By Paul Shoul
When I was 10 years old growing up near Boston, I started to dig to China in my backyard behind the bushes where my mother could not see me from the kitchen window.
A friend told me that it was on the on the other side of the world, and they all walked upside down. I had to find out.
I made quite a hole; deeper than I was tall, until my father put a stop to my excavation worried that I would puncture a buried gas line.
Dreaming of my parent’s home, I drifted off to sleep during the 18-hour flight on Eva Airlines from New York to Taipei earlier this year. This would be my third trip to Taiwan, a country that I have come to love, but my first trip to mainland China, a place that I have always wanted to visit. This trip would take me first to Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, on to Nanjing, and finally Shanghai.
By the way, the Chinese walk rightside up, there are a lot of them, and the country is growing really fast.
Taiwan is a tropical island 100 miles off the coast of mainland China. It has a beautiful countryside, majestic mountains, and impressive gorges that rival the Grand Canyon. There are deep freshwater lakes and miles of beaches.
Taipei County is home to more than six million people. Taipei city is a frenetic non-stop 24-hour neon extravaganza that straddles life between the old and the hyper new.
If you love cities this is one of the great ones. It is very safe. The Taiwanese are some of the nicest and most polite people you ever meet. Although this was my third time in Taipei. I discovered new things to do and spots to check out.
Foot massage: it hurts so good
All over Taipei you will find foot massage parlors on nearly every street. While you relax in comfortable lounge chairs, masseuses sit at your feet causing excruciating pain. This was my first time and I had the full treatment at KinRaku Massage Parlor.
After soaking my feet in a tea bath, my masseuse began his attack. It was incredibly painful, but when he identified a lower back problem known only to my MD and me, I relaxed.
He dug in again as I tried to stone face my way through it. Afterwards my feet and my back had never felt better. More than just a simple massage it is a form of reflexology. This is a classic Taiwanese experience.
Shark fins, herbs, and the dumpling girls
Taipei has an incredible street life, and the street food to fuel it. The night markets such as Shilin will blow your mind with the variety of food, and shopping at the small stalls. You can literally find and eat anything.
If you are brave enough, try the famous stinky tofu. It is great if you can get it down without smelling it. There are also more traditional food markets clustered in areas of the city, some of which sell things you probably wont find in the local Stop and Shop back home.
Dihua Street in the Datong District of Taipei is the traditional place to find Chinese medicines and a cure for every aliment. I found jars of select ginseng there valued in the thousands of dollars.
There are also rows of stores selling a huge variety of dried seafood such as dried cuttlefish, squid and alas, mountains of shark fins. It is shocking to see so many in one place. There are global efforts to stop the mass killing of sharks just for their fins.
For a milder cure, Herb Street in the Wanhua district is a small area that specializes in herbal treatments and supplies. People were being treated on the spot with steaming herbal infusions. It is also known as “Salvation Street.” I felt better just walking through inhaling the bouquet. You can also sample a plethora of potions and tea.
The Dumpling Girls
Din Tai Fung Dumpling House is legendary. It is crowded and loud. There is always a line and it is worth the wait. We started with hot and sour soup served with fried rice and eggs. The dumpling girl, our waitress, arrived with tall stacks of round bamboo steamers filled with shrimp, pork, and vegetable dumplings.
My favorite: soup dumplings filled with pork and broth that exploded in your mouth as you bit into them. They are incredibly fresh and flavorful. I was in danger of over eating had a friend not dragged me away from the table. Din Tai Fung rivals the great restaurants of the world.
Boarding the plane from Taipei to Nanjing I felt a change: my sense of personal space was invaded. Taiwanese are polite to a fault when waiting in a line. The Chinese were bumping into me, assaulting me. A line seemed to mean push rather than wait.
The next day, when visiting the Nanjing Massacre museum, I was crowded together with hordes of school children. I realized that rather than being rude, they liked touching and bumping into each other. It is a way of bonding as a group.
With a population of 1.3 billion there is no choice. When I started to enjoy the crush, I started to enjoy mainland China.
After weeks of work getting the right visas, and registering my camera equipment, clearing customs in Nanjing was easier than expected. The visa will cost you $130 US. Leave plenty of time to negotiate the Chinese bureaucracy before your trip. Things can go wrong. I received my visa just hours before I was supposed to fly.
Nanjing, the historic capital of six past dynasties, is more than 2,500 years old. It has played an important role in China’s history. With more than five million people, it is the capital of Jiangsu Province.
