The literal English translation of Heijing (黑井), the name of a valley town about 100 kilometers northwest of Kunming, is 'Black Well'. If you use WeChat's Youdao translator, it becomes 'Black Hole'. These interpretations are both a bit incorrect, since the name is actually a shortened version of 'Black Cow Well', a name derived from the local legend of an ethnic Yi girl's wandering ox that discovered a rich salt well on the banks of the Longchuan River (龙川江). When the farmer found her stray animal near the peculiar water source, she took a pail of the briny mixture home and used it to boil vegetables. The resulting stew was delicious, and Yunnan's number one salt town was thus born.
I was initially attracted to Heijing because of its former status as one of Yunnan's most prosperous towns, as well as the numerous temples that roost above its slender river valley. Another draw was its convenient location on the rail line from Yuanmou (元谋) to Kunming.
For some of my trip, I followed in the footsteps of GoKunming contributor Jim Goodman, who covered Heijing's salt history in significant depth. If you were to visit during the town's heyday in the Ming and Qing dynasties, you might have brushed up against some of the wealthiest families in Yunnan. Today, you are more likely to meet down-to-earth working class folk.
Arrival at nightfall
I was supposed to de-train in Heijing at 7pm, but the Kunming-bound 6161 was about 30 minutes late. Almost immediately after exiting the platform, I was approached by a woman in a black down coat advertising van service. My GPS app had indicated a considerable distance between the station and town, but I still decided to walk.
Along the winding valley road — recently paved and lit with LED lanterns — I passed rice paddies and quiet groupings of farmhouses. Soon my path converged with the babbling Longchuan River. There was a 50-meter section that was quite dark, but generally the stroll was a comfortable way to stretch my legs after the 90-minute trip from Yuanmou (元谋).
Arriving at the southern edge of the old town, I was greeted by the ominous beating of a large wood and calfskin drum. The player's concentrated, evenly spaced strokes reminded me of the austere rhythms of Japanese taiko. Stereotypically, I often associate such music with tribal dances or war preparations, but on that cool night, with the soft glow of red lanterns illuminating the narrow pedestrian street, the pulsations had a calming effect.
I approached the wooden, two-story structure from which the beating emanated. For a minute or so, I imagined an era when villages across China awoke and fell asleep to the sound of drums. This atmospheric introduction got me thinking that visiting Heijing was indeed a good idea, an excellent way to round off my weekend getaway to Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture (楚雄彝族自治州). The strokes subsided, and that was my cue to find somewhere else to go.
Not exactly sure whether a guesthouse would be easy to find, I asked the only other person on the street at that time, an elderly man dressed in a navy blue Zhongshan suit. Without hesitation, he led me further up the cobblestone road to the fabled Five Horses Bridge (五马大桥), named such because its exceptional width allowed five horses to ride abreast across the river.
He explained that the stone arch crossing was originally constructed during the Yuan Dynasty, when Heijing was a rest stop for Mongol horses en route to the vast empire's frontier. He then pointed out and recited a couplet engraved at the eastern end of the span. The poem described a man visiting the bridge to 'see' the wind blowing through the unyielding archway below, and raindrops falling silently on the Sanqing Palace (三清宫) roof. He accompanied me to the west bank, where his home was, and directed me to find accommodation on 'Gourmet Street' (美食文化街).
This main tourist thoroughfare contains plenty of lodging options, some of which occupy the town's traditional red brick and wooden Qing dynasty buildings. The slightly less-romantic Heshun Guesthouse (和顺客栈) — made of concrete and located midway up the stone-paved street — offered me an undecorated yet comfortable 50 yuan single room equipped with a television and private bathroom.
As I was checking in, I could hear the unmistakable dissonance and clangor of Chinese opera. At first I thought I was listening to a televised performance. But when I asked the manager, Mr Li, where the music was coming from, he promptly handed me a cigarette and guided me down to the rehearsal room to enjoy the show.
The ensemble was mostly comprised of middle-aged players, and included several percussionists, vocalists and erhu players. It was led by an elderly man dressed in the same style of navy suit as my guide from earlier. He was an exquisite musician who played with one hand, directed with the other, and sang on top of that.
