Life in Jianshui (建水) 28 Jan – 16 Jun, Part One

We enjoyed finding little gems like this quaint old bridge when we strolled around the countryside of Jianshui

We arrived at the small old town of Jianshui (建水) just three days before its lockdown at the end of January during the Chinese New Year holiday. It was at the height of the Coronavirus pandemic in China and we felt as if we were entering a ghost town with most shops closed and not a single soul in sight.

We hardly saw anyone in the little alleys of the old city.

Normally during the Chinese New Year, the old walled city should be bustling with tourists visiting the historical buildings and checking out the famous local pottery souvenirs in the quaint little shops. However, like most other towns and cities around China, the normal way of life in Jianshui was disrupted and dramatically came to a standstill due to the pandemic. All the tourist destinations were closed and only a few restaurants remained open. Most hotels and guesthouses were empty. I was overwhelmed by a surreal feeling that I were in an empty movie set when I strolled in the streets of complete silence.

Empty street, deserted old town.
Often the slightly dilapidated old houses are more authentic than the well-maintained tourist spots.

We checked into the guesthouse and the host had to check our body temperature and informed the local authority. It was no surprise to us as we already went through two body temperature checks at the exit of the highway and the entrance into town by different parties. It reflected how severe the situation was and the local government tried everything in their power to keep it under control. So far there is zero confirmed case in Jianshui.

We wore masks wherever we went except when we were in the fields.

We only stayed in the guesthouse for three nights and then moved into a more spacious apartment. We literally just made it in time as the local authority stopped all the accommodations to accept new visitors on the day we moved into our apartment.

We rented this comfortable apartment and got a 70% discount (RMB3,600/month) as we told the landlord that we would stay for a few months.

Our apartment is in a quiet neighbourhood in the recently developed part of the city overlooking a small lake. It is only within walking distance to the famous Pottery Street (紫陶街) lined with high-ceiling souvenir shops of redbrick fronts and numerous outdoor food stalls. Pottery Street was closed and cordoned off in the first five weeks to prevent any gathering of people.

Our apartment is right next to the lake.

Our journey took on a new trajectory as we stopped moving. No more searching for our next destination and we gradually adjusted to a routine that we enjoyed. Initially, we stocked up food and disinfectant stuff to play safe. Luckily, the supermarkets were sufficiently stocked throughout our time here and the local markets were partially open so that we could get fresh local produce and fruits.

We could go out daily as long as we wear masks. One was required to have body temperature check and tracking scan before entering the supermarkets and certain shops. The street was empty and apart from a few shops such as the chemists and grocery stores that remained open, everything else were closed.

We sometimes walked to the fields outside the town and could almost forget the troubles of the pandemic when taking in the tranquil open space and abundant greenery.

In the first few weeks, we felt an uneasiness in the air when we saw everyone wearing masks and uniformed inspectors going around the shops to urge people to wear masks. Policemen regularly patrolled and asked pedestrians (including us when we were sitting by the lake) where we are from, arrival date and checking our temperature. We also got phone calls from various parties asking similar questions. We saw banners everywhere and posters on closed shop fronts advocating the importance of wearing masks, handwashing and stopping all social activities and visits.

We tried to enjoy life as much as possible. We walked past this little restaurant offering Vietnamese food many times and it finally reopened after a few weeks. I was over the moon when I tasted the fried spring rolls and steamed rolls.

Inevitably I felt anxious and preferred staying home to avoid human contact. But Kin wanted to stay as active as possible and we went for walks nearby or in the countryside to get some fresh air. We went grocery shopping twice a week. After we went out, I would immediately get in the shower and wash from head to toes and threw all the clothes into the washing machine. My hair got so dry from daily washing and together with the static from the arid climate, my hair literally floated in the air like Medusa.

We encountered animals more often than people in the first few weeks of lockdown.

Before going into more details about our “residence” in Jianshui, let me delve into its history to give you a hint of the eclectic mix of cultural influences that culminated in the various architectural styles and the layout of the town.

Jianshui is famous for its old wells and water. There are over a hundred old wells still in use around the old city. This one is called the “three-eye” well.

Jianshui is an ancient and culturally rich town with 1,200 years of history dated back to the second half of the Tang Dynasty. It is founded by the Nanzhao Kingdom (南詔) which ruled northern Yunnan and was comprised of many ethnic groups. The kingdom at one point expanded to include Thailand, Laos and Burma. This explains the linguistic and ethnic diversity of Yunnan and why many Yunnan dialects including Jianshui’s are described as Tibeto-Burman languages.

The ancient gate of Jianshui without tourists

The magnificent gates of the old walled city that have become the icon of Jianshui were built in the late 14th century (Ming Dynasty 明朝) after the Mongols were expelled. The three-tiered Chaoyang Tower (Eastern Gate) resembles the Tiananmen in Beijing but was built 28 years before the latter. Jianshui has the second largest Confucius temple (文廟) built in the 13th century (Yuan Dynasty 元朝) as the Muslim governors of Yunnan at the time wanted to promote both Islam and Confucianism.

Rather solemn looking entrance of the old government building.

Jianshui also has a well-established examination hall which was served as part of the elaborate system of local, provincial, and imperial examinations to select candidates for the government apparatus of the imperial China. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, young Yunnan scholars would come to take the exam that could decide the course of their subsequent lives.

East meets west style of the old train station. It now has a popular restaurant inside.

