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City of Kings; travel Capital of six Chinese dynasties over 2, 500 y ears, Jon Griffin finds Nanjing is now at the centre of the country's booming tourist trade.

AS the table revolved, an astonishing array of dishes came within grasp. Jellyfish, fish jelly (there's a huge difference in the two delicacies), pigeon's legs, seaweed, pork, chicken, prawns, a boiled egg dish coated in a bizarre chocolate-coloured substance... where would it all end?

No, we're not talking here about an exotic new menu at a takeaway on a North Wales high street. This was Nanjing - or real China in anybody's language.

The capital city of Jiangsu province, with a history as rich and diverse as any in the giant communist state, Nanjing provides a window on another world.

As China celebrated yesterday's launch of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, the rest of the world waits for the fallout from an economic model that will bypass the USA in gross domestic product by 2035, according to some forecasts.

The growth of China clearly has vast economic implications for the rest of the planet - the state's burgeoning demands for energy supplies is already helping to drive up the cost of oil.

But forget the credit crunch gloom here in the West and go and sample the mouth-watering crunch of Nanjing cuisine in the East.

The first thing you notice about the ancient city of Nanjing - apart from the food - is the people. And what a friendly bunch they are.

Walk down any high street in the UK and you can't escape the conclusion there's a lot of angry, stressed folk out there looking for an argument. But walk around Nanjing - a big city by any standards with a population of over seven million - and you'll see a lot of seemingly happy, contented faces.

That's not to say there aren't vast social problems in China, including widespread poverty in the rural hinterlands and a gender imbalance caused by the oppressive one-child policy.

The world's best known communist state is still a hotbed of nationalism, which many liberals view with distaste.

Recent television footage of homes being bulldozed to make way for Olympic facilities did not make pretty viewing.

But notwithstanding the moral arguments - they won't be going away for a long time as the state increasingly flexes its muscles on the world stage - China has so much to offer the tourist.

The past, present and future come together in Nanjing, whose ancient history and traditions deserve the respect and attention of the most committed travellers. The capital of six dynasties and the Republic of China in the first half of the 20th century, Nanjing - known as the southern capital - is Beijing's ancient counterpart.

The tourist leaflets claim 350,000 years ago ancestors of human beings lived in the area, blessed with fertile land along the Yangtze River. Well, who knows, but it's a reasonably accepted fact that 2,500 years ago Gouijan, king of Yue kingdom, built his castle there.

Another king, Chu Wei Wang, also built his castle and town, Jin Ling City, in the vicinity. During the period of the Three Kingdoms, Sun Quan set up his palace in Nanjing.

By the year 1400, at the height of its power in the Ming dynasty, Nanjing was the most populous city on earth.

Of course, Nanjing is already a familiar name to anyone who has followed the fluctuating fortunes of Rover over the last decade. The city's long established Nanjing Automobile Company bought the assets of MG Rover for pounds 53m in July 2005 following the car firm's ignominious slide into administration.

Three years on, the first Chinese-built MGs are rolling off the production lines in Birmingham - and also 6,000 miles away at the MG manufacturing plant on the outskirts of the Chinese city.

The MG plant was one of our destinations during a hectic three-day tour. We also visited the Zhongshan Scenic Spot at the foot of Zhongshan Mountain, home to the Dr Sun Yatsen Mausoleum, the tomb of the forerunner of the so-called democratic revolution of China.

The tomb is approached via Park Linggu, known in ancient times as Pines deep in Linguu and characterised by expansive greenery.

For history lovers there's also Zhonghuameng Castle, one of the oldest gate castles from the Ming dynasty and part of the city wall of Nanjing, as well as the 1,000 year-old Confucius Temple, originally built during the Song Dynasty on the north bank of the Qinhuai River.

Of course, sightseeing does tend to work up a hunger - and Nanjing cuisine is as delicious as it is exotic.

The soup salted duck is a product devised during warfare in the Middle Ages when warriors protected their castle from enemy attacks. Meanwhile, Jinling beer is named after the old name of Nanjing.

The eyes of the world may be on Beijing, but if you want a world-beating destination for your first visit to this amazing country, try Nanjing.

TRAVEL INFORMATION

Jon Griffin flew to Nanjing with Lufthansa German Airlines (www.lufthansa.com). Flights from Birmingham to Nanjing operate daily (except Wednesday and Saturday) via Frankfurt. Return fares from pounds 509 (business pounds 1,835), including taxes - book by August 31, valid for all year travel

CHINA TOUR OFFER

Discover the best of China with an 11-day escorted tour costing pounds 1,099 from November. Price includes return flights from Heathrow (supplement ex-Manchester), internal flights, nine nights full-board hotel with Peking Duck dinner, visits to Great Wall, Terracotta Warriors and Horses, Shanghai, Peking, Xian and Guilin's Li River cruise. More details from Daily Post Travel Service on 0151 227 5987

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Nanjing sights... Dr Sun Yatsen Mausoleum (main picture), Qinhuai River (left) and the 1,000-year-old Confucius Temple (right)
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Aug 9, 2008
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