Next Stop: Nanjing

It’s a city in the middle of history, just hours from Shanghai. Nanjing (formerly Nanking and now “Ning” for short) sits squarely at the mid-point between China’s stormy past and its gleaming future as a showpiece of sorts for what an easy daytrip from Shanghai should contain.

For starters, it should contain fast, sleek, clean transportation—and in China this means the world’s most advanced and speedy train system. In July, the Shanghai-Nanjing rail route gets the spotlight for launching the latest bullet train in the market. The current bullet between Nanjing and Shanghai, possibly the busiest route in China, runs at about 125 mph with a travel time of about 160 minutes. In July, the speed will be doubled and the travel time halved. It’s the first leg of an upgrade on the world’s longest railway line with sights on an ambitious Shanghai to Beijing connector that would whisk travelers between the two key cities in less than four hours—to be completed in 2013.

For Nanjing’s part, the easy and speedy daytrip or segue from the bigness and bustle of Shanghai is a satisfying addition, if not a must, for a visit to eastern China. Nanjing has a history of its own— some of it glorious and some horrendous. Most is preserved amid Old City structures and glossy museums that tell the tale in magnificent morsels.

Two major moments of China’s 20th century stand out with the mention of Nanjing: the life and death of Sun Yat-sen and the devastation of the city by the Japanese.

This was China’s capital before Peking and the residence of Sun Yat-sen, considered the great liberator and father of modern China. His tomb lies here, in the peaceful foothills of the Purple Mountains about 20 minutes outside the city. But it takes 392 steps to reach his marble resting place—one step for every 1,000 Chinese souls alive in 1926.

But Nanjing’s complicated past just multiplied as the moments ticked by. As the city was the seat of power from the turn of the 20th century until 1949 it was also the scene of war and massacre, surrender and forgiveness.

A “must” for a trip to China, if not just Nanjing, is a pilgrimage to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Museum. This expansive and artful undertaking ranks among the world’s finest interpreters of history, and is right up there with the Holocaust museums in Berlin and Washington, D.C.

The museum is crowded with school children and throngs of Chinese nationals who come from far-flung villages and cities to remember what is commonly referred to as the “White Terror”: 13 months of slaughter between December 1937 and January 1938 that wiped out 300,000 people in Nanjing: one person every 12 seconds.

It is not on every tourist’s itinerary. In fact, few foreigners will be seen among the throngs on any given day. The museum presents through a variety of documentaries, photos, artifacts and stunning dioramas, a living history of Nanjing’s darkest time—told through the voices of those who remember (there are some 400 survivors now) as well as diaries of witnesses, Japanese soldiers and officers. The English footnotes are surprisingly well-written and clear (making the hiring of the incomprehensible English-speaking guide for 200 RMB, or $30, unnecessary). The story takes in the beginning of Japanese imperial activities dating from 1870 and ends with Japanese surrender at the Treaty of Nanjing. And in between, the rape.

Afterward, the museum winds through a sad courtyard of pebbles and rocks representing the bones of the dead. It leads to a pit of real bones and skulls in the earth laying just where they fell, for the museum is on the haunted site a village outside the city center where peasants and farmers were butchered and left to rot.

The museum ends in a meditation chamber, completely black except for a field of flickering lights in random spots, ghosts in the night and not forgotten. Admission to the museum is free.

Today, two-thirds of the 35-kilometer, 14-century wall around the Old City (built entirely of perfect-or-die bricks mortared with a mixture of lime and sticky rice that adheres to this day) is intact or rebuilt. Within its protection lies a brilliant city of “hutong”-style neighborhoods, bridges over peaceful canals, and a lively bazaar selling carvings of rare woods and stone as well as silk purses and famous Nanjing brocade, batteries and what not. Of course, one can always buy a watch or trendy Fendi. Check the man in a business suit with a catalogue in hand and a story to tell about the stash of goods waiting in some off location.

Most of the time, the streets here and the lively promenades bulge with Chinese tourists vying for the perfect photo op—on the bridge by the illuminated dragon wall. The narrow alleys of the Old City are packed with seafood restaurants, and barges waiting to take romancing couples for a ride on the canals. For $20 (or $400 for the full boat), passengers are treated to tea and snacks, an hour of floating amid medieval waterways of preserved buildings and landscapes (as well as a montage of odd cartoon-style lantern sculptures), and all the karaoke one could ever want.

As Nanjing is also a stop along the Yangtze for cruisers, the city is set up for tourism with a hardy infrastructure of attractions and inbound guides to lead the way. The parks around the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum and Ming Tomb provide a window into the beauty so valued in Chinese tradition. Qing Dynasty towers and castles still stand the tests of time and tourism and Confucian temples, lakes and gardens, brocade museum factories, even an ancient observatory from the Ming era stand at the ready, welcoming visitors.

A trip to Nanjing, whether daytrip or longer, can be arranged in advance through TouroChina (800-928-9298), which has offices in Shanghai and Nanjing. Day trips start at $82 but generally run $175 for sightseeing, English speaking guides, city transfers and some meals. The company provides plenty of options for an à la cart visit to Nanjing or the inclusion of a city in a greater tour or a customized tour. For options on where to stay, Crown Plaza has a property in Nanjing not far from the Presidential Palace. Holiday Inn, Sofitel and Sheraton also run hotel properties in Nanjing.

For more information visit the websites of China National Tourism Office and Nanjing Tourism.