Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi province, is not nearly the most important city in China, but this is perhaps what makes it so good.
I could not reach who I wanted to meet by telephone. He did not return my emails. The office of the organization that he’s a representative for was nowhere to be found. Their website offline. I sat in a KFC in Nanchang and asked myself, what I’m going to do now?
This was not a questions basked in despair. It was derived from excitement — kind of like a school kid deliberating over what he wants to do on an unexpected snow day. That’s pretty much what I had in Nanchang: a snow day. I arrived late the night before, paid for two nights in a hotel, and was left with nothing to do by morning — which is what I really want most in a city I’ve never been in before.
Jiangxi province is one of the lesser known ones in all of China. In fact, it’s the least discussed on social media, and generally only makes it into the news when it’s having some kind of crisis — like the droughts that have been plaguing the province over the past few years or the fact that its Poyang Lake, the largest in China, shrivels up and just about disappears each dry season. Other than that, Jiangxi is a blank slate for the imagination. It’s a real nowhere kind of land, the sort of place that you arrive in without preconceptions or expectations. Travelers don’t talk about Jiangxi province, and even the Chinese have no reason to mention it unless telling you they’re from there. Jiangxi is a place that your friends have never been to, that nobody is telling you to go, that nobody is polluting your mind with warnings about or tour suggestions. It is my impression that this is the best kind of place for travel.
Jiangxi province sits in the southeast of China, to the west of Fujian province, hugs the Yangtze River to the north, touches Guangdong in the south and Hunan and Hubei in the west. I’ve ridden through here before on trains, though I’ve never stopped to take a look around.
But I wasn’t planning on going to Jiangxi to just poke around and see what I’d find. As with most of my travels throughout these past two years I had a more calculated purpose. I was going to Jiangxi to interview people and collect information, quotes, photos, and video about Poyang Lake. I would be busy, each day I would have a place to get to, an objective to complete, notes to file, arrangements to make for the following day. This type of travel is intense, it’s challenging, there is little time for sleep, and the fatigue — physical and mental — tends to border on the extreme. Though the shear stimulation is what hooks me, and I’ve found it difficult to break free and return to gentle wandering for the sake of such.
So when I was presented with an empty day I leaned back in my chair, relaxed, and smiled a little. I looked out the window of the KFC and sipped my coffee. I saw an old beggar man in Mao era blue fatigues sitting on the sidewalk with his legs spread, as though he was about to do a V-sit-and-reach. But he wasn’t training for any physical fitness test, he was writing a poem on a long sheet of paper with a brush and blue paint. There was a small group of people slowly reading out the poem as he slowly painted it, some would drop coins into the tin can he had reserved for such.
There were other people in the streets, selling mobile phones, fried dough sticks, cheap battery operated trinkets, you name it. The streets were full of life, people were in them, not just walking through them. I finished my coffee and left the KFC. I chatted with the poem painter for a while and then began walking through the streets with nothing to do but talk to people and make videos.
I knew next to nothing about Nanchang, and it gave me that tingly new feeling that comes from being in a new place — where every step, observation, conversation commands your attention a little more than it ordinarily would and carries an extra tinge of excitement. It’s that protective mental state of being aware of your surroundings when in an unfamiliar place, of being alert to the slight details of what’s going on around you that’s the fun here. Sounds are clearer, faces more vivid, colors more distinct, and curiosity turned up a few more notches. The crap of the mind is pushed into the background while what is right in front of you stays in focus. It’s this feeling, this mild dose of adrenaline, that traveler’s start to crave after a while, and after years it becomes an all out addiction. It just feels good, and that’s perhaps what keeps us moving.
Nanchang is the capital of Jiangxi province, it sits on the bank of Poyang Lake, and was once a major commercial transport hub between the Yangtze and Pearl River Deltas. The city was turned into a backwater of sorts when coastal steamships became the predominant way to ship goods between the north and south of eastern China, but it’s always remained the commercial hub and most thriving city in Jiangxi — for whatever this is worth. But it is this lack of geographic importance that is perhaps why the city has retain much of the feel of old China — despite the fact that the downtown area has been completely rebuilt over the past half century.
Whereas many of the downtown areas of China’s eastern cities have been almost sterilized, Nanchang excretes the groady essence of street life. I can’t use the adjective “colorful” here, as there is nothing colorful about the grey/ dark blue/ black urban-tricolor of a Chinese city, but there is a vibrancy here that makes the term almost applicable. People line the sidewalks selling anything they seem to be able to think of, each electronics store has a half dozen private vendors outside their doors selling phones off of blankets and makeshift tables, both male and female day laborers sit by the roadside behind little hand painted signs advertising their skills, old men gamble, do magic tricks, and sing karaoke in the parks, street food vendors clog entire alleyways, families hang out in the main square, and groups of teenage boys try to look cool sitting beneath the towering monument that commemorates the Nanchang Uprising. The city is as busy as any other in this country but the pace seems a little slower. It’s the kind of place where people talk to each other, where you ask someone directions and they walk with you and show you where you want to go instead of just pointing or telling you, where people still happy to talk with a foreigner.
“I like this place,” I said to myself as I walked around Nanchang. I was in an old city that had been modernized but not glitterized. It was still rough, and had not yet been turned into a zone of skyscrapers, malls, high-rises, and people rushing through the streets, ignoring everyone, trying to get to where they want to go as fast as they can. And I can’t see a reason why it ever would become a place like this. Nanchang is not a frontier of China, it is not the heart of China, it is not an epicenter of anything, it’s a place that has no reason to be important — and this is perhaps what makes it so good.
The show of travel is in the streets. Sure, museums are nice, bars can be fun, restaurants delicious, but the real joy of this profession is found walking around, talking to the people, asking questions, learning through the answers, 10 minute friendships — this is travel.