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Jianshui: southern Yunnan's cultural gem

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Jianshui (建水), located in Honghe Prefecture (红河州), has been a center for Confucian studies for almost eight hundred years and possesses China's third largest Confucian temple complex. The area is also home to several ethnic minorities, the largest populations of which are the Hani, Yi, Dai, Hui, and Miao.

Because of all the cultural mixing, Jianshui is an excellent place to indulge in some of Yunnan's finest cuisine, observe the skills of traditional artisans and track down a few well-preserved architectural gems. Its subtropical highland climate doesn't hurt either.

Wandering around Old Town

Most of the sights in Jianshui Old Town are centered around Lin'an Lu (临安路) and Hanlin Jie (翰林街). These are two of the main roads situated between two of the towns more attractive gates. The main roads have several buildings with the 'new-old' facelifts that are so common to tourist hotspots Dali and Lijiang.

Buildings such as these are interspersed amid the falling facades of much older buildings. Adding to the altogether charming atmosphere is the arch of green created by trees lining the streets.

Wooden tourist information signs on the streets give directions to the main sights, which are all within easy walking distance of the city center. Exploring the back alleys before departing for more touristy places can also create opportunities to stumble across the small architectural treasures of bygone eras.

One of the highlights for us in Jianshui was being able to stay in Lin'an Inn (临安客栈) in the heart of old town. We found this 'Honghe style' courtyard house completely on accident. It is a purpose-built inn that despite appearances is only eight years-old.

Its courtyard garden is shaded by stands of bamboo and is a beautiful place to relax and eat breakfast or have a drink. The proprietor, surnamed Chen, can speak passable English and is a wealth of knowledge on places and activities in and around Jianshui. He can also help organize transportation and bookings.

On a fortunate evening we stumbled across Jianshui's most famous barbecue hot spot, locally referred to as the West Village Farmer's Market (小西庄农贸市场) off Hanlin Jie. It is a food market by day, but come sundown stallholders fire up grills and cook an amazing array of fresh produce and meat. Low benches are arranged around the grills and we were able to watch as our delicious meal was being prepared.

Zhu Family Gardens

Nearby on Hanlin Jie is the Qing dynasty-era Zhu Family Gardens (主家花园). A 50 yuan entrance ticket allows guests to wander through dozens of courtyards, all of which are flanked by intricately detailed wooden rooms as well as formal gardens.

There is even an opportunity to stay in these beautiful surroundings but rooms are some what small, dark and basic. The elaborate complex encompasses 20,000 square meters and is a maze of symmetry. Due to the size of the place, getting lost is half the fun of visiting.

Staff members at the garden are required to wear Qing dynasty clothing and the ambience is, for some, so real that the place is often the setting for television period dramas. In the rear of the complex, away from the crowds, is a photographic exhibition of old Jianshui. The collection has dozens of black and white photos that are definitely worth a few minutes' perusal.

Confucian temple

The Confucian Temple (孔庙) on Lin'an Lu is accessed through an immense ornamental gate. Inside sits a sprawling park with a shimmering blue lake as its centerpiece. The entry fee to the temple is 60 yuan per person.

Locals use the grounds as a place to practice their taiqi and people often congregate to rehearse dances amid blooming lotus and weeping willows. The beautiful temple complex was originally finished in 1258 and has remained a center of learning ever since.

At one time more than half of Yunnan's successful imperial examination candidates studied at the complex. At the height of its influence, the temple housed 70 pavilions ringed by study rooms and libraries. Today the temple continues to serve its original purpose. People come to offer prayers to the spirit of Confucius and his teachings are still studied by scholars.

Of wells and tofu

Perhaps the most interesting activity for us in Jianshui was trying to track down the various ancient wells scattered across back alleys. Almost all are still used on a daily basis. Grooves in the stone lips of the wells gouged by innumerable ropes attest to the longevity of the springs below.

Locals have been hauling up buckets of the fresh water for generations. Villagers still often wash their clothes or clean vegetables beside the wells. Others carry it back home balanced over their shoulders on wooden poles.