Jianshui is close to the border of Vietnam (only just over 220km away) and used to be a significant city as part of the trading route to Vietnam back in the Tang Dynasty. Hence, there was French influence on the infrastructure of the railway. In 1915, the Gebishi branch rail (個碧石鐵路) commenced construction and eventually ran from Bisezhai 碧色寨 through Jianshui to Shiping 石屏.

The rustic train and train station bring us back in time.

The trains and train stations with French façades are now repurposed as tourist attractions. It was one of our favourite spots to enjoy the view of the rustic village, duck ponds and the locals working on the fields of rice paddies and various edible greens. Watching the nostalgic mustard yellow train entering the Tuanshan (團山) station, we momentarily forgot about the troubles of the pandemic.

We felt blessed to be able to walk around the pretty villages nearby when people in many cities were forced to stay at home all time.

Despite the terrible impact of the pandemic around the world, it made us to take a pause and re-think what is important and re-arrange our priorities. Otherwise, we would not have had the luxury to experience Jianshui slowly and yet fully.

The sunset glimmered on the paddy fields and made everything magical.

We have been dictated by the fast pace of city life that many do not know how to slow down. For us, this is an incredible opportunity to appreciate the meaning of daily life (both our lives and the local life) and yet explore new knowledge and experiences. We realize that we can accomplish so much more by slowing down. It does not mean that we just become couch potatoes and watch movies and engrossed in social media all day. It actually means that we get to find out what we want to do for ourselves and do it more mindfully with less distraction.

We went to a nearby village which was famous for its swallow cave (燕子洞) but we were more interested in the breathtaking view over the cave.

The first step of living slowly started with the way you eat. As most restaurants were closed in the beginning, we cooked and ate at home every day. We switched to plant-based diet (but we do occasionally eat a little meat) 10 months ago for health reasons. In the market, I saw all kinds of interestingly looking local vegetables. At first, I only bought vegetables that I am familiar with and gradually started experimenting with those that I was clueless and got quite creative. Mind you it was not always successful. One time, I made a stir fry with an unknown vegetable that looked like a cross between choy sum (菜心) and spinach. It turned out to be so bitter that I had to spit it out on my first bite.

We brought our own basic cooking utensils on the road and came in very handy during this long break.
We saw lots of peach trees when we took a stroll in a small village 30km away from Jianshui. Despite the language barrier, Kin gave RMB10 to the farmer. He kept giving Kin peaches and Kin had to stop him after the eighth peach.

One cannot truly appreciate what freshness looks like until one goes to the villages and fields to see what is in season and what looks good. Every day when I cooked, I was amazed by how fresh the local fruits and vegetables were when I cut and prepared them. We tasted the juiciest pomelos and peaches here. I also never realized before that raw pumpkins can be so crispy and cut so effortlessly. There is a wide array of small pumpkins of various shades of green and textures and they are refreshingly less starchy that pumpkin has become one of our staple food.

Local people get water from the wells for cooking and drinking. This is also why Jianshui tofu is so tasty due to the local water.

The range of local fresh and dried tofu products are also enticing and we enjoyed trying dried tofu in different shapes and forms for the vegetable stew. Our favourite tofu dish is to simply fry the fresh hard tofu lightly with salt and black pepper sprinkled on top.

Kin bought the local peaches, pomelo and mangosteens. I must say they have the freshest taste we have ever tasted.

Going to the food market became not only part of our routine, but also our way to get to know the local life and culture. Many locals only speak the local dialect and I slowly picked up the odd vocabulary and how to pronounce the numbers. One time, I wanted to buy some watercress and to my surprise, the lady said that it was left over from yesterday and suggested me to buy something else. This was not the only time I encountered such frank response and I appreciated their honesty.

This is our favourite kind of local tofu which has a much stronger smoky tofu flavour and more solid than the Guangdong ones.

I always bought vegetables first and tofu last. The tofu lady always saw me carrying bags of vegetables and she knew what I like. Not only did she make sure the tofu did not get squashed with my vegetables but she also carefully helped me transferring the eggs I bought into the tofu bag. I am touched by such thoughtful gestures all the time when I interact with local people.

Accommodation: 云南红河州建水县临安镇永祯路佳湖逸景A幢2单元802

6 thoughts on “Life in Jianshui (建水) 28 Jan – 16 Jun, Part One

  1. So wonderful to read. What a valuable experience. Thank you for sharing with us. Keep safe. Love from us staying home this winter.

    1. We are very happy that you also enjoy our journey. We are taking the time to share our experience with our loved ones.

  2. 我已經好努力看完你俩網誌, 好親切,好開心!有大量回憶相片及片段 ,希望你哋可以製造更多更多回憶片段,祝你倆旅途愉快! 愛你們🥰😙😙

    1. 多謝你的鼓勵和祝福。我們希望可以分享旅途中的點滴和感受給家人和朋友,因為能有這個機會慢慢體驗中國,真的很難得。We love you too😘🥰

  3. What an adventure!! Loved reading this and exploring the city with you, please keep posting! Hopefully one day we can come and travel with you guys!

    1. The long stay in Jianshui was quite special indeed and in hindsight, we were very lucky to have made the decision to not return to HK and stayed put in this small town. Thanks for reading our blog and will share more of our experience! Will be great if you can join us one day.

      You and Joe have also embarked on an amazing journey of parenthood. We are so happy for you and wish you all the best and happiness!!

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