China: A nation's spirit felt in Nanjing

Lurking in a small bamboo forest outside were life-size statues of monks singing and playing the lute. Elderly couples — real ones, not statues — practiced tai chi nearby.

After a few hours, I left the museum and took a taxi up Purple Mountain to enjoy the rest of a crisp November day.

Purple Mountain is the great playground of Nanjing, a huge swath of forest and trails where 35,000 plum trees explode with pink and burgundy blooms every year.

I dodged boys flying kites and headed up the Sacred Way, a winding path lined with huge stone elephants, camels, lions and horses leading to the mausoleum of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming dynasty. Hundreds of people jammed the path, snapping photos of autumn trees aflame in red and gold.

I retreated farther up the mountain to the mausoleum of Sun Yat-sen, who founded the Republic of China here in 1912 and is considered the father of modern China.

The memorial is atop a very steep set of stairs with a marble statue of Sun inside.

From the top, the true scale of Nanjing can be taken in. The mountains spread down to the 600-year-old city walls before petering out in a sea of urban congestion.

As darkness fell, I returned to my room at the Nanjing Central Hotel, an eccentric place where a willowy woman in a white dress played Elvis songs on a baby grand piano.

The dinner buffet was magical.

Imagine a Chinese Sizzler but instead of steak and mashed potatoes, there was salted duck, frog balls (tiny globes of frog meat) and two-kinds-of-fungus soup. Oh, and all the beer you could drink.

I stumbled hypnotically through the exotic plenty, entranced by the sensor-controlled lids on the food trays that rose in silent tribute whenever I approached.

After several trips to the buffet and beer station, I slowly made for the street and caught a cab to the Temple of Confucius.

The temple, dedicated to China's greatest sage, stands near the Qinhuai River and marks the center of Nanjing's bustling market area, a warren of narrow alleys where everything from silk to mackerel-on-a-stick is sold.

After a day spent immersed in Nanjing's daunting past, reveling in its vibrant present was a welcome relief.

I drank a cup of tea beside the river and watched the colorful boats slip by. Moonlight fell on the water, red lanterns swung in the evening breeze. Throngs of young people strolled over a neon-lighted bridge. Standing tall in the nearby temple, a marble Confucius smiled down on us.

But the past was never far away.

The next morning brought me to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, a vivid depiction of the atrocities committed by the Japanese army after it invaded China and captured the city on Dec. 13, 1937.

A 40-foot-high sculpture of a woman carrying a dead baby, titled "Family Ruined," stood outside.

"Never returns the son killed. Never returns the husband buried alive. Sorrow drowns the wife raped. Heavens!" read the inscription.

The museum chronicles the six-week orgy of violence that became known as the Rape of Nanking, as the city was once called. Given that more than 300,000 people were slaughtered, the museum is fairly restrained. But polemics and hyperbole are unnecessary when facts alone are so damning.