Observing the comings and goings of traffic made for excellent people watching. Through our voyuerism, we discovered that in addition to being a necessary part of daily chores, the water from Jianshui's West Gate Wells (西门井) is used as an essential ingredient in the production of local stinky tofu (建水西门臭豆腐).

In fact, the village situated directly around the wells is almost exclusively given over to the production of the odorous refined soybean cubes. Opposite the largest well is one factory where we watched handmade tofu come together in its various stages of processing — from beans to fermentation to finished product.

Generally we have always had an aversion to the smell of this style of tofu, but in Jianshui the freshness of the product meant that it was almost scentless. On Hanlin Jie we sat around a stinky tofu grill at a restaurant and ate bite-sized pieces dipped in a spicy sauce. We asked our grill cook Kang why Jianshui tofu was so good. Her answer involved the wells: "The water and the freshness...nothing you're eating is more than two days old."

Outside of town

The valleys surrounding Jianshui are littered with old stone bridges, the crown jewel of which is undoubtedly Double Dragon Bridge (双龙古桥). Five kilometers from Jianshui, the bridge was built of local stone in the eighteenth century, its seventeen arches once supported a bustling causeway across the Lu River (泸江). It is nearly 150 meters long and is the largest bridge of its kind in the province.

In the center of the span is a beautiful, seemingly top-heavy, three-story pavilion with flying eaves. Today the span is still in use but shows little sign of any restoration work. The crowds of people who used to stream across the bridge are long gone. We watched a trickle of farm workers bring their harvests across, balanced on poles over their shoulders. Elegant reflections of the bridge were mirrored in the large pond below and we watched the sun go down while we enjoyed a bottle of red wine.

Swallow Cave

Swallow Cave (燕子洞) is 25 kilometers east of Jianshui on the road to Mengzi (蒙自). Subtropical forests surround the place where a chalky yellow river flows from beneath the mountain. The cave has a dry section with shrines to Buddhist deities and the lower cave is a passage created by the Lu River. Tickets for the cave cost 80 yuan.

Cartoonish dragon boats leave from a dock at the entrance and ferry passengers 800 meters into the depths of the cave. At the terminus of this cruise is a surprisingly large terrace full of trinket stalls, snack vendors, and tables and chairs where people can relax and grab a subterranean lunch.

For most snapshot-hungry tourists this is the end of the road. The more adventurous can follow a network of sealed trails that wind through fantastic formations of stalagmites and stalactites.

Being a tourist cave, the scenes are bathed in various colored lights for that ubiquitous and often garish fairyland flavor. Guides costumed in traditional Yi dress point out interesting Karst features and their phantasmagorical likeness to various fictional and real beings.

The cave entrance is home to migrating White-rumped Swiftlets who build nests in the cave walls and ceiling. Yi people have been skillfully climbing around the gaping cavern for hundreds of years to collect nests for their famous 'bird nest soup' (鸟窝汤).

Although the practice is now outlawed for reasons of conservation, each year on August 8 it is once again allowed. At that time, locals and tourists flock to watch and cheer on the un-roped climbers.

Getting to the cave requires jumping on one of the many buses departing the main station in Jianshui and heading to Mengzi or Gejiu (个旧). When boarding, simply ask the driver to drop you off at the entrance to Swallow Cave.


The historic Yi and Hui village of Tuanshan (团山) lies 15 kilometers west of Jianshui along the same road that passes Double Dragon Bridge. The hamlet was once a prosperous business center, home to a population made wealthy from the local mining industry.

During the operational days of the Kunming to Vietnam railroad, ore extracted from the nearby hills was shipped on the now defunct narrow-gauge rails to factories in the provincial capital. Most buildings in the town date from the late nineteenth century and are a mishmash of Han and Yi architectural styles.

The World Monuments Fund is attempting to preserve the historically important, and largely intact, village before it is demolished to make way for more 'new-old' restoration works.

Because of the conservation efforts, entering the town will run you 50 yuan but comes with a bilingual map. All points of interest are well-signposted in both English and Chinese. Getting to the village is easiest with a driver that can drop off and pick up, with a round trip costing roughly 140 yuan depending on how well you can bargain.

