We were crazy and visited Mainland China (for the first time since the pandemic) during Chinese New Year. Not only that, we decided to go to Yunnan Province, the vacation capital of China. Needless to say, we knew we wouldn't be able to completely avoid crowds. But perhaps we could at least try . . .
So, we chose to visit Jianshui, a lesser known ancient city in Yunnan. Even many Chinese people have never heard of Jianshui, because it is overshadowed by its more famous neighbors Shangri La, Dali, and Lijiang.
Jianshui is a small ancient town about a 3 hour train ride away from Kunming (bigger city with an international airport). Jianshui is best known for its ancient walled city, preserved gardens, and street foods.
A Peculiar Beginning
Our trip started in a pretty unusual way. After arriving at the High Speed Rail train station, we realized we needed to hail a taxi to our hotel. It seemed like taxis were tricky to grab, and we struggled to find the taxi stand.
All of a sudden we spotted a taxi and we ran up. He was happy to take us to our hotel for a very reasonable price.
"I just need to drop off some chickens."
"Go ahead, please get in the car."
"Just hold on a sec. I'll be right back. I just need to get some chickens."
Before you know it, our driver came back with another guy who was holding a basket full of live chickens (!). (I guess the train station was some sort of meeting point?). The two men struggled as the chickens complained loudly about being moved. After a couple minutes, the live chickens were safely stowed away into the back of the car. The driver kept the trunk open and started driving away.
As we sat in the back of the taxi, we were a bit floored and speechless, not sure what to make of this whole situation. Meanwhile, every few minutes the back trunk door would swing shut. Terrified the chickens would suffocate, the driver would jump out of the car at the next stoplight, open the back trunk, and continue driving.
We eventually got to our destination no problem. Our friendly driver continued on his way to drop off his chickens.
We still couldn't believe what we just experienced.
We stayed in Jian Shui for two and a half days. We explored the ancient city and surrounding sites during the day and immersing ourselves in the city life during the evenings. I'll start with food, especially some of Jian Shui's most famous foods.
Night Market Life
The Night Markets are lively and full of activity. There are all different types of food vendors selling various types of street snacks.
During Chinese New Year it was extremely crowded. China had basically just recovered from a massive Covid wave, so everyone was finally ready to go out and travel!
Erkuai (饵块）is a type of rice cake that is native to Yunnan province. On the streets they sell a grilled version that is cooked over a fire and wrapped around a filling of your choice.
You can see it in action in this video:
Grilled Street Tofu
Jianshui’s tofu is probably the single most well-known food from the city. These little 1-inch cubes of tofu are made from Jianshui’s well water and have a slightly fermented flavor. If you love stinky tofu, you’ll appreciate Jianshui’s version, which is much milder but still has its own unique funk.
Locals sit around a grill manned by a tofu grill master who painstakingly watches and flips each piece of tofu until it has reached perfection.
A larger order of 30 pieces could take up to half an hour. If you sit at the grill itself (there are usually little low stools around the grill) you can eat the pieces at their freshest, right when they are ready. It’s soooo worth it.
Usually these grill restaurants will serve other grilled foods, such as various meats, offal, fish, and local produce.
Ivory Tusk Grass
Another unique specialty of the region is the “Ya cai”, named after an elephant’s tusk because of its white color and long, tusk-like shape. These shoots are quite expensive, and locals like to eat it in soups or grilled over a fire. Because it is so rare, it is quite expensive. We tried it several different ways.
Once as part of a beef noodle soup in the night market. Another time at a BBQ grill shop.
Yunnan Mixian (米线 Rice noodles)
The rice noodles in Yunnan province are fantastic. Yunnan's proximity to Southeast Asia means the general flavor profile has more fragrant herbs, brighter flavors (think lime!), and lots of chili! It's fantastic, and super cheap. A bowl of rice noodles may not even be USD$2, and it'll taste amazing due to the fresh ingredients inside.
Fresh Pomegranates + Strawberries
Yunnan has tons of fresh fruits, and pomegranate juice stands abound. You can get a huge cup of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice (made fresh before your eyes) for just a couple dollars USD. Fresh strawberries grown right in the mountains were also abundant.
Where to Visit: The Old Walled City
We spent a day exploring the old walled city, which retains the look and feel of the ancient city during the Ming Dynasty (1367-1644). The shops are now modern, but it's still fun to walk and explore The Old Walled City, which is pretty small and very walkable. We set aside a day to spend inside.
Inside the Old Walled City we visited Confucius Temple, National Examination Site, and Chaoyang Tower. There is a small fee to enter some of the above-mentioned sites, but you can buy a combo ticket at any of the sites (which is what we did).
Chaoyang Tower is an important historic building is part of the wall that surrounds the city.
It's nice to climb up, walk around, and see the old walled city from a different viewpoint.
Day 2: Excursions Outside the Old Walled City
The second day we went on small excursions to see some of the sites outside the walled city. The sites are all within 3-5 km from each other, so you can easily take a taxi from spot to spot. Another option is to buy tickets for the little red train that goes between the sites. It is very popular and can easily become fully booked. Don't expect to buy tickets after you arrive in Jian Shui.
Double Dragon Bridge
This 700-year old "17-arch" bridge is one of the most famous and beautiful bridges in Yunnan Province. It's a lovely place to take some really nice photos.
We couldn't get tickets to the little red train, so we hailed a Didi (like Uber in China) to drive us out to this place which about 3 miles away from the old town.
Zhu's Family Garden
The Zhu family built this massive residence + garden during the late Qing Dynasty.
I very much enjoyed exploring all the different little paths, courtyards, and little streets in this garden.
Because the overall grounds is so large (~5 acres), you can wander around and not feel like it's crowded at all (unlike other popular sites). It was the perfect place to spend time during this busy Chinese New Year holiday season.
Next Stop: Xishuangbanna