NANJING

When the train drops me off in Nanjing it is late in the evening and my first task is to find my hostel. The coarse-grained map on my travel book helps me to some extent, but when I get near my destination I have to rely on the indications of people and this is where things get complex: I go back and forth on a pedestrian street for at least one hour as each person I ask sends me in the opposite direction from where I was coming from.

In the hostel I meet a young Chinese journalist who speaks basic English. That interests me a lot, since I can imagine the peculiarities of such a job in a country where information is not free. I also realize, however, that he may feel uneasy to speak about it because it may be considered either a dangerous topic to speak about, or an embarassing one. Therefore I avoid to speak about journalism in general terms and I focus instead on the specifics of his daily activity. He says that he works for a regional TV station and he deals with news. He is free to say what he likes, as long as he deals with news only. He's not free, though, to deal with other topics such as politics because it is the management who assigns tasks. I am not sure how it works here in Europe but I guess something similar happens: the vast majority of the newspapers have a clear-cut political orientation and journalists working for those newspapers are not free to write what they like. The big difference, I believe, is that here, whatever their political orientation, journalists may be able to find a newspaper or tv who can publish their ideas, whereas in China if you have a political orientation in contrast with the Chinese government then you are very unlikely to be able to see your work published. Internet might be an alternative, weren't it censored.

»So, let me take the chance to speak about the Internet censorship (jokingly called "The Great Firewall of China"): based on the catastrophic reports that I had read in the western press, I came here under the impression that Internet is nearly unuseable in China. Once here I realized that this is not the case: the Chinese use Internet as we do. Internet Points can be found everywhere in the country and they are crowded day and night. Don't ask whether these computers come with properly licensed software because copyright regulations are ignored in China in fashion, in music, in software and many other areas. But, talking about Internet censorship, most of the functionalities are available: email for example. Most of the web sites are accessible, censorship addresses those sites whose content is considered "a threat to the country security": mostly because they speak about history in a way the Chinese government doesn't like[1]. This means in practise most of the non-Chinese sites speaking about history, because history is "read" differently in China than in western countries, in particular with respect to the civil war and the recognition of Taiwan as an independent country. There is an even more different reading of history with Japanese, related to the Japanese invasion of China soon before the 2nd world war. Notable among the censored sites are Wikipedia and YouTube.
A foreigner like me experiences the censorship in this way: you enter the url for a web site, for example www.wikipedia.org, and the returned web page, instead of the Wikipedia Home Page, is a page chock-full of Chinese characters: it's where they explain that the requested contents are "a threat to the country security".
Then there are tricks which allow you to see "banned" contents: as soon as you come to China you get to know them and, according to my experience, they mostly work.
Putting together the fact that most of the functionalities are not censored and that the censored ones are often "unofficially" accessible, you'll have a picture of Internet in China which is completely different from what is reported in the western press. This does not mean at all, of course, that Internet censorship is a good thing. That said, it would be desirable if the press in the West could be more accurate in reporting facts, instead of just looking for appealing and exciting (though untrue) news.
It's worth mentioning that, in addition to censorship, there is also Internet spying; I would expect that the Chinese intelligence is fairly active in this area, as well as the intelligence service of several other countries.

I first see the famous Gate of China, an amazing fortified gate guarding the South entrance to the city walls. It's one of the best pieces of military architecture in China and it's certainly worth the visit. A surprise waits me at the top of the gate: touching one of the 3 "towers":

I realize that they are made from polystyrene!!
I will be later told that this is an accurate reconstruction of the original towers. I am not sure if the "reconstruction" is in polystyrene to save money or because the current structure would not be able to stand the weight of other materials. Anyway, I believe that it would be better to be explicit on such an important thing, instead of saying nothing and waiting for the tourist to find it out the hard way.

The bricks in the city wall bear a "signature" with information on the producer and the date:

so that, if the brick performs below an expected standard, the producer can be identified. An accountability system which looks surprising since it was set up 600 years ago, and still missing today in most of the goods produced in China (and possibly elsewhere).

In the Xuanwu Park I am welcomed by a torrential rain and by a sentence which stands out for its depth: 'China is the birth place of Chinese rose' . Nonetheless, the park is nice, with funny "sculptures":

Upon my return to town a canal with a "basrelief" waits me:

in case I missed the Dragons .

