Nanjing’s heart and history make it a metropolis with a soul.“Shanghai is a village,” my guide says with a conspiratorial laugh. This is not the first time I hear this in Nanjing. Nanjingers (Nanjingites? Nanjingians?) seem to revel in this description of the younger city some 200 miles down the Yangtze River in China.
It is, of course, a joke. Shanghai has 23 million inhabitants. It’s a jumble of cranes and skyscrapers of such dizzying urbanism that I, flying in from Manhattan, feel as if I just hopped off a hayride onto the set of Blade Runner. Nanjing, in contrast, is cozy by Chinese-city standards: A mere 8 million people live there.
But it’s clear what my guide, an earnest and self-assured student from Southeast University in Nanjing, means. Shanghai could have a billion residents (as one day it might), but it will never have the heart and history of Nanjing.
What does this actually look like to first-time visitors? It turns out that 8 million and 23 million can feel somewhat similar on the ground. There are big, wide boulevards and traffic-choked freeways in both cities. In Nanjing, as in Shanghai, I have a recurring problem of trying to take a picture, especially anywhere scenic or historic, without someone else walking in front of my camera. China is a nation of unwitting photo jumpers, people who are just blithely moving through their bustling day and somehow keep stepping into the frame each time I take a picture.
But once your eyes, ears and medulla oblongata get adjusted to the constant hum that is China, you can start to see the things that set Nanjing apart. For me, it starts on my second morning in the city. My guide and I are in search of tang bao, a thick-skinned dumpling that is something of a specialty in Nanjing. I had heard of a tang bao shop that was 100 years old, so we drive through a midmorning traffic jam to find it. When we arrive, we find that it’s a plain storefront that looks about as old as your average Krispy Kreme outlet. It turns out the shop, called Liu Changxing, is now part of a chain of shops sprinkled throughout Nanjing. This location is rather charmless and bathed in a grinding fluorescent light, but it is packed. Beyond must-be-good-food busy and straight to oh-God-we-need-to-eat-sometime-today busy. After some standing around and a few failed attempts to snag a table, we walk out, defeated by the sheer hustle of modern China.
And then, suddenly, serendipity. A lotus vendor had brought her bike to the near corner and is unhurriedly selling seed pods, three for about $0.75. We buy a clutch of the fist-size green pods, each with a dozen or so seeds.