Some 600 years ago, Nanjing was the most populous city on the planet. Today it remains home to what's said to be the world's longest city wall.
I’m walking along a great wall in China but it’s not The Great Wall of China. I’m in a Chinese city which was once the world’s biggest metropolis but it’s not Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong.
Instead I’m traversing a wall few foreigners are aware of in a city that is barely known outside of China. Around me is Nanjing city and beneath my feet is its grand City Wall.
Some 600 years ago Nanjing was the most populous city on the planet, home to up to half a million people. That may sound small by modern standards but consider that historians believe the world’s population at that time was only about 350 million people, which is less than 5 per cent of the current global population of 7.6 billion.
These days Nanjing is a monster of a city, home to almost 10 million people — as many as Sydney and Melbourne combined. Yet, despite its incredible size, it’s not nearly as important now as it was back in the 14th and 15th centuries when it was the capital of China.
Nanjing is one of the most significant cities in China’s history, as one of the four ancient capitals of the country along with Beijing, Xi’an and Luoyang. It had three separate periods as China’s capital — first in the 3rd century followed by its most illustrious stint from 1368 to 1421, and then finally for a brief period in the 1500s.
During Nanjing’s second reign, a wall was constructed around the entire city. Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming Dynasty, had the wall built as a means of repelling invading forces who sought to overthrow his capital.
In this endeavour he also received some help from Nanjing’s surroundings, with Zhongshan Mountain, the Qinhuai River and Xuanwu Lake all acting as natural obstacles protecting the city.
Chinese city walls had traditionally been built in square or rectangular shapes but Nanjing’s wall was innovative in the way it curled around the mountain, river and lake.
Reputedly it remains the longest city wall on the planet at 35km. The 650-year-old wall has been remarkably well preserved as Nanjing has turned into a hyper-modern metropolis.
Downtown Nanjing still is ringed by this giant structure, more than 20km of which remains intact, with most of it open to visitors.
Tourists are allowed to walk along its 20m-high walls looking down upon some of the most ancient sections of the city.
The wall is such a popular spot in Nanjing that it is not just travellers you will find here. As I walked along the wall for almost two hours I passed dozens of locals using it as a spot for recreation. There was a group of middle-aged ladies who, with a portable stereo and microphone at their disposal, were singing and dancing together.
More commonly there were young couples sat on benches by the wall’s edge canoodling as they looked out across the city. The wall also attracts many fitness fanatics, who climb up and down its stairs, huffing and puffing, or power walk or jog for kilometres high above the city.
Aside from the many fascinating remains of its history as China’s capital, Nanjing is famous for being one of the greenest cities in China.
Nanjing has many tree-lined streets and a wonderful selection of parks in its downtown area, including Xuanwu Lake Park, Linggu Park, Zhongshan Scenic Area and Nanjing Rainflower Terrace Scenic Area.
For tourists, Nanjing owns a handy location on China’s eastern seaboard. Bullet trains from Shanghai take just 70 minutes to reach Nanjing, making it a great day trip. If there’s no time to make the long trip north from Shanghai to see the Great Wall, tourists need only visit Nanjing to walk along its lesser known but similarly impressive counterpart.