Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Day 16. Hot and frustrated in Nanjing

Today had all the hallmarks of a crummy day: It was unbelievably hot, the stupid city only has signs in 10% of the streets, I was working with a totally inaccurate little map from the Lonely Planet book, nobody could figure out what I was talking about, and at the end I had to eat a big slice of Humble Pie. But let me start from the beginning:

I had told Luke that the only reason we had come to Nanjing is because it was the home port of the Treasure Fleet, a fleet of hundreds or even thousands of vessels that between 1405 and 1430 was the main maritime power of the world. The fleet had sailed under the orders of Admiral Zheng He (also written as Cheng Ho), and it charted and visited all of the “known” world, which for the Chinese meant all of the Indian Ocean (but read 1421 The Year China Discovered America for a tantalizing hypothesis that Chinese ships sailed along the west coast of the Americas). So this is a big deal for anyone interested in the voyages of discovery, right? Wrong! It seems that nobody here has heard of this great event in Chinese history, and that I was doomed to get blank stares in response to my inquiries.

Prior to arrival I had consulted a website, which gave the location of the archaeological excavation that in 1985 found the shipyard where the enormous treasure ships had been built (they were behemoths that would have made an 1800’s man o’war look like a little barky in comparison). The location was very close to the center of town, so I dragged Luke there, and we walked up and down, left and right, clockwise and counter-clockwise around the area without finding the site. All my inquiries were responded with blank looks, and for once nobody could understand my most basic questions. Luke was a tower of patience and common sense, and time and again told me that it would be a lot more reasonable to have the ship yard by the river, and not in the center of town. Yes, it would make sense, but this crazy city without names on the streets was not reasonable, was it?

In the pointless search we visited the Imperial Lake (Nanjing was the imperial capital under the first emperor of the Ming dynasty), the city wall, and the Jinming temple, but the bloody Zheng He museum was nowhere to be found.

At the end I gave up (yes, I must confess I actually gave up), and trying to rescue the day dragged Luke in the direction of the Taiping Museum, but even this was being very difficult due to the miserable street signals and the lousy “sketch” I was using for a map, so at the first stationary store I found, I walked in and bought a real city map. Armed with this we reached the Taiping Museum without any problem. Boy, but was it hot! We stopped under the shade of a tree to rest, and goaded by my previous failure I studied the new map in careful detail. Nothing. Nada. No bloody Zheng He museum.

And then Luke’s common sense came to haunt me: “But the shipyards had to be by the river.” So I followed the course of the river in the new map and, bingo! There it was. Plain for all to see. I jumped to my feet and almost dragged Luke out of the stupid Taiping Museum, hailed a cab, and sped toward the riverside location.

Yes, it was not a figment of my imagination. The site of the three Ming shipyards really exists, and it really has been excavated, and it really has bronze haut reliefs depicting the arrival of the Treasure Fleet to the great ports of antiquity in Taiwan, Vietnam, Borneo, Sumatra, Hormuz, Siam, Sri Lanka, Calicut, Malacca, Goa, the Read Sea, and the West coast of Africa. Yes, it really has bronze copies of the stele that Zheng He had erected at each of this landings, and it really has a bigger than life statue of the famous admiral, and the gigantic rudder recovered from one of the Treasure Ships, and a true-scale reconstruction of what one of the medium size vessels might have looked like.

It is a pity that the day was impossibly hot, and that I had spent so much of Luke’s energy in the morning’s foolish wild goose chase, and that there was no one else in the archaeologic park to share on the experience. It really seems that nobody in Nanjing knows or cares about the voyages of Zheng He and its Treasure Fleet :(

After the small triumph represented by finding the site, there was nothing else to do but come back to the hostel and try to chill and rehydrate. In an hour or so we will go to dinner, and early tomorrow morning we will take off for Xi’an.