An early morning departure from 景洪 (Jing Hong) propelled me again into the wild landscape of southern Yunnan. Venturing close to both the Burmese and Vietnamese borders, our vehicle (a rental with a driver more adept than I at navigating the circuitous roads of scarcely inhabited rural 云南) wrestled its tires against the rugged jags of mountain roads. Through tunnels, over bridges, we flew by foliage and glimpsed lake life that surged within the crevices of green giants. Originally estimated by the driver to be a 4-hour-drive, the trajectory was soon modified by a construction run-in near 阳武 (Yangwu)—a regal highway shooting through China’s unwelcoming southern terrain. An elderly Yi ethnic minority woman, elegantly weighed in the dress of her heritage, surveyed from outside her home as cranes and hauling trucks covered themselves in the mud of her people’s village. I soon noticed all the homes in her region, painted elegantly in white, were punctuated by a red circular totem, each stamped with an ethnic minority emblem. Home to the 彝 and 红河哈尼 ethnic minorities, the Yunnan regions north of Vietnam settle remotely with custom and language of their own.
Forced to turn back from the highway construction stretches, we headed north to 玉溪 (Yuxi) (a slightly larger city closer to the capital, Kunming) to ride a reliable constructed highway, albeit a little longer. Bearing southeast now towards 建水 (Jianshui) county in 红河哈尼族彝族自治州 (Honghe Hani and Yi autonomous prefecture), the last stretch saw us amid flatter lands.
Nine hours from our departing point, we rode up 临安路 (Linan Road, a central town street) to a wedding being held outside our hotel. A pensive-looking bride in white, her face glistened above the basket of candies she offered to guests and passersby. Her husband, a stout boyish fellow, offered a less-desirable mountain of cigarettes, being happily leveled by the older male wedding-attenders.
After settling into our rooms, we walked out the matrimonially decorated lobby entrance and into chaos of motorbikes and cars. A collage of antiquity and new industry, 建水 (Jianshui) is as cozy as it is 丰富, rich with time and life. Under a masterful gate of intricate woodwork and aged color, we passed along cellphone and medicine shops housed in longstanding traditional Chinese structures. A kite fluttered high above Jianshui’s famed 文庙 (Confucius Temple). We approached its owner—a jauntily calm man, wrinkled with the history of China’s rise.
Across a courtyard, in whose center sat a majestic stone Confucius, the gates of the temple stood stately in setting sunlight. A cast of peach hues and vivid green, leaves weaning themselves from late drops of light. I approached the entrance counter to the temple, held by a young built monk novice and a middle-aged female local. Although the temple was to close in thirty minutes and neither manager was keen to let us in without at least an hour to appreciate the temple’s splendor, my limited time in Jianshui convinced the guards this was my only chance. And glad I was to be let in. The second largest Confucius Temple in China—modeled after the original in 曲阜 (Qufu), Shandong province—Jianshui’s 文庙 (Wen Miao—a.k.a. Confucius Temple) has been the schooling ground for an astonishing half of China’s leaders. The customary ground for China’s historical imperial examinations, Wenmiao seemed untouched—a sovereign symbol of empiricism gone by. Grandiose gates flanked by stone elephants, light poured off the temple’s white walls into the roots of entrenched trees. Bonsais and giants, the greenery and callused trunks appeared to actively build the temples’ environs, giving novel life to sedentary past.
Ornately carved into wooden tablet doors, scenes of ancient Chinese country and Confucius’s scholarly life gave way to the temple’s main indoor structure—inhabited by a carved and painted Confucius, surrounded by his scholars and principal followers. To the left through a small stone portal was the primary school, facing an outdoor corridor of desks held in a an artful wooden frame. Black-and-white illustrations of mountains and rivers—each painted on the frame with a different hand—nestled between colorful buds and intricate design.
The west side of the Confucius temple spills into an ovular pond surrounded by stone walkway and inhabited by kitsch blown up figurines of animals, boats, dragons, lamps, and Chinese New Year festivities. Walked past the sight, let it grow on us, and exited the east gate to walk down a traditionally lined lane. Passed the ancient seat of the empirical examinations, slightly lopsided masterfully woodworked homes, and into the bustling main street of Jianshui’s nightlife. Drifted past a tantalizing courtyard restaurant before being slowly dragged back by gusts of culinary masterpiece and weakness for all things edible. Sauntered past the 吵闹 kitchen to a table on the second floor. Overlooking the courtyard’s central garden and a local woman grilling Jianshui’s 特色 (characteristic) tofu over open fire, surprisingly, I was handed an iPad as a menu for convenience. Local 草牙 (grass sprout, or “elephant tooth grass roots”), 牛干巴 (a dried beef slices dish, typical to Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan provinces), spicy eggplant, purple yam patties, sweet potato, my favorite 松鼠桂鱼 (sweet and sour mandarin fish), 糯米 (sticky rice)-stuffed lotus plant, and Jianshui house-made tofu.
A walk back to the hotel settled my satisfied stomach, and I observed local life both settling down and starting up for the glistening nightlife to be lit. An early night after Chinese news brought us morning energy for a fresh stroll back into town. Past a group of elderly women dancing in sync on the front square of the Confucius temple, I watched the health exude from those unfazed by age’s grasp. Fans in hand and music blaring, hand to toe and face to sky.
Awoke to a fiery new sun. First stop: 指林寺 (Zhilin Temple), a monastery built in 1296, whose woodwork stuns with detail. A walk back along 临安路 (Linan Road) brought us to the renowned 朱家花园 (Zhu Family Gardens), a labyrinth-like complex dating back to the Qing Dynasty. Inhabited by many generations of the Zhu family, the gardens consisted of several courtyards, circular stone portals, a traditional wooden bedroom, home structures, a small school and hospital historically available to locals, and a museum on the history of the family and structure’s significance over the years. There was also a clear explanation of Jianshui’s use of wells dating back to its days of inception. Clean running water is now available for all city locals as well as those in Jianshui’s rural peripheries. Abounding with bonsai, varied flower species (being arranged throughout the elaborate courtyards), and flowing with stage-backed ponds, the complex fed me through to its backyard—a mapping of tree roots and sturdy flora.
A short trek back to the hotel, I longingly said goodbye to the charming city—a true gem of southern Yunnan—and departed via Jianshui’s main road as a group of farmers were protesting low wages. It seems that there is increasing fearlessness in complaints of the Chinese disenfranchised.
Into their agricultural regions we crept, making our way to 河口 (Hekou), one of China’s portals to Vietnam!!