After the initial few weeks of total shut down, the authority slowly loosened the measures and starting from early April, tourist destinations, hotels and restaurants re-opened. We found a small Muslim restaurant right next to the mosque that suits our palette as it is less oily and spicy than most other local restaurants. The three ladies who run the restaurant kept it neat and tidy. We went once a week and got to know more about their stories. Going to the restaurant was no longer just to eat but to socialize with the local people. One of them taught me how to make dumplings.
I love the local dessert called papaya water (木瓜水) made with papaya jelly, brown sugar and candied rose petal. After a while, the ladies knew my habit of always finishing the meal with papaya water. One time, she looked rather puzzled and told me that the dessert is a treat and asked why I always paid for the dessert even when she did not include in the bill. I assumed that she had forgot to put in the bill. She insisted that it is on the house. It warmed my heart whenever I thought about our conversation.
We enjoyed the slow pace of Jianshui and gradually acquainted with more locals. One day, we went to a herbal store to look for ingredients to make masala tea. The owner asked where we are from and we got chatting away. The next time we went there to buy the Yunnan rose tea, he was wearing an apron and about to cook dinner and he invited us to stay for dinner. When we went to the herbal store, we would often spend at least 20 minutes talking to the owner and it was lovely to see how he and his wife look after their child while running the store. It is a common sight to see kids at shops or restaurants who often either do their homework or play while the adults go about their business.
Since we had more time at “home”, I resumed yoga practice and persuaded Kin to join me. We found an on-line yoga series that we loved and Kin was so into it that we practiced daily. The deep breathing and slow poses really energized and cleansed us – especially in Kin’s case as he emitted a lot of natural gas during practice (hope he won’t get mad reading this). Daisy our cat sometimes joined us too and demonstrated the perfect cat pose.
Kin took advantage of this time to expand his previously one-and-only-one piano repertoire by taking on-line piano lessons and music appreciation classes. He is well prepared and has brought his own keyboard on the road for just this sort of break. Now he knows more about dominant chords and inversions than I do.
I learned how to cut men’s hair by watching YouTube videos. I was really nervous when I cut Kin’s hair the first time. It took me over two hours and my legs were sore afterwards. The second time, we got into a huge fight about the fading techniques. By the third time, I was more relaxed and we were both happy with the end result.
We also taught ourselves how to repair the scratches on our van. We started with the smaller scratches to test our skills and proceeded with great caution to minimize mistakes (we did make a mistake of spraying the wrong direction and had to sand down the air bubbles in the paint and re-do the steps). Due to the Coronavirus, we were no longer constantly approached by nosy pedestrians who were curious to see the inside of our van as it is a new thing to travel and sleep in recreational vans in China these days. In the first few weeks, Kin spent at least an hour in the van daily to re-organize the storage and maximize the use of every nook and space. Like a child who is super pleased with his latest Lego creation, he would eagerly show me what he had altered and demonstrated the various DIY storage designs and lightings, etc.
We have brought many books for the trip and this break gave us plenty of time to read. Kin and I have quite different tastes in books. He normally prefers more academically-skewed books while I read a lot of classic/modern literature and detective novels. Interestingly, the first book he read was a delicately written biography The Hare with Amber Eyes. It is about the incredible story of the author’s Jewish ancestors. It took him probably three times his normal reading speed to go through each page as he painstakingly looked up and jogged down all the unfamiliar vocabulary in art, architecture, history and various languages. He remarked that he would not have had the patience to appreciate the book if he came across the book at a different point in life.
I was impressed by his perseverance while I re-read the classic Middlemarch. Each day we played this little game which he quizzed me some of the words he had looked up. It was quite fun and he was often surprised by my answers. It shows how different we are in our interests and knowledge which I think is exactly the root of our mutual attraction – that we excel in such diverse and sometimes opposite aspects and yet symbiotically complimenting each other.
When it was my turn to read the book, I found myself totally absorbed into the beautiful and poignant world of the author’s ancestors. I could almost touch the opulently decorated mansions they resided and the elegant objects in their rooms. I was deeply moved by the author’s magnanimous spirit as he described the horrific discrimination and oppression his family went through without a hint of bitterness or acrimony. I enjoyed discussing the book with Kin and it was a wonderful feeling to know that we shared similar sentiments and somehow brought us closer than ever.
