After the rice terraces and the Yuanyang area, I wasn’t thinking much of Jianshui, a city where we would stop for the night before ending back in Kunming. We didn’t have to journey all through the mountains like on the way up, but we did have to do the more treacherous part returning by way of new Yuanyang City. I was distracted for a while mesmerized by the beautiful scenery that we were leaving behind. That, and the memory of the final early morning in Yuanyang —tea in hand on that cool mountaintop after wandering through the morning food market. At my vantage point on the edge of the plaza, I enjoyed looking below and watching the sun and clouds clinging to the slopes, lifting in yellow-tinted unison on the new day. The steam from my tea likewise rising with my contentment. I pushed aside the sadness of leaving, such thoughts violate the appreciation of the moment. They belong to the future, no matter how quickly it arrives. It was a meditation itself, thinking about nothing except what was right in front of me. No, not even thinking– just being present, aware, in a neutral state of being. Sapa in Vietnam, Mount Batir in Bali, here—it’s all the same. The key to the simplicity of life also unlocks the doors to quiet dawns such as these. The portals are everywhere; we only need to walk through them.
A somewhat anxious Cherry was waiting when I arrived back at the hotel. She saw that I had checked out, but no one seemed to know where I had wandered off to! She had a full schedule for us as it turned out. The five days were a constant pull and tug over this— her desire to keep us on a schedule, and my equally strong yen to prevent this from seeming like an over-planned itinerary. If I had wanted that, I would have gone on a group tour! I had already checked out and was ready to go. I felt some bizarre comfort traveling down the mountain that every heart-stopping curve brought us closer to beloved level ground. As Haan careened down the mountain, I prayed I hadn’t used up all my good karma as yet! It’s easy to do. The Chinese are among the most insane drivers in the world! Give them a two-lane, one-way road and they will turn it into a six-lane, two-way street by the next traffic light, whatever THAT is.
I breathed a big, short-lived sigh of relief when we entered new Yuanyang city. We drove directly through the town and found ourselves on a gravel road that ran parallel to the Red River. I fooled myself into believing that this road would eventually, somehow, take us in a straight, smooth track through the Ai Lao Shan Mountains and to Jianshui. The mountain range, which reaches into the 6,000-foot level, loomed in front of us. It wasn’t long before we started to corkscrew our way up a mountain again that was even more frightening than the one we had left! Driving narrow roads with few guardrails is one thing, but about half way up we saw mist and increasingly larger rain drops. Haan slowed down respecting the slippery conditions we were now in. Within the next twenty minutes, we saw four accidents. In all cases, it seemed that no one was seriously injured because the driver was smart enough to crash into the side of the mountain rather than drop off the edge into the abyss below!
I don’t recall how long we traveled after that, but the rain eventually stopped and the sun peeked through the clouds telling us we were approaching the crest and would soon be on the leeward side. We stopped for a much-needed bathroom break. (In China public bathrooms are everywhere!)
When we continued down the road the weather changed as dramatically as the landscape. We suddenly found ourselves driving on a hilltop road looking down into a wide open valley. The sky had altered itself to a light blue from the gray rain we had witnessed not ten minutes before. We were in awe— before us were hundreds of blossoming peach and cherry trees. The land was hilly with a red clay soil, supposedly the result of a high tin content. Little towns and villages below dotted the countryside and I thought I was in New Hampshire not China. Even my somewhat jaded guide, Cherry, was ohhing and ahhing the view.
Not long after, we entered the city of Jianshui and stopped in front of our destination, the Linan Hotel. I should have been impressed by this old late-nineteenth century house converted to a hotel, but I wasn’t. It was the highest-rated hotel we stayed in but the least impressive. Short on amenities and helpful staff, I didn’t spend much time there. It was in the old part of the city, but very much jazzed up for the tourist trade. Just outside the area was where all the real fun and original old parts of the city remained relatively untouched— thatched and red-tiled roofs and ancient, handmade brick walls and all. Lunch was wonderful—a fried glass noodle dish that resembled a similar Thai fare, roast duck, a cabbage soup called “saan sien pang” with carrots and tofu, and a dish that was identical to mashed potatoes with butter and parsley. It could be plopped on any dinner table in the US and no one would know the difference. The name is “lao nye,” which translates to “old toothless maid” as it doesn’t require chewing to eat! Interestingly, the people in this area take each meal with a big, round, flat basket full of tofu balls placed in the center of the table.
Cherry and I visited a number of places in the afternoon, all of which were easily reachable from the ancient city. The first was the old Confucian temple that dates from 1285 AD. A small lake with a large gazebo and walking bridge dominates this part of the compound. As you would expect, this was a very reflective atmosphere, and I did find some time to meditate under a tree from which you could hear the distant tinkling of small brass bells.
We next went to Little Tienamin Square, which resembled closely the larger and more famous one in Beijing. This commons, however, predates the one in Beijing by 20 years. The Chaojang Tower is four stories high and contains a display of late nineteenth-century photos of the building of the Kunming-Hanoi Rail Road—another tease from the tracks we just kept running into. The exhibit also contained many photos showing the rebellion of the workers against the French because of the poor working conditions. The revolt was brutally put down by the Yunnanese army and its leaders beheaded— a number of photos of those gruesome scenes, too!