The group's intricate pieces, punctuated by the bold and earthy 'twangs' of hand-hammered gongs and curved-edge cymbals, followed a tempo and phrasing that would be impossible to sync with the clicks of a metronome. In the seeming cacophony, the players demonstrated the kind of delicate musicianship that we humans have not yet imparted to drum machines or automated music software.
When Heijing was one of Yunnan's commercial capitals, opera troupes played a prominent role in local nightlife. Nowadays, an evening out is more likely to feature food, drink and conversation. As I was about to enter a grocery store to purchase beer for the evening, a convivial man at a nearby street barbecue table welcomed me to a party he was enjoying with several of his colleagues. This Mr Li was a manager at China Southern Power Grid, and his team works among the 49 electric wind turbines scattered along Heijing's mountain ridges.
The jubilant band of brothers invited me to sample numerous local delicacies, including pig's tail, sliced beef and roast quail. We washed it down with green tea and a formidable amount of a locally brewed gaolianjiu (高粱酒) rice wine. Our discussions covered topics ranging from Trump-Obama comparisons, to the distinct saltiness of Heijing cured pork. Past midnight, it was only Mr Li, his colleague who was also surnamed Li, and me who remained at the table. They had to prepare for their morning shift at the mountain station, so they accompanied me back to the Heshun guesthouse, where I crashed, holding the faint hope of getting an early start.
Up early with the chickens
The following morning, a veritable chorus of crowing roosters eventually persuaded me to get out of bed, even though I felt so snug under my two comforters. The temperature was so fresh that I hardly noticed the effects of the previous evening's hard liquor. From the window, a stream of luminous clouds swiftly made their way down the valley. The sun had not yet appeared, but it was now almost 9am. I went to a food stall across the street to have dumpling soup, complete with a generous dollop of chili sauce, which helped soothe my hangover and prepared me to face the brisk morning.
Making my way up Gourmet Street, with the sun still hiding behind the mountains, several vendors were setting up shop. Further up the road, the wet market was in full swing in spite of the chill. Mr Li from the Heshun Guesthouse had mentioned that Sunday would see many visitors from Kunming. But by the time the sun's rays began to spill over the eastern hills, I was busy perusing the small chambers of the Wu family mansion (武家大院).
A Mr Wu — no relation to the original owners — who tended the museum said the complex once housed Heijing's most prominent salt-trading family, who have since relocated to Kunming. After browsing the alleys near the mansion, I decided to make my way up the western slopes, to enjoy the gradually accentuating sunlight and see what temples were close by.
Along its western ridge, Heijing boasts temples serving a variety of faiths. The first I visited that day was Wangxingge (王星阁), a Taoist site that looks over the northern edge of town. Upon my arrival, the resident monk seemed far from impressed. I tried to ignore what I perceived as his unwelcoming vibe and directed my attention to the deity statues inside the temple's secondary chamber.
After a few minutes, however, he approached me to express his grievance. Underneath his well-developed beard was a notable scowling expression. He pointed to my camera, formed an 'X' with his hands, and shook his head. Until that point I had not snapped any photos, with the understanding that this is often seen as disrespectful. The monk then gently rubbed his thumb and index finger together and pointed at the donation box.
With my broken Chinese, I asked if he was angry. He declared that everyone who visits the temple should donate money to honor the deities. I nodded and placed a yuan note in the donation box. After giving my offering, meager as it was, his countenance transformed. Smiling, he encouraged me to take pictures, which I did. After some minutes, I entered the main hall, where he instructed me to bow before the center statue. Each time I paid my respects, he struck a resonant, bowl-shaped metal instrument.
I stayed for quite a while examining the statues. Some characters appeared serene, others were imposing or red-faced; all were floating amongst the clouds. As I made my way out, the monk gave an aloof wave. I broke left down the hill to investigate the riverbank of a dammed tributary of the Longchuan River.
This ended up being a clumsy endeavor, since I soon realized that extensive efforts had been made to create discouragingly steep barriers to each section of blocked waterway. But having already hiked a considerable distance from the town center, I stepped stones to the northern end of the muddy stream bed and made my way up the brushy slope. This route also proved problematic, as my shirt became covered in hundreds of pesky seed-bearing burrs. Following a five-minute grooming and quick lunch on the sun-soaked hillside across from the Wangxingge, I climbed over a stone wall to a walking path that led northwest of town.
