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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.