Like all of China, it is modernizing and growing fast. Its strong cultural heritage and historic sites make it a place for China to remember as the country rushes head first into the future.
Dr. Sun Yat Sen’s Mausoleum
Dr. Sun Yat-sen is the father of the Chinese revolution. A doctor and political organizer, he led the uprising to overthrow the Quing Dynasty in 1911 ending 2000 years of imperial rule. In 1912 he was named the first president of the Chinese Republic.
His mausoleum is located in Zhongshan Mountain (Purple Mountain) in the eastern outskirts of the city. It is a pilgrimage for Chinese people to climb the 392 steps and eight archways leading to his tomb.
The view of Nanjing from the top of the mountain is beautiful as is the mausoleum. There you can join the crowds in offering your respects.
Within the park, winding trails will lead you past many other historic tombs and memorials. This is Nanjing’s most famous landmark and a must see to understand the city.
Nanjing Massacre Memorial
In 1937 Japan began the invasion of Nanjing, one of history’s darkest events. More than 300,000 people were killed during the span of only six weeks.
The official orders from the Japanese high command were simple: “Kill all captives.” Children were killed. Women were raped and mutilated. Thousands of people were gathered together, shot and thrown into the river.
Two officers held a contest cutting off heads with a sword that was covered in the Japanese newspapers like a sporting event called the “race to 100.” When they had killed the first 100 and lost count, they went into extra innings and raced to 150.
The memorial and museum is a somber place built on the remains of 10,000 victims. There is an extensive collection of documents, photographs and artifacts bringing this tragedy into focus. This was the most memorable and educational place I visited in China.
The entrance through the wall that surrounded the city during the Ming Dynasty is the largest gate of its kind in China. The complexities of its fortifications, multiple doors and chambers, defended the entrance to the city.
Inside, stairs to the top are lined by huge stone ramps for soldiers on horseback. There are 13 caves built into the wall that housed the army during an attack and 14 others for horses food and weapons. This is the largest most well preserved city gate of its kind in the world.
Nanjing Brocade Museum
The Brocade Museum is also an active workshop where silk is still produced on old-fashioned looms. Watching the workers gives you appreciation for the thousands of hours that go into producing every inch of fine silk.
Progress is measured in millimeters. It is incredibly time-consuming. Some of China’s finest examples of silk brocade are on display. There is a gift shop and even a small runway where we were treated to a quirky fashion show.
Qinhuai River Cruise
The Qinhuai River, a branch of the Yangtze, runs through Nanjing. Charming and historically important, life has thrived on its banks for thousands of years.
Near the Confucius temple, the streets are filled with people grazing at the hundreds of seafood restaurants and shopping at the store lined alleyways of the old city.
At Panchi wharf you can rent one of the beautiful painted boats for a slow tour of the river, lined with historic buildings temples and glowing lantern sculptures. It is a fantastic setting.
The river tour will cost you about $20 an hour per person or rent the entire boat for approx $400 for up to 20 people.
My tour included tea and snacks and a traditional Oua Fong musician. If you can sing, a karaoke machine is included.
Travel from Nanjing to Shanghai has become a lot faster this year. A new high-speed train reduces the trip from two hours to just 73 minutes at speeds over 185 mph.
The train station in Nanjing is a spectacle. It seemed impossible that such a mass of humanity could negotiate boarding the trains.
Arriving at Shanghai station is even more daunting. A city of almost 21 million people, it seemed they were all traveling at the same time.
Shanghai grows before your eyes. It is a modern financial powerhouse, drawing workers from all over China and financial institutions and manufacturing companies from all over the planet.
On the back streets there is still an older China, where street vendors make the famous Shanghai dumplings on wood fires. It is quickly disappearing as Shanghai tears down its past to make way for the neon future. The city is becoming hypermodern. It is so bright; I imagine it can be seen from the moon.
In the center Shanghai’s old city, Yuyan Garden, built during the Ming Dynasty is over 400 years old. It is a sanctuary from the hectic city. Beautiful pathways lead you through rock formations, pavilions and waterfalls.
The highlight of the garden is a five-ton Jade rock. There is a large pond in the center teeming with fish. You can also attend a highly educational tea ceremony and buy some of the best tea China has to offer.
This area of the old city is a shopper’s heaven. The streets are lined with craft stores, Jade, and antiques and restaurants. It is a major tourist destination. Be prepared for the crowds but it is worth it.
