NANJING, China — I approached Nanjing on a bullet train from Shanghai, just 160 miles away, watching the weirdly empty countryside whip past my window.
The world's most populous nation seemed to be missing a billion or so people.
A digital panel inside the cabin showed our speed at nearly 190 mph. I couldn't feel a thing except keen disappointment that America seemed incapable of building a rail system this efficient and comfortable.
An attendant in a crisp blue uniform appeared, offering me coffee and a packet of dried peas. Overhead a soothing voice purred, "Welcome to Harmony Express. We thank you for your patience and support."
No, no, thank you!
All too soon we glided into the station, and the soothing voice abruptly ordered me out.
Nanjing was a sharp, exhilarating slap in the face. The sprawling city of 8 million rises from the banks of the mighty Yangtze River, spreading toward mountains that coil around it like a dragon.
Skyscrapers spiraled upward from every quarter. Thousands of stately plane trees formed luxurious canopies above chaotic streets. Canals and tributaries meandered through cramped neighborhoods.
My taxi crept through hellish traffic, nearly clipping an old woman on a bicycle carrying hundreds of pink Hello Kitty balloons.
"Close," the driver said with a grin.
Nanjing, capital of six imperial dynasties dating back nearly 2,500 years, has played a central role in the great pageant of Chinese history and endured some of its worst traumas, including the infamous massacre by Japanese troops in 1937. Over the centuries, it's been razed and rebuilt and razed again.
Perhaps that's why it radiates a somber grandness far different from the gleeful commercial mayhem of Shanghai or the political intrigue of Beijing.
Like many first-time visitors to China, I was both entranced and baffled by the nation. I thought if there was one place to gain perspective on the intimidating breadth of China and its history, Nanjing was it. And the city was an easy two-hour trip from Shanghai.
I began at the vast Nanjing Museum, one of the oldest and finest in the country with more than 420,000 artifacts scattered across 17 acres of pavilions, halls and beautifully landscaped gardens.
The sign near the entrance told me I was in the right place.
"Due to its geographical advantages and rich culture this city is regarded as the witness of the history of China and was its first capital in 229 AD … The strategic state of Nanjing was just the same as Rome of Western civilization."
Nanjing's recorded history dates to 475 BC. It became capital of the Kingdom of Wu in AD 229 , capital of the Ming dynasty in 1368 and seat of the Republic of China in 1912.
Nanjing's prominence made it vulnerable to invaders and rebels.
In 1850, a zealot named Hong Xiuquan claimed to be the brother of Jesus and launched the Taiping Rebellion that cost a staggering 20 million lives, arguably the bloodiest civil war in history. He made Nanjing his capital, and by the time it was retaken, 100,000 residents were dead and the city was in ruins.
But war didn't define Nanjing. The museum highlights the cultural life of the city with porcelain vases from the Ming dynasty, jade doorways from ancient temples and finely carved Taoist and Buddhist deities.