By the last stop, I was running out of steam. The Zhu Family Gardens is the extensive home of a very old, wealthy and prominent family that lived in Jianshui. The story is an epic that would make a phenomenal series for TV! The family eventually backed the wrong horse and lost much of its wealth. With the coming of the Communist to power in 1949, the house was seized and the glory days were over. The family still is very active working in the Communist Party. At the Gardens we ran into a calligrapher, Hu Wen Hua, a jolly guy who I immediately took a liking to. He and his wife were so gracious. When he heard from Cherry that my birthday was approaching, he whipped out rice paper and brush and made a panel wishing me longevity, friendship and good health.
I left Cherry here and wandered though the old city on my own. I had a dinner of chicken and vegetables stir fried with a thick, tasty premium soy sauce in a no-muss-no-fuss restaurant and headed back to the hotel. Poor Internet, of course, even though there was a wi-fi box in the room. But it was good enough to watch a few American TV shows before it clunked out entirely.
The next morning, we were off for Kunming by way of some more sites to visit in the city. Breakfast at the hotel was two small pieces of toast, a fried egg, a banana, a small liquid yogurt (ugh) and green tea. Our first stop was an ancient neighborhood outside the city gate where they make “stinky” tofu. I didn’t find it repulsive, it is supposed to be an “acquired taste.” Nearby, there were also old public wells that have been in continuous use for centuries. They have been used so long that the sides have deeply gouged grooves in the stonework left from years of dragging water in pails up from the wells by rope. I thought it interesting that some of the old mud-brick houses had a re-enforcing layer of clay brick and thin wood planks. I recall this being used in Cappadocia, Turkey as a way to make the structure stronger in the event of an earthquake.
We moved on to the spot that I found to be the most captivating in the city—the 400-plus-year-old Ming Bridge containing seventeen arches that allow the river to pass through. It’s a beautiful, off-white structure with a central tower and twin pagodas on either end of the bridge. I was delighted that it was the perfect time to take photos. The light was excellent. There were a number of people fishing, chatting on the bridge, or walking along the side of the river. Just down the road was the reconstructed railroad station of the Kunming-Hanoi line that ran from there back into the city of Jianshui on an old steam-driven train.
Our last stop was the Zhang (Tuanshan) village. Like the Zhu family, it rose and fell with the revolution and by misreading the political tea leaves of the old Qing Dynasty. It is an immense residence that is now being restored. Each area of the compound had a purpose and was restricted back in the day to certain members of the family and staff. For example, there was an area for the young, unmarried women and yet another for the head of the household. Even the family ancestors had a room where residents would go to seek advice or inspiration from deceased family members. Unruly children were also brought there to be scolded before the ancestral spirits, who would be insulted by the child’s bad behavior, not to mention the bad reflection on the family’s honor and status, in general. Beholding the portraits of the stern-looking ancestors that line the walls, I could see why a child would dread being forced to gaze up at these pictures as they were being berated by the elders!
All-in-all, there is much to recommend this city. I could easily see spending five days here with all there is to do.
Somewhere along that drive from Jianshui back to Kunming I realized, despite enjoying Cherry’s and Hahn’s company, I was actually chomping at the bit to venture out on my own and experience life my way. We stopped a few hours outside of Kunming for lunch at a Muslim restaurant. What a terrific meal—small pieces of beef prepared in a curry marinade, tofu soup with curry and lima beans, pickled vegetables and rice. A fitting last meal with Cherry and Haan.
Haan drove us to my new hotel, the Nissi Holiday Hotel, one of the strangest places I have ever stayed. So with a big wave to Cherry as she made her way to the underground, I felt a great sense of relief. I was all toured out and so happy to be off on my own! I checked in across the street from the hotel and was buzzed into the building. I went up to the 23rd floor and walked down the dark, dingy, narrow hallway to my room. I noticed along the way that many of the rooms were full of busy office workers! It seemed like the “hotel” was actually a mixed-use building! But, to my happy surprise, the room was actually quite large, bright and clean.
I got up early the next day and had breakfast in a closet of a room down the hall. The nice thing about it was you were cramped in with everyone else, so it was actually a cheery and friendly group! I took the underground for the forty-five minute trip to the Kunming South Railroad Station to pick up my tickets for Guilin on the high-speed train for the following morning. The multi-leveled depot was huge, so it took me some time to find Ticket Area 3 to pick up the tickets. I then returned by the underground and got off at the Xing Yao Road stop and walked about twenty minutes down the road to the massive Yunnan Provincial Museum and Opera House complex. It took about two and a half hours to get through the exhibits covering Yunnan’s history from the Stone Age to the present. There was also a traveling exhibit of pre-World War I Austro-Hungarian objects of the royal Habsburg court, including a copy of the crown of Hungary. I enjoyed a late light lunch in the food court there and headed back to the underground. I met so many friendly people on the walk to and from the museum! Mostly people smiled and waved, but a few risked some words in English!
I returned to the hotel at Beichan Station and passed up the Western fast food restaurants—Burger King, Pizza Hut, and KFC— to locate a wonderful old shop serving tasty noodles and dumplings. I returned to my room to get a good night’s sleep as I was off to the fabled city of Guilin the next day.