Getting there

There are two daily trains departing Kunming Train Station for Jianshui. They follow the Mengzi line, which opened earlier this year. The trip can take between three and four hours and tickets costs 44 yuan. Jianshui Train Station is a new complex situated 10 kilometers northeast of the old town. Buses run passengers into town from the terminal and taxi's cost 30 yuan.

Buses from Kunming are more frequent and depart every thirty minutes from the Kunming South Bus Station. Tickets can cost as much as 78 yuan per person for the four-hour trip.

Images: Benjamin Campbell

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Pretty comprehensive. Nice.

Great article.
The place is well worth a visit.

I had the pleasure of visiting last year. The old town is a bit like Dali without the tourists. Food and service are also good in hotels and restaurants, perhaps service ethic influenced by the old confucian culture. We didn't get price gouged either.
The area is also famous for its pottery. Some of it is really nice.
Tuanshan is great and well worth the money. Compared to other Yunnan sites (150+) it is good value too. Tuanshan is largely intact and un-modernised. You can actually see original painted beams with gold leaf, those that are in the shade are still very colorful.

Actually, there is a bus from Jianshui city area to swallow cave, which costs 10rmb. If taking the bus to Mengzi or Gejiu, you got to walk off the highway and walk nearly one kilometer to the gate. You can take the bus in the same station with those from kunming.
Confucius temple in Jianshui is the second largest of its kind in China, not the third if i am correct.

Lonely Planet mentions the Confucian Temple as the third largest and this link mentions Beijing's Temple as the second largest www.topbeijingtravel.com/[...]
Jianshui's temple is odd in calculating size because it takes in the large area of the lake in front of it. Chinese superlatives are often a bit shady. Impressive place nonetheless.

Great article. Covers all the best bits of this cool getaway. I fear TuanShan might go "Disney" soon - get there quickly!

A room at the Zhu Family Garden was 480 Yuan last year. I am sure the price is the same or higher now.

Great word - phantasmagorical

Some years ago (maybe 4) one could/couldn't actually stay at Zhu Family Gdns (unless you were some kinda government bigshot), but it is perhaps a hotel now?

Yes, it's open to the paying public as a hotel. I stayed there a couple of nights 2 years ago when my UK parents were visiting.

Great article not only in richnes, but insightful!
stay in the Zhu's family garden is a bit high compared to other hotels around, but still worth it. feel like you can walk back into history, a very unique experience. and, if some one want it, I can get you a price with 30% off.

There are 4 more bridges worth visiting.

Tian Yuan Bridge in Ma Jun Village (Not far from the new Train Station).

Xiang Hui Bridge in Xiang Hui Village. There is also the old Xiang Hui Qiao Train Station.

Jian Long Qiao in Ma Jia Ying Village.

Finally, there is the Da Xin Bridge in Qujiang. There is a train station here now but I have not visited this bridge since the new train station has opened. This bridge is about 40 km north of Jian Shui Old Town.

Does anyone have experience biking from Kunming to Jianshui? If so, how long did it take and what was the land gradient like?

I think there was article on this or a thread last year or maybe before

bexkmg: Better to get a bus out of town, eg. from south bus station to Chengjiang or Yuxi. Personally I would recommend cycling from Chengjiang (where I usually live), down the east side of Fuxian lake, then there's a hilly section! If you prefer relative flat with less impressive scenery and more traffic, do the west side instead, via Jiangchuan. After either route, you should get to Tonghai. From Tonghai, there are two roads - the direct highway (veer left at the top of the hill; probably an old version of which also exists), or one of the best roads in the whole province, the road to Shiping (veer right at the top of the hill). The road to Shiping has lots of hills but is extremely beautiful and has a really long downward slope toward the end. Very little traffic, excellent surface, wild scenery. Once you're near Shiping, just head east in to Jianshui (via the bridge, Tuanshan, etc. which lie half-way between the two towns). Once there, you may as well continue on the old road to Gejiu (low traffic again) via swallow cave, then get up early in the morning to illegally cycle (with lights for safety!) through the tunnel to the south of Gejiu and enjoy the tropical descent to the Red River valley. Left for Vietnam, right for Yuanyang rice terraces (bit more up to go!)

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