Jade Buddha Temple
In the Western part of the city, this is an active temple that you are welcome to enter. There are 70 resident monks. The temple and their ceremonies are beautiful. It was built to house the centerpieces of the temple, the huge Burmese white jade sitting Buddha and the recumbent Buddha
Shanghai World Financial Center
Having been to the top of Taipei 101 in Taiwan, I was eager to go even higher to see what China’s tallest building was like. It is the second tallest in the world. The journey to the top starts with a futuristic elevator ride. It is like an amusement ride. The view from the observatory is spectacular and offers the only perspective from which you can really appreciate how big Shanghai really is.
A walk along the Huangpu River and famous Bund is mandatory. The river is lined with old historic buildings of classic world architecture line for a mile. They are a monument to the international financial institutions that were drawn to Shanghai.
There is a promenade where the city comes to stroll. It is one of the major tourist destinations and one of the few places you get a sense of open space.
Art Street and the French Concession
Taikang road, (Art Street) and the French concession are the epicenter of hip in Shanghai. A French settlement and territory conceded in 1848 is now a maze of trendy cafes, clubs, restaurants and art galleries. The feeling of prosperity is palpable.
The old section of the city is more like the Hollywood version of China that we have in our minds. This is the modern reality. It is an international crowd, doing business, drinking perfect lattes and looking exceedingly beautiful. Leave plenty of time to wander.
The Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe performs daily at 7:00 pm at the Shanghai Center Theater. I was bedazzled by their show. Every bit as jaw dropping as Cirque du Solei, their feats of gymnastic twisting turning and jumping will leave you questioning if what you are seeing is real. They have performed world wide to international accolades.
The best chicken soup in the world
The food in Shanghai is spectacular. There are restaurants representing every type of cuisine in the world and every region of China. I had the pleasure of dining at the Chongquing, Cynet, Seagulls and Xinjishi restaurants.
My favorite meal was at the Hua Ting Hotel & Towers, where I was staying. This was a 16-course dinner that started with plates of small shrimp and dried fish.
Then came the famous Shanghai hairy crab that was simply steamed with a delicious light sauce. Tender Short ribs were next and then abalone presented in an ice tower.
The dumplings were perfect, even better than I had on the street, crusty on the bottom filled with spicy pork. The whole elaborate feast was crafted to lead up to the climax of a simple bowl of unadorned chicken soup made from an old hen. It was intensely flavorful, Zen simple and perfect. Even my Jewish mother would have admitted defeat. It was the best chicken soup in the world. I never imagined that this is it what I would find at the end of my childhood tunnel started so many years ago.
Links to find out more about travel to Taiwan and China
Eva Airways is a fantastic airline flying to and around China and Taiwan
Where to stay in Taipei
I stayed at the Forte Orange Hotel. I loved this little place. Modern and moderately priced, the rooms are comfortable. Best of all it is located right in the middle of a cool part of Taipei where the small streets glow at night, lined with endless little bars and restaurants. The ever-present street food stalls nearby are my favorite part of Taiwan.
For the full luxury treatment check out the Grand Hotel. The lobby alone is larger than many small towns. Built in 1952 by Chiang Kai Shek and his wife to accommodate ambassadors and foreign quests, the hotel even has a secret tunnel for them to make their escape in case of an attack or air raid. The rooms are fantastic, adorned with classic Chinese antiques, and the ones with a balcony offer a stunning view of Taipei.
More info on Taiwan
Where to stay in Nanjing
I stayed at the Mandarin Garden Hotel. It is modern, The rooms are comfortable and it is centrally located. The Breakfast buffet is dangerously good.
Where to stay in Shanghai
I stayed at the five-star Hua Ting Hotel & Towers. It is conveniently located in the Xu Jia Hui business district. With elegant and spacious rooms, a happening scene in the lobby with spas, a great bar and fine restaurants. The breakfast buffet is enormous and it has the best noodle bar I have tried anywhere.
This trip was made with assistance from EVA Airways.
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Paul Shoul is a Northampton, MA-based photographer who doubles as a staff writer for GoNOMAD. For thirty years he’s lived in the Pioneer Valley and chronicled life there through his work in the Valley Advocate. He’s also been seen in the Boston Globe, New York Times, BBC, the Chronicle of Higher Education and many other publications. Today as well as shooting around the world for GoNOMAD he works for local nonprofits, banks and advertising agencies.