Photo essay: The Streets of Nanjing

A few years ago I had the pleasure of living in Nanjing for an extended period of time due to work. Sure, I did quite a few sightseeing expeditions during my time in China, but I always found that each day I walked to work I discovered the most fascinating things; those things you only see when you walk through your quarter and try to communicate with your neighbours; those things that you’d excitedly report back to your family back home, or friends in other countries; those things that won’t pop up  just by entering Nanjing as a search term on Bing or Google. It is the atmosphere that I am talking about, the vibe, the first impressions. The little things that differ from your home country – or are the same. Not the sights, but the details that make you stop and wonder.

The streets of Nanjing

So in an effort to communicate this to said friends and family, I took a few hours and walked my regular route to work in the quarter of Gulou, stopped and snapped away. And here are some Nanjing street scenes, a snapshot of life in the capital city of Jiangsu province:

A block of flats in Nanjing

A block of flats in Nanjing, China

I wandered through the backstreets of the quarter I lived and worked in – Gulou. About 8 million people live in Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province, in the East China region, only a 3h train ride west of Shanghai. Nanjing was once the capital of China and still holds a place of both cultural and economic importance.

A banana vendor in Nanjing

A vegetable vendor in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province

There was always lots of traffic in Nanjing, no matter at what hour of the day, or day of the week. It was quite a fascinating thing in itself. At home or in other western countries, the most you get out of traffic is annoyance. But observing the details in Nanjing can be quite curious to the foreign eye. There were tons of pedestrians, and equally as many cyclists, or people on two wheels, one should rather say. You could see anything from basic push bikes, to electric bikes to scooters and the scooter version of pick-up trucks, like in the sign below:

Curious traffic signs

Curious traffic signs

Cycle lanes also take on very different proportions, more like a two-lane road but for traffic in one direction only. You’d feel a lot more comfortable and safer as a cyclist on one of these.

Cycle lanes in Nanjing, a different dimension...

Cycle lanes in Nanjing, a whole other dimension…

But what I found was the streets were a lot more than just a transient place, a means of getting from A to B in a comfortable or regulated fashion. You could see Nanjingers going after all sorts of things and activities. A good example right down the street from where I lived was he outdoor pool place, that was frequented by locals in the evening hours:

How would you like to play pool in the back streets?

How would you like to play pool in the back streets of Nanjing?

On the same road, just a few blocks further down, I took this picture of a man preparing a meal on the sidewalk. I don’t know if that was due to the limited space indoors or whether he wanted to work outside in the sunshine!

Preparing a meal on the ground, next to traffic.

Preparing a meal on the ground, next to traffic.

On the main road, an elderly woman sat on the sidewalk selling newspapers. It was early spring and the snow had only just melted a few days prior. She sat there on her foldable chair, wrapped up nice and warm, and always greeted me with a smile.

A woman selling newspapers

A woman selling newspapers

Now those two really stunned me at first sight. Why would this pair sit in the middle of the street, next to parked cars, on proper chairs, with a nice little coffee table between them? Not the most natural place to enjoy a cigarette or jasmine green tea, methinks. I concluded they must have been carspotting.



But alas, I wasn’t quite pragmatic enough in my approach to the puzzling sight. Turns out they were taxi drivers.

Another version of a "mobile phone"?

Another version of a “mobile phone”?

And, of course, the curious mobile phone. No need to take one with you, just drive up to one by the side of the road, and connect with your friends from your scooter!

Calligraphy in a city park, Nanjing, China

Calligraphy in a city park, Nanjing, China

Nanjing has quite a few parks. This one is in Gulou, and I walked past it every day. I always saw older citizens practice their calligraphy. I had never seen anything like it, the only related experience perhaps being children drawing pictures or hopscotch on asphalt back in Europe, for example. But seeing older men and women paint characters on the asphalt using thick brushes and water, that was new to me. Pity I couldn’t read what they were writing.

Sleeping in the park in Gulou, Nanjing

Sleeping in the park in Gulou, Nanjing

Another fellow enjoyed the sunshine and popped to the park for a quick snooze. A great place for people watching.

Friendly chefs and waiting staff in a street restaurant in Nanjing

Friendly chefs and waiting staff in a street restaurant in Nanjing

You won’t be short of restaurants to visit walking through Gulou. There were plenty of hawker stalls and street vendors, and little restaurants with limited seating, like the one above. Nanjing actually has 12 mosques, and a sizeable Muslim population. Muslim restaurants can be found in the side streets near the Nanjing University campus.

Curious leggings

Curious leggings

And while I have to say that I found Nanjingers to be dressed quite fashionably, I couldn’t help but chuckle a little about this lady, who wore her skin-coloured longjohns as leggings underneath her knee-length skirt! I can understand her frustration though, those Nanjing winters are fierce…

What observations have you made of everyday life in a foreign country that had you stunned or amused?

Christina Hegele

About the author: Christina Hegele runs Sandal Road, a blog on her favourite destinations. It just so happened that 95% turned out to be about New Zealand. Follow Christina and her blog on Twitter, like her blog on Facebook, and subscribe to her Youtube channel. Alternatively, subscribe to her email newsletter at the top right of this blog.

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  15 comments for “Photo essay: The Streets of Nanjing

  1. 15 January, 2012 at 21:51

    How interesting! I have never been to China, so it is fun to see your photos.

    For the guy that’s preparing meal on the sidewalk, I think he is trying to save his electricity bills =) (Concrete houses in Asia are terrible when it comes to letting sunlight into the house)

    • Christina
      4 February, 2012 at 21:26

      That’s an interesting explanation!

  2. 16 January, 2012 at 01:26

    What an interesting experience this must have been. Great photos! (I love the one with the guy napping with the hedges behind him.)

    • Christina
      4 February, 2012 at 21:26

      Thanks Michael!

  3. 16 January, 2012 at 17:13

    You certainly caught the details. I think these streets are extended living rooms (or kitchens). Shared outdoor life, I’d very much like to see that.

  4. 17 January, 2012 at 00:47

    What is up with those leggings?!!!!

    • Christina
      4 February, 2012 at 21:27

      My thoughts exactly…

  5. 17 January, 2012 at 05:45

    Ha, I totally need to ask where she got those leggings. 😉

    Seriously, though, I think it’s cool that you can practice calligraphy in the park.

  6. 17 January, 2012 at 19:13

    China has always fascinated me, especially the people and mentality there. Sometimes you will find the oddest of things on your everyday routine there. Speaking on that, I should make a visit to Shanghai again soon. Nice pics by the way.

    • Christina
      4 February, 2012 at 21:28

      Thanks David! Look forward to reading about your Shanghai trip!

  7. 18 January, 2012 at 16:03

    Fascinating observations! I especially love the drive up phone, the calligraphy and the wide bike lanes. My favorite way of discovering a place is by walking through it as I think a local would.

  8. 20 January, 2012 at 22:40

    Love this photo essay! A lot of times, too often we stop for the sights and forget to really take in the little details that make the trip so interesting. I’m certainly guilty of that. And you’re so right, it’s these little things that make a trip come alive for friends and family who can’t imagine how, for example, life in China really is. I agree by the way, walking is the best way of getting to know a place.

  9. Dan
    24 January, 2012 at 06:49

    Hey Christina,
    Great site! Keep it up,

    Let us know if you ever feel like doing guest post. We’re always looking for new writers.


  10. 13 February, 2012 at 05:45

    I love the candid portraits you took. You really brought life to these streets.

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