Written September 4, 2011
Located just three hours by bus from Kunming and billed by Rough Guide as a “charming town of old buildings” with one of China’s largest Confucian temples, an impressive swallow cave and great local food, I thought it would make a good destination for a weekend adventure.
Compared to last weekend’s missteps in getting to the bus station and difficulties buying the bus ticket, the trip to Jian Shui was easy. I didn’t even try to take a bus to the South Transport Passenger Station. The taxi fare from downtown, less than 40 yuan ($6), is definitely worth avoiding the hassle and inconvenience of a lengthy local bus trip. Buying the bus ticket was no problem now that I know what questions not to ask. Just buy your ticket and head to the bus departure area. I was the last person on the 1:30PM bus. Completely full, it left just after the scheduled time.
The drive through the mountains and farmlands of southern Yunnan province was foggy and overcast but intensely green. Lots of construction, even in the countryside with new roads and buildings just about everywhere. Large concrete pillars line many of the valleys waiting to be capped with an overpass. Fields of green vegetables surround the pillars. China has over a billion people to feed and can’t let fertile land go to waste, road construction project or not.
My first reaction upon arriving in Jian Shui was the same as so many other times I’ve arrived at a new town in China. “What the hell am I doing here?” Crumbly, dirty, crammed with commerce and people and not the least bit inviting. I grab a taxi and head into the old town, just a few kilometers down the road. At the Chaoyang Gate, a big red fortress looking structure, the town turns into the urban version of the Stone Forest.
Old historic buildings overlaid with modern commerce and tourism. Not a lot of the kitschy junk shops you see in other tourist areas. This is more just general shopping geared to the emerging Chinese markets –clothing, shoes, jewelry, tea, etc. Very few western tourists.
I decided to spurge a little and see if the Zhu Family Gardens had a room available. The Gardens are an historic family home, complex really, and have about 30 rooms decorated in the Qing-style spread out through the courtyards. The woman at the reception didn’t speak much English and I actually had to use the hotel conversation I had been rehearsing all week. While the rooms are small but pleasant, it’s the complex itself that makes it worth staying here. The courtyards are simply lovely, beautifully appointed and decorated and just antique enough to be charming.
Sitting outside my room would be peaceful except for the music from both the piped in intercom system and a competing beat from a nearby bar or something. The Chinese don’t seem to be able to let a place just be quiet.
For dinner I tried one of the local specialties at a nicer restaurant across from the Zhu Gardens. A striking dining room decorated in dark woods and Dai (an ethnic minority) blue and white tie-died table clothes. The chicken and wild mushroom stew (qì guō, 汽锅) came in a huge earthenware pot. Granted, at almost $10 for just the one dish, it was expensive compared to what I have been paying. Mostly a super rich broth with hacked chicken and wild mushrooms. Tasty if you don’t mind sifting through the boney pieces to find the edible morsels. The braised eggplant, one of my standby favorites, was rich and luscious as usual in a mildly spicy sauce flavored with salty ham, garlic and scallion. Yum!