I’m always looking for ways to better understand Chinese culture, and classic literature seems like a good place to start. Going on a recommendation from a student who happened to have an (unread) English copy of Hónglóumèng 红楼梦, (which translate to Dream of Red Mansions or Dream of Red Chamber, or any other number of variations) I picked it up. The story revolves around the history of the Zhu family, living throughout generations in their ancestral home. The home, which almost becomes the main character of the book, seems to be made up of a series of courtyards located adjacent to one another creating mini homes within homes. The book was alright, but the home seemed magnificent.
While reading, a friend casually mentioned to me that I could go visit the home, or at least, what’s believed to be the home that served as the inspiration for the book. As it turned out, the home was in Yúnnán province, where I planned to take my first long solo trip.
After hearing tons of hype for places like Xīshuāngbǎnnà 西双版纳 and Dàlǐ 大理, I heard almost nothing about Jiànshuǐ 建水. Most of my colleagues hadn’t been and weren’t even aware of the Dream of Red Mansions connection. Finding cheap accommodations was a hassle. The one hostel listed online seemed to have shut down. I got conflicting information about weather or not the train runs there. This had off-the-beaten-path written all over it.
After three days in Jiànshuǐ, would I recommend visiting? Absolutely. I enjoyed it so much, and loved getting away from the crowds of Dàlǐ and Kūnmíng, that it turned out to be my favorite stop in Yúnnán.
Here are my recommendations for things to do in Jiànshuǐ.
What to do:
Visit the Zhu family home
Finding it isn’t easy. Your accommodation should have a map, and you might need to get directions along the way. But once you find it, tucked away in an unassuming neighborhood off the main road, you’ll know that you’re there. It’s an absolutely sprawling estate with chambers inside of chambers. Make sure to take note of the ornately carved doors, rich with stories. The caretakers do a wonderful job of keeping the home immaculate and well decorated with plants.
The house is not just a picturesque museum- it’s also a functioning hotel. If you have the money, it might be worth the splurge to get a chance to experience life as a wealthy aristocratic family once did. That is, sleeping on a traditional Chinese bed and without air conditioning. Maybe this option is only for the truly hearty.
During my visit, admission was a steep 50 yuan.
Do a temple crawl down Lin’an Street
Walking down the street in the old town genuinely feels like stepping back in time. Hole in the wall shops sell local yogurt and rice noodles, while children play on the ground. Facades crumble. Paint peels. This is not the recreated, disingenuous “old towns” that plague modern China. This is the real deal. Experience it while it lasts.
Lin’an Street is lined with temples. Some of the larger temples require a fee, others are free. Wander in, enjoy the unique style that each has to offer. If you stick to Lin’an Street, you can walk from the East Gate (which is the Chaoyang tower) to the West Gate, which happens to be where the ancient city wall once stood. When you feel adventurous, take the side streets and explore the crumbling back alley ways. You won’t regret it.
Get water from the Jiànshuǐ wells
Finding the famous wells of Jiànshuǐ is a scavenger hunt that you should undertake. The wells are still in use- I saw people drawing buckets of water for their homes. Apparently the taste is very fresh and some of the wells are known for making good tea.
The first well is outside of the West Gate. The rest you’ll have to find on your own. Try to find wells with one, two, three, and four openings. Good luck!
Eat grilled tofu
Everywhere you go, you’ll see advertisements for the local specialty: grilled tofu.
Many of the shops use tofu that’s made with water from the well near the West Gate. In fact, you’ll pass the tiny factory as you walk to the well. Pop in to see the ladies pressing the tofu by hand, and enjoy a free sample and some fresh soy milk.
On your way back to the West Gate, you’ll pass a small hole in the wall shop just across the street. Pull up a stool at the communal table and order the tofu piece by piece. The woman serving you will put an additional empty jar lid in front of her. With every bit of tofu that you order she’ll put a kernel of corn in the lid. Stay as long as you want. When you’re ready to pay, she’ll count up her kernels and know exactly how much to charge you.
Want to visit Jiànshuǐ ?
How to get there-
Jiànshuǐ is located about 4 hour south of Kūnmíng 昆明 in Yúnnán Province. The easiest connection is from Kūnmíng city- both buses and trains are available. There’s still some confusion in the area about whether or not trains run to Jiànshuǐ since most of the guide books and tourist information for the area are outdated. As of 2013 the train does run and I can say that it was quite nice, though there’s currently only 2 trains per day. Just know that the station in Jiànshuǐ is a bit outside the city. When I was traveling there wasn’t a public bus that went to the station, so everyone just used shared vans that can be arranged at your hotel. Taxis were also available, but much more expensive.
The bus from Kūnmíng runs frequently and will bring you to downtown Jiànshuǐ. From there, you can take a public bus to many locations.
Where to stay-
I recommend staying in the old town area and Lin’an Street has the most options. If you’re on a tight budget, Jiànshuǐ Lin’an Story Inn, has a hostel operating in the hotel. It’s a bit confusing at first, but they’ve converted some of their hotel rooms into hostel rooms with bunk beds. I stayed in the women’s room and it was essentially the same as any hotel room, still with a great private bathroom, just with 3 sets of bunk beds. Just note that the staff didn’t speak English and they do lock the courtyard at night -which was a problem when I needed to leave early to catch the first train out.
While I was there I also visited the Lin’an Inn which is located right nearby the Jiànshuǐ Lin’an Story Inn. The manager was incredibly friendly and actually helped me to book my van to the train station and offered me tea and yogurt. I think the Lin’an Inn was a little nicer than my accommodation, so check this place out too.