We discovered some new habits and obsessions of our furry kids. In the past, it was a painful ordeal to get our lovebird Lavender back in the cage. About five months ago, she has developed a fetish with towels and when we put a towel in the cage, she would fly right into the cage. Or we hold up a towel and she will fly into the towel. The towel has become our magic wand and it works every single time. Now we have a new morning ritual with Lavender: when I wake up, I open the cage and hold up a towel; she always hops on the towel and I quickly wrap her up like a bouquet and go back to bed to play with her.
Lavender’s behaviour has transformed significantly since we stayed in Jianshui. As we spent much time in the apartment, she could roam freely much more than before. So much so that, she would return to her cage by herself and dozed off (with the cage door open). She is also more mellow and would stand on our shoulders or close to us quietly while we practised yoga. But the minute we lay down for more static poses, she instinctively knew that it was time to demand a head rub and would fly near our hands and gave us a peck.
Lavender did not like apple or many other fruits before. But I found out that she actually likes fruit but only if I hand feed her. It is wonderful to watch her eating as it is like a game for her – taking one bite and then spitting and swinging half of it away. Now she loves apple, pear and pomelo and always demands for more.
Daisy the timid cat in the beginning has adapted rather well to the travelling and new environment. When we took her to hiking, she would stick her head out of her backpack to watch the view. She walked very nimbly in the forest in her harness and even waited for Kin and looked back to check why he was so clumsy and slow at the back. I was overjoyed to see how she embraced new things and situations these few months.
Since May, life in Jianshui is lively again and we even experienced traffic jams at weekends as we saw more cars from other Yunnan cities. The Pottery Street is now packed with locals and tourists at night and the locals re-emerge and play card games in the small parks and dance in the piazzas. We are grateful to see life is finally back to almost normal and the restaurants are packed again. Many restaurants closed down because of the pandemic but on the other hand, there are also new shops opening. So, the cycle of life goes on.
You may be surprised to know that despite we had stayed in Jianshui for almost five months, we did not visit any popular tourist spots like the Confuscius Temple (文廟) and Zhu’s Family Garden (朱家花園). When all the tourist destinations first re-opened, we did try to visit the Zhu’s Family Garden as all the locals recommended it. But the initial admission policy was rather restrictive and only allowed visitors from low-risk provinces. Since we hold ID cards from Guangzhou which was considered high-risk at the time, we could not get in. That was the only time we attempted to visit any historical spots that require admission fees. We are not really interested in tourist destinations that need to be paid to visit as we are often disappointed and feel they look too shiny and lack authenticity. We prefer wandering around local villages and places where you can see the local shops and how the local people live.
Apart from the changing atmosphere within the city, we also witnessed the changing seasons in the fields and the countryside. The empty muddy ponds in the villages when we first arrived were filled with lotus leaves in April. The whole city became so colourful with trees and flowers in full bloom. We were so happy that we could see the beautiful lotus flowers just before we left Jianshui.
We went to Yunlong Hill Temple(雲龍山寺) on our last day in Jianshui. We are not a big fan of temples as we find many temples in China are too commercial. But Yunlong Temple is down to earth and peaceful. The temple is crowded during the Chinese New Year when the locals come to worship and ask for blessings of Buddha. We had a simple vegetarian lunch at the temple and spent a lovely afternoon in the forest.
It is sad to leave Jianshui as we got quite attached to the place and its people. But it is time to resume our journey after a long break. We were grateful that we were able to stay in this lovely town during the pandemic and given the chance to pursue things that we love.
This long break has made me understand myself better and brought Kin and I closer. We got to learn new knowledge and do things more mindfully. We also bonded so much more with Daisy and Lavender. I do believe that happiness is not about how materially rich one is, but whether one can find inner peace during tough times and appreciate the smallest things in one’s daily life. We treasure what we have gained in Jianshui and it will always have a special place in our heart.