables (including sea vegetables), fresh water fish and shrimp, “ says Cecelia Yang of the Intercontinental Hotel, which boasts the highest restaurant in Nanjing on the 78th floor of the Zifeng Tower.

 

Food and Beverage Director Giuseppe Losciale oversees
the highest restaurant in Nanjing

Get Ready to Duck

 

Menus feature Huai Yang specialties such as precise angle cut vegetables, salted duck, duck blood soup and a Nanjing version of Peking duck.

Duck Blood Soup and Dynasty Wine

Wondering about duck blood soup? Don’t ask me; I gave the wheel another turn.

Brave Barbara Ortutay readies her banquet worthy napkin for another spin of the Lazy Susan

“Each banquet was an adventure, I came ready to try anything at least once. Jellyfish, octopus tentacles, purple corn, duck blood soup. The duck blood had the consistency of silken tofu with a hint of foie gras, much lighter than the pork blood-sausage I’m used to from Hungary,” said Barbara Ortutay, a technology writer who lives in New York.

Nanjing Impressions is one of Sissel McCarthy’s favorite Nanjing restaurants because,
“You can watch them prepare the dishes at stations and learn a bit more about what you’re eating.”

 

Sissel McCarthy, professor of Journalism at Emory University says, “This is my third trip to China and while I’m not a hugely adventurous eater each time it gets easier because you recognize certain dishes. It’s challenging at the multi-course dinners so I let a few go by. I like the Nanjing cuisine because there are so many vegetables. But you’d better like salted duck.”

Gan Bei!!

And you’d better like to toast. Every meal was punctuated by a series of toasts followed by “Gan Bei!” the Chinese phrase for ‘bottoms up’ as we were served (thankfully) thimble sized glasses of powerful white liquor to down in honor of our new friendships.

For some reason I don’t have any toasting shots, but I here’s what we call a “Banquet Aftermath” photo.

Tips on toasting in China: look your toastee in the eye, touch glasses together the whole time you are speaking, say something nice about them and how grateful you are to know them and thankful for their generosity and hospitality and then yell, “Gan Bei!” which literally translates “dry glass” and shoot the booze. By the way, the white lightning they call baijiu (which translates ‘white liquor’ or ‘white wine’) tastes and smells to me a bit like sweaty socks. It’s an acquired taste, but don’t worry, with all of the toasting madness you’ll acquire the taste quite quickly. 

An elaborate display for delicious dish we named “Squirrel Fish”

Another side effect of the toast-a-thons according to Ortutay is the culinary courage it summons, “But I should have drawn the line at sea cucumber. I mean just look at it! Why I didn’t draw the line after the first time I tried it is still unclear. Probably the relentless rounds of baijiu, deceptive because it was served in doll-sized glasses.”

More Banquet Glory. This elegant meal was served at The Intercontinental Hotel

And the Chinese love red wine. They prefer French but China produces wine too. We had bottles from wineries called Dynasty and Great Wall. But, I wanted white wine, OK?  I made a mistake consistently requesting white wine at dinners and guess what kept showing up? Yup, more of that baijiu!  You get what you ask for, high maintenance American girl.

Of Jet Lag, Swimming and Corn for Breakfast
The Farmer’s Delight; part of the breakfast buffet at the Intercontinental Hotel, Nanjing


There’s a 13 hour time difference between Nanjing and Atlanta and I got kind of messed up the very first day because even though we left on a Monday, apparently we totally skipped Tuesday and I woke up to discover it was already Wednesday. I didn’t realize the effect of crossing the International Dateline. Oh well, everyone promised we’d get the day back when we returned home. Whatever. All I know is that I woke up most mornings at 4am Nanjing time ready to roll. Swimming helped and the hotel had a beautiful indoor pool where I swam laps at 5am in the quiet darkness. The pool and spa didn’t officially open until 6am but I just walked around the velvet rope thing. There were plenty of towels and I had my pick of lounge chairs.

Other American journalists used their early morning time to jog around the nearby Xuanwu Lake Park and told me about the well-marked trails and beautiful scenery.

By the time breakfast rolled around I was starving. Happily, the Intercontinental Hotel has a huge breakfast buffet with everything you can imagine. Everything! Want sushi? Korean kimchi? Indian food? French pastries? German dark bread? Omelet bar? Chinese dumplings? Noodle soups? Yogurt? Fruit? Cereal? It was like a cruise ship had collided with the United Nations.

Wonder what’s inside? You’ll just have to try these dumplings to find out.

