My guide, Lucy, has taken to mothering me (necessary, I have to admit) including taking me out in the evening to search for dinner. In theory I have enough Mandarin to cope with menus, ordering, paying etc, but in practice finding the right restaurant is the biggest difficulty. Plus, no-one, my guide included, seems to understand a word I say in mandarin – the subtleties of correct tonal pronunciation elude me. So – forgive me Laoshi T for being pathetic – Lucy took me to her favourite restaurants where she ordered local specialties. Last night we were in a charming restaurant, popular with locals, and had peanut soup with wild mountain vegetables, along with fried rice. Absolutely delicious and a bargain at £1.50 for the whole meal including tea. The locals’ table manners were interesting to observe. A family at the table opposite left behind a lot of detritus on the floor – packaging from the chopsticks, used tissues and the like – which the staff dutifully swept up before the table was reoccupied. Then a woman at a table in the corner started spitting food onto the floor. Lucy told me she was spitting out the bones from her meal. I explained that we would use a plate for that and this too is usual in China, but not for everyone, apparently. Before we left Jianshui we visited a couple of ancient wells, still very much in use. The quality of the water is regarded as a key ingredient in the making of the local tofu, but people also use it for watering their vegetables, washing clothes and so on. Clothes washing is done by foot as well as hand. Just out of town we visited Twin Dragon bridge, which looked impressive in the morning sun. We continued to Tuanshan village, one of only a few traditional walled villages left in Yunnan and now being hastily conserved for tourist consumption. It’s moment in history was at the turn of the 19/20th century the Zhang family made a fortune from mining and had the Yunnan-Vietnam railway built to allow for export. The family were communist sympathisers and so the village and its Buddhist shrine were not torn down in the Cultural Revolution of the 60s and 70s. Now we’re heading up to the mountains to see the rice terraces at Yuanyang. Can’t wait!
Although I am in a small hotel in a traditional style building, I had coffee and brioche for breakfast! Things are looking up. We went for a stroll to the Chaoyang gate – one of the old entrances to the ancient walled city. Men bring their caged songbirds to the gate for an outing and to chat to the other birds. The men just stand and watch the birds, as a sort of hobby.
Next we went to the Zhu family garden – the Zhus made their fortune from lead and zinc mining at the turn of the 19/20th century. The complex is a maze of rooms and courtyards built in the traditional Qing dynasty style, with ornate doorways, carvings and bonsai trees.
Next up was a wander round a food market – gorgeous fresh fruit and veg, herbs, spices, live fish in tanks, and somewhat less gorgeous pig intestines and dead dogs. Apparently they don’t eat much dog these days – it is only served in specialty restaurants.
After a nap break we went to the Confucian temple – the second largest one in China. My favourite part was a huge lake covered in lotus plants (see pic). When they are all in flower in June it must be quite a sight. Around the temple groups of old men sat in the shade playing cards or dominoes. Apparently they gamble to make them take the game more seriously and to make them try their best to win. It’s not about the money, in other words.
We continued our wander around the old town, popping in to a Buddhist temple and a Daoist temple on the way back to the hotel. Jianshui really typifies the Western mental image of a Chinese town – tree lined stone streets, traditional architecture, decorative archways and red lanterns everywhere.
Apparently Kunming was like this until 30 years ago, when it was all ripped up and started again from scratch. I realize that the modern industrial cities are just as much “real China” as this quaint old town, but I definitely prefer the charm of Jianshui to the traffic choked, smoggy, high-rise, high-speed, high-tech likes of Shanghai or Chongqing.