Was Sinbad a Nanjing sailor?
From the upper-floor balcony of the pagoda on Lion Hill, we looked out in one direction over the city's modern skyline, and in the other we saw the wide, brown Yangtze. A train was crossing a two-level bridge over the river. Beyond the multicolored roof tiles of the old-style pagoda spread Nanjing.Skip to next paragraph
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One of the surprises of Nanjing is that it was the home port for Zheng He, who inspired the Sinbad-the-Sailor legend in "The Arabian Nights." Sun Jun, my guide, explained that this pagoda was dedicated to the great explorer whose ships were launched here in the early 1400s and who crossed the oceans on seven long voyages of adventure.
The Chinese admiral, who was Muslim, repeatedly journeyed to ports of the Persian Gulf. He made quite an impression there as an adventurous and exotic leader - his fleet may have included up to 317 ships and more than 27,000 men.
Last summer's animated film about Sinbad revived his celebrity, but a more provocative spotlight came a few months earlier: Author and retired British naval officer Gavin Menzies speculated that in 1421 Zheng He, aka Sinbao or Sinbad, reached America before Columbus.
Nanjing (formerly Nanking) is a stately former capital, protected by the longest city wall ever built, but an adventure story like Sinbad's suits the city just as well.
"Nanjing is a mirror of China's history," Mr. Sun says. Many believe that this is where modern China began, when British gunboats steamed up the Yangtze in 1841 and forced China to open its ports to foreigners. Here, in the early 1900s, Dr. Sun Yat-sen declared China a republic, toppling the Qing Dynasty. He restored Nanjing as China's capital, and is immortalized in a mausoleum that exudes all the splendor of the Lincoln memorial. The city witnessed the horrors of modern warfare in the carnage of the Nanjing Massacre in 1937.
For me, Nanjing was a side trip from main stops in Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Beijing, but it quickly became one of the most pleasant surprises of three weeks in China.
I arrived on a domestic flight, knowing just three words in Mandarin. But Sun, the guide arranged through the China International Travel Service, met me at the airport with the poise and mild British accent of a well-traveled sociologist, although he grew up and studied in Nanjing. His parents were intellectuals whose careers were stifled by the Cultural Revolution.
"When people from Nanjing visit other cities," Sun notes, "they say they are from Jingling," its ancient name, which is translated as "golden city." It first became China's capital in the third century A.D. and again in the 1300s.
The Ming tombs on nearby Purple Mountain are a big draw, so on my first day Sun spirited me past the red Drum Tower and through the city's roundabouts to the east side.
On the hill outside the massive gray city gate, schoolchildren gamboled through the annual plum-blossom festival, as acres of pretty pink and white blossoms stretched into the morning mist. It reminded me of Washington D.C., at cherry blossom time.
We walked down the Sacred Way toward the Ming tombs, a scenic promenade past huge stone elephants, camels, and lions. At night, the path is believed by some to teem with the wandering ghosts of emperors.
In the Drum Tower's market kiosk, vendors sell polished stones, porcelain, calligraphy, and paintings. One artist unrolled for me stunning watercolors that he had painted. Through a series of gestures and pen scribbles we bargained for two cards and a landscape of Tai Hu lake area in bloom.
The city's main industries make television sets (sold in China and Cuba) and Panda computers. A computer costs almost a month's rent, but Sun's cable modem costs just 100 yuan a month - about $12. An Internet cafe named PC Bar felt like a Starbucks-cum-video-arcade; I checked my e-mail for less than 75 cents an hour.
Because I couldn't speak Chinese, getting a bite to eat by myself was more challenging than logging on. In the Hunan Road commercial district, I hunted for a noodle shop and ended up instead at a Korean restaurant with a plate of kebabs.
The next day I wanted to explore the Sinbad connection, so from the city's northwest gate Sun and I walked between the city wall and the river, toward Lion Hill. We passed the site of the temple where the British gunboats forced China to open to the West and give up Hong Kong.