Windswept blue skies, arching over a panorama of gently lapping waters, swaying willows and rounded hills, welcomed me to Nanjing. The forest of skyscrapers lining the far side of the shimmering waters seemed an imaginary backdrop; here, finally, I had found the clean, green Chinese city – something I had previously believed to be myth, that legendary urban Eden used to advertise “Ecological Life” on countless posters for luxury housing complexes across the country.
But here it was, right on the toxic lower Yangtze river in the Chinese heartland. Having lived in western China for nearly three years, I have become a snob. From my perch on the Plateau, I look down my nose at the densely populated, heavily polluted “Inner Lands” of China. And though I have several months a year in which to travel, I usually remain on the Plateau, hardly ever deigning to descend from my sanctified, high-altitude throne to the morally and physically inferior lands below. Maybe because of the simple fact of geography – or maybe because I needed some degree of personal conceit – I had convinced myself that I lived an elevated, Nietzschean life, far above and beyond the comprehension of those living in the lowlands. Pity the poor plebeians who were unable to ascend to the mystic Shangri-La of my reality; they remained so far below that they would never know what they were missing.
I exaggerate (I hope). But I was so convinced that everything in China worth experiencing lay out west that, before my current adventures, I hadn’t left my province for nearly a year. A quick January stop in Beijing prior to my annual return to the states wasn’t encouraging; the city was cloaked in a toxic haze which reduced visibility to less than 200 meters and gave me a nasty cough. Why, I asked myself, would anyone ever want to visit such a place? Who could live here when, a mere 25 hours away by train, lies a higher plane of existence?
Fastforward to last week, when I touched down in Beijing below cloudless skies. I spent my time in the city wandering around with friends, through streets, parks and monuments made clean and fresh by the atmosphere. Though I have been to Beijing numerous times, I found myself experiencing the city as if I was an impressionable Pennsylvania country bumpkin on my first visit. I found myself telling myself out loud to look and listen to what was around me. Everything seemed wonderfully new and strange; in a city of twenty million people, in a place I’d visited countless times, the thrill of travel and of experience was back.
Which brings me to my arrival at the lakeside Nanjing Railway Station on yet another sunny morning. At first, I wondered why they had used such valuable lakeside property for a train station, which could be put in any slum and still function perfectly well. But then I realized that the Nanjing city planners had, by putting wearily disembarking passengers in front of a fantastic view, made a fantastic investment. Emerging into the bright sunshine, the undulatingly speckled carpet of the lake rolling sheetlike from my feet towards distant hills and shimmering skyscrapers, I liked Nanjing immediately. And despite a food scene dominated by congealed duck-blood soup and (subpar) soupy steamed buns, my affection for the place has only grown over the course of my visit. There are fantastic parks for running and walking, beautiful old temples and historic sites, tackily fake-old tourist streets, and lively little alleyways lined with bars and shops and restaurants. There is a massive wall which runs for 20 kilometers around the city center (not a typo; Wikipedia says this is one of the largest and longest city walls ever constructed in the world). There are crazy drivers and picnicking families and cute Chinese babies and cluelessly wandering foreign students and old women screaming and slapping their butts in the park and old men singing Chinese pop songs to a tinny recording by the side of a brightly glimmering lake.
It turns out that there are things to experience in eastern China. While I love my life in the wildlands out west, I shouldn’t write off the Chinese Inner Lands – or anywhere, really. For it is just when you think a place is without much value or interest that it will come back to surprise you. And surprise, (re)discovery, curiosity, and above all wonder – are these not why we travel? Are these not an essential ingredient in what makes us human?