A couple years ago when traveling in China we went to a small town to see what life was like off the beaten track. It was … OK … but there really wasn’t much to do or see; we realized that three days was just too much. So for this stop off the beaten path we kept it to two nights and that felt just about right.
Jianshui is a “little” town of about half a million people about 120 miles south of Kunming, still in Yunnan Province. It takes fully three-and-a-half hours to travel that distance on a rickety old bus that, fortunately, was only about half full. It was mostly a reasonably pleasant ride: the weather was pleasant, a couple windows were partly open, no one was smoking, and there was neither loud music nor loud smash-up movies playing. Just a good opportunity to read and watch rural China go by.
Once here, Jianshui has a beautiful old town with all sorts of classic Chinese city gates and old buildings and all that picturesque stuff. There are three primary tourist attractions, all of which you can see in one day.
• The Jianshui Confucius Temple dates from the 13th century and is one of the oldest and largest Confucian temples in China; it was historically the most important school in Yunnan. It covers almost 20 acres and has a wide variety of halls, houses, palaces, garrets, gates, pavilions, temples, archways, and all that kind of stuff. The artificial pond around which it sits is so big it uses the word “sea” in the name, the Sea of Study; locals claim it is the largest “of its kind” in all of China, but that qualifier can mean a lot of things. Either way, the temple grounds were wonderfully photogenic and great to walk around.
• The Zhu Family Garden was another highlight in Jianshui. Built by a wealthy merchant family in the late 19th century, the gardens themselves were closed for renovation, but the family lodgings themselves were more than impressive enough to justify the visit. The dwelling area takes up about 54,000 square feet, including 42 courtyards and 214 separate buildings. Not bad living quarters if you can afford it.
• Finally, the Twin Dragon Bridge was a real highlight. Dating from the Ming Dynasty (which everyone, of course, knows ruled from the 14th to the 17th centuries), it is one of the oldest bridges still standing in China. We were there during a light rain that would start and stop and start and stop, making the 17-arch structure particularly beautiful.
Beyond those tourist stops, Jianshui had all the pieces that we love about China and that make it challenging. English is very limited here, even at our hotel. Thank God Mark has been studying Chinese; it would be really hard to travel without his rudimentary skills, though Google Translate helps, too. The food is mostly good, but it’s little short of stunning how few restaurants there are. You go out at night and all the clothing shops and cell phone stores and all that are open until 9:00 or later, but try to find a restaurant anywhere. As Mark pointed out, the ratio of restaurant-to-commercial here must be about the smallest in the world!
One restaurant we found after a fair amount of searching – Google Maps had it in the wrong place – was pretty good, and most importantly had an English-translated menu. The first night was pretty good, and with a bottle of local wine came to all of $18 total. So we went back the next night and were shocked to find it absolutely packed. It seemed as though they were not going to have room for us at all, which would have been something of a disaster; we hadn’t seen any other restaurants with English menus, and by then – about 8:00 PM – anything else would have been closing down by the time we found it.
Fortunately, not only did they find us a table, it was a beautiful spot out on the second-floor balcony. As we walked through the dining room I was stunned both by how much smoke there was and by how much trash there was. The Chinese just toss napkins and plastic and trash on the floor while they’re eating and when they leave … what a mess! For us, though, out on the balcony with the old town street below us and fresh air around us, it was heavenly. And, with this meal coming in at about $23 since we’d ordered an extra dish to sample, reasonably affordable.
From here we catch a late-morning bus another three hours south to the Yuanyang Rice Terraces before we head back to Kunming and then off to see more of Yunnan.