Nanjing's plum blossom festival
It's China’s answer to Japan’s tourist-magnet cherry blossom festival; but the relatively scant crowds beneath Nanjing’s plum blossoms mean you get more time and space to smell the flowers.
Stretching over a month in early spring each year, the festival showcases 35,000 plum blossom trees in 120 varieties -- including China’s oldest -- scattered in a 250-acre park on Purple Mountain.
Despite having started in 1995, the plum blossom festival in Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu Province, is still relatively little known, so it makes for a relaxing getaway whenever the jostling crowds in Shanghai get to you.
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The city flower of Nanjing, the plum blossom is regarded as one of the "four gentlemen" of flowers in Chinese culture, together with with bamboo forests, chrysanthemums and orchids.
Towards the end of each winter, the tiny plum blossom braves snow and frost to burst forth on barren twigs -- long before all the other flowers make their reappearance.
It is a symbol of rebirth and growth and when depicted in ancient Chinese artwork represents resilience and perseverance in the face of diversity .
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Though the official festival runs from the end of February to the middle of March each year, the plum blossom trees were only just starting to bloom when we went in early March.
The best time to visit, we were told, is from middle of March to early April, when the other trees in the gardens -- such as the peach blossom, pear blossom, cherry blossom and osmanthus -- start to blossom too and perfume the air.
Nearby attractions include the UNESCO World Heritage-designated Ming tombs, where the first two Ming emperors are laid to rest, as well as its surrounding Red Chamber Artistic and Cultural Garden.
Within the plum blossom gardens, a small gate leads to the Zhongshan Plum Bonsai Garden. Part nursery and part research center, it is home to China's oldest plum blossom tree, otherwise known as the King of Plum Blossoms.
Though not exactly stately -- the tree’s bulky trunk and branches are at odds with its relatively few flowers -- the 400-year-old King of Plum Blossoms stands out for its blossoms' dense ring of petals.
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Further away in the main grounds stands the Queen of Plum Blossoms, whose flower petals are so dark they look almost like black ink.
In contrast to the huge expanse that is the plum blossom gardens, the neighboring Red Chamber Gardens is a intricately landscaped area with pavilions, little ponds and statues corresponding to various chapters in "Dream of the Red Chamber," an epic Chinese novel written during the Qing Dynasty by Nanjing native Cao Xue Qin.
The combination of pink and dark purple plum blossoms, and the numerous statues depicting lovers Lin Daiyu and Jia Baoyu, make both parks the backdrop of choice for camera-happy bridal couples.
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In the one afternoon we spent here, we spotted at least six couples with wedding photographers in tow, posing in various parts of the park. At certain choice spots, we even saw several couples being photographed only a short distance apart.
For those not so fond of canoodling couples, a stage in the center of the plum blossom gardens provides entertainment for young and old, where folk singers and minority dance troupes perform on a regular basis.
A high-speed train to Nanjing from Shanghai takes 75 minutes and costs about RMB 300 return.