What really caught my eye was the collection of bamboo steamers on a table marked “Farmers Delight.”  Lifting the basket lids one by one revealed each contained a different steamed vegetable. Orange squash, purple yams, yellow corn.  Who needs corn flakes when you can eat corn on the cob for breakfast. A lot of folks did.  I had an omelet with vegetables and a side of bacon with a slice of that German bread.

Next Big Generation

It’s a rare sight in Chinese cities to glimpse reminders of poorer times.

The history of China is peppered with famine and hardship. 
But today there are actually a lot of fat kids. Rates of obesity and diabetes are unfortunately increasing in China with the influx of western style fast food and less physical activity in a computer screen world. 

McDonald’s delivery guy in Nanjing


It doesn’t help that the Chinese rule “one couple, one child” has also spawned a lot of pampering of those kids and with two sets of grandparents there’s a lot of ‘have another treat’ going on.

So it was good to see elementary school kids demonstrating kung fu and high school students playing basketball during class breaks. School food was really healthy too.

Delicious lunch at Nanjing Lishui School. Tomatoes grown at the school!
Lots of veggies at Jinling
She loves Taylor Swift

There was a varied selection of fresh vegetables simply prepared, rice of course and usually a soup with noodles. My favorite meal was lunch shared with six teenaged girls at Jinling High School. They smiled when I used chopsticks to eat slightly spicy chicken with peanuts as we chatted about their classes in applied mathematics, food likes (pizza and fried chicken!), exercise (ping pong and jogging) and going to college (most want to go to the U.S).  But things really got cooking when I asked them about music. One girl said, “I love Taylor Swift.”

And then when I followed up, “What about Justin Bieber?” they all immediately shrieked and giggled with the simultaneous outcry “We lo-o-o-o-v-v-v-e Justin Bieber!!!” Teachers, journalists and other dignitaries turned to see what was so exciting at our table and that’s when I knew that cultural connections are the strongest with shared interests – whether it’s music or math –at mealtime.

Super smart kids at Jinling High School
I told them to stop studying so much so the American kids can catch up!

Things from Nanjing 

You’ve got a friend!
Yue helped me convert RMB prices into US dollars.
Bonus! It’s a sale day with 50% off!
I could figure that out.

There’s really good shopping in Nanjing. The usual high-end stuff popular in big Asian cities such as Chanel and Gucci presides over the fancy shopping streets.  Or you can get into the bargaining swing of things at more touristy markets near the Confucius Temple to shop for silk scarves, Nanjing’s famous Yun brocades, and other Chinese trinkets. I love the hand made wooden carving of the see-no, hear-no, speak-no evil monkeys I bought from an elderly artisan at the Nanjing Folklore Museum. Since Nanjing was the center of the Ming Dynasty, there are lots of Ming vase themed things- I bought some key chains which are really nice looking. Was not in the market for an actual Ming vase.
But the most fun I had was shopping with my new Chinese journalist friend, Zhang Yue a reporter with China Daily in Beijing.

Zhang Yue, reporter with China Daily, looks even more petite
next a giant shoe outside the department store.

We went to a busy Chinese department store that was kind of like Bloomingdale’s with two whole floors of shoes and boots. We both bought coats in a hip section of the store. She got a cute beige wool coat with a flirty flouncy hemline and I got what I had my eye on all week!

Chinese girls were wearing these quilted down coats with fur collars and I found the one I wanted.
It’s knee length in ivory with a brown fur collar.

Ok I’ll tell you! Cost about $130

It will keep me warm this winter and remind me of Nanjing, the city of books and cooks and fashionable looks.

The coat I actually wore while I was in Nanjing everyday. It was cold in December.

 

Speaking of books……. 

 Pearl S. Buck, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning author of The Good Earth (and many other books including an Oriental Cookbook) lived in Nanjing between 1920 and 1933 and taught English Literature at Nanjing University. Her house on the campus is a museum you can visit now. I signed the guest book, “Hoping your spirit of dedication to writing will follow me home.” 

 

- Written by Carolyn O'Neil

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Comments

John Schwartz
on January 9, 2013

Great travelogue from an amazing program!

ForgottenGulf.com
on January 11, 2013

Wonderful exploration of the culture! Thanks for being such a great ambassador. And we will Gan Bei!! in NYC next week!

ottawa bathroom renovation
on January 19, 2013

Good web site you have got here.. It’s difficult to find high quality writing like yours these days. I really appreciate individuals like you! Take care!!

You can certainly see your skills within the paintings you write. The sector hopes for more passionate writers like you who aren’t afraid to mention how they believe. At all times follow your heart.

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