In China shops are ubiquitous. They are very often attended by a single person or family, they are open day and night, they are very small and goods are packed to an extent far beyond what you could ever imagine. This is a greengrocer in Old Shanghai:

Malls and supermarkets are now catching up at a fast pace, especially in large towns (there are many European chains too). In Nanjing I go into a supermarket for the first time since I am in China. These supermarkets are very much similar to ours, from the layout of goods to the furniture; even the personnel uniforms are alike. One thing impresses me though: loudspeakers broadcast ads very loudly and reiterate them approximately every minute[2], something that I have thankfully never run into in Europe. If they do that it means it increases sales, but on me it has the opposite effect: as soon as I find the jasmine tea I was looking for, I run to the cash desk and go out, my ear-drums consenting .

I have dinner in a small restaurant near the University. This gives me the chance to watch, even if from the outside, a Chinese University. I am impressed by the beauty and modernity of the buildings, most of which are made from steel and glass. Through the glass I can see the bustling activity still going on, at 9:30 PM: rooms are crowded with professors and students as lessons are under way. I guess those students work during the day and go to University at night. Well, hat off!! It's so difficult to work and study at the same time.
While I return to downtown on foot I hear noises coming from above my head. I raise my eyes and I see, high in the sky, lights cast on the frames of under-construction skyscrapers. "Hung" to those frames are several workers who are building the New China - under the rain, late in the evening, a hundred metres high above street level. I therefore realize that, in a short time interval, I have been experiencing two examples of the great willingness to grow and improve of nowadays China.

Next morning I set off to visit the Purple Mountain, which hosts several interesting places. It's raining cats and dogs: enormous drops pour thick and vertical: I have never seen anything like that before, and it will go on for the next 6 hours. On one side this explains the lush nature I have seen so far in China. On the other side, it makes my visit harder, but I go nonetheless. It takes one and a half hours to cross the town South to North by bus amidst a heavy traffic further worsened by the bad weather. Once at the train station, I need to figure out which other bus I need to take to get to the Purple Mountain. I get soaked while I ask for directions to the bus company employees. At last I understand that I have to cross the road and wait on the other side. The bus shelter is no more than 30 cm wide, so I get even more soaked. As if this were not enough, buses and cars raise water from the enormous puddles in the street. While I curse Nanjing and I am on the verge of giving up, the bus finally comes and I get on. When the Purple Mountain is in sight I show the map to the bus driver and I show him where I'd like to go. He stops and shows me a pedestrian alley going up the mountain. Cool: I was looking for the bus going on top of the mountain, not one flanking it. I get off and I shelter under a sort of arcade some 20 metres from the road where some labourers are carrying doors from one room to another. I need to catch a taxi to the top of the mountain, but it's hard to do that being 20 metres away from the road. There is a traffic light nearby, so whenever a taxi stops there I run to it to check whether it is free - catching my fair amount of water in the meantime; if it is not free, I go back to my shelter. This happens over and over again because all the taxis have a passenger. Meanwhile the busy labourers look at me as if they are thinking: "Since you are doing nothing, what about helping us?".

I find a free taxi at last and I go to the hilltop. I opt for the Sun Yat Sen Mausoleum. A Mausoleum conveys the idea of a sheltered space, suitable for such a heavy rain. I am unlucky though: the Mausoleum itself is sheltered indeed, but it is a relatively small tomb. To get there from the entrance, you have to walk for almost one kilometre:

On my way back to the train station I take the wrong bus. The driver drops me off in the middle of nowhere and says to me to wait for the right one. Here there is no bus shelter at all (which makes me think that the 30 cm-wide one was not that bad, after all), so I wait under a tree. The bus arrives just when the water has reached each and every square inch of my body.

I leave Nanjing with mixed feelings: I have caught a glimpse of this beautiful town but, because of the terrible weather, I haven't had the chance to do much. This is the beautiful train station:

In the evening, on the train to Taishan, I call home.

- Carlo, we heard that in the Shanghai area there is a large typhoon with heavy heavy rains, are you aware of that?
- No, I was not aware of that. But I can confirm that the news is fairly accurate.

  1. ^For completeness sake, it should be mentioned that other topics are censored: Tibet Independence, Police Behavior and others
  2. ^I don't understand the Chinese, but I can tell, from sound and tone, whether a message is repeated over and over.