As well as trying to find elephants from different places around the world, I have also been on the look out for elephants of different media. Obviously a real, live elephant hits the bulls-eye, but they aren’t always a readily available elephant viewing option, while the most common denominator is definitely the elephant statue – there’s no shortage of them in China. But I rather liked this oil painting of an elephant in the Nanjing Museum, the work of Chinese artist Su Tianci (1922-1906), with its thoughtful expression among the pink blossoms.
We have spent the past ten days or so visiting three cities in the east of China: Nanjing, Shanghai and Hangzhou. Though close in distance – only about an hour by train between each of them – the three couldn’t really be more different.
Nanjing was a very interesting city from a historical point of view – it literally means “south capital” in contrast to Beijing’s “north capital” – and indeed was the seat of power in several ages, including for the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom under Hong Xiuquan in the 1850s. From the ruins of a Ming palace (admittedly hard to visualise from the few scattered rocks in a nice park) to Sun Yat-Sen’s Mausoleum, the city is steeped in the past, and so it’s not surprising that it had some particularly fascinating museums. The museum dedicated to the Japanese massacre of 1937 in Nanjing was not what you would call an enjoyable visit but certainly one of the best curated museums we have been too – although the Nanjing Museum itself, where we found the exhibition of Su Tianci’s oil paintings, was also excellent.
However, I wasn’t that impressed by the city of Nanjing itself – nothing particularly wrong with it, but it wasn’t anything special, and I wasn’t too sorry to leave. Shanghai, by contrast, was amazing – a city with a real buzz, and a sense of things happening 24/7 above and underground, with flashy high-rise tower blocks showcasing stunning views over the twinkling lights of the rest of the city after dark, just round the corner from bustling back alleys with tasty street food stalls. If there’s anywhere in a China I’d love to come back to and stay longer, it would be Shanghai.
Hangzhou was different again – a huge city around a beautiful misty lake that managed to retain an atmosphere of tranquility from the lake, despite its enormous size. The pedestrianised area our hostel was in was certainly the tourist district, but still managed to have a sense of old-style charm amidst the tack shops and wafts of stinky tofu. The city had a great boris bike style rental scheme too, and it didn’t take long on bikes to get out from the city and round the lake – the tea museum being perhaps my favourite stop off. I feel I know I lot more about tea now than I ever knew it was possible to know…
Now we have arrived in Guilin, and we are looking forward to a few days out of the big cities, before we move onto Hong Kong!