The hills surrounding Heijing used to be covered in swathes of timberland, but the prevalence of wooden stoves, which played a key role in desalinating the local brine for salt production, resulted in considerable deforestation. Today, the sparsely wooded, semi-arid hills look green from a distance but are full of rough, drought-resistant brush – along with a smattering of pointy-leaved aloes. Many of these hearty plants bear long thorns, so think twice before going bushwhacking.
Out in the countryside
By the time I ran out of water, I had made it to Qijucun (七局村), a collection of farmhouses about two kilometers northwest of Heijing. Several barking dogs announced my arrival. At a courtyard gate was a woman tossing white grains in a shallow woven basket. I introduced myself among the yelping animals and asked if she had any water. She led me inside her dimly lit home, where one bare lightbulb hung in the combined cooking and living area. They had just finished eating lunch.
Since my Mandarin skills are already limited, it was very difficult to comprehend the strong dialect shared by husband and wife. I even strained to understand basic phrases like 'Have you eaten?'. Consequently, our communication was mostly via gesture and eye contact. I gratefully accepted their freshly boiled water but declined their offer for food.
However, a guest's modesty can only go so far in rural China. Mr Yan went about preparing a generous serving of fried rice with fragrant herbs, along with a heaping portion of fried pork and spring onions. When the meal was ready, he sat down quietly next to me on the sofa and insisted that I finish all of what he had prepared. The whole while, their white cat sat under the table, looking at the curious visitor, meowing and purring.
I tried to engage Mr Yan in small talk while his wife continued her work of tossing small batches of the white spherical rice she called nuomi (糯米). The house was remarkably cool compared with the semi-savanna outside. They showed me several of the dried crops they were accumulating in large rice bags, including green dougu (豆鼓), or 'drum beans'. When I made my motion to go, Mr Yan offered more hot water, then grabbed his rope and sickle as he headed out the door. I passed the dogs, who were much quieter than when I arrived, and made my way back to Heijing, satiated, hydrated and humbled.
One caveat for hiking in the surrounding hills — If you can, ask locals along the way. I ended up taking a wrong turn halfway to town and subsequently wandered for 20 minutes through abandoned, thistle-infested crop terraces. Luckily, I had brought enough sunscreen to avoid getting burned to a crisp and eventually joined a convoy of villagers porting items down to market.
Returning to Heijing proper, I decided to go once again to the main historic district to see how the light had augmented since morning. As I was taking photos of potted plants lined up along a window ledge, a man from across the path — yet another Mr Li — chuckled with amusement and invited me into his home.
Over several cups of green tea, two glasses of gaolianjiu and his homemade pan-fried pork ribs, we talked about his family history and how the area where his home stands used to be a resting place for horses and their riders during the Yuan dynasty and the Tea Horse Road era. Li, 55, works as a security guard in Kunming and had come back home for the weekend to take care of his mother.
He recommended several temples along Heijing's western flank, the most famous of which is Feilaisi (飞来寺), a Buddhist complex perched high on a hill south of town. Although Mr Li generously invited me to carpool back to the city the next morning with he and his friend, I still had sightseeing to do before sunset, and a train to catch.
The steep trek to Feilai Temple, broken up by three viewing pavilions, offers panoramic views of Heijing town and the narrow and relatively lush stretch of farmland that leads to the train station. Because the temple sits on a western slope, late afternoon does not provide the best lighting. If you do choose to go at that time, make sure that you arrive well before 5pm, when the temple closes to visitors. I reached the main gate shortly after five — heavily winded from my rushed ascent – only to find a locked door. A lady enjoying the sunset view to the side of entrance confirmed that the temple was now a no-go.
I had envisioned Feilaisi as the cherry on top of my 24 hours in Heijing, but a visit now seemed wishful thinking. Stubbornly, I decided to take the alternate route that led to the temple's side entrance, where I could hear chatting in the vestibule. I knocked on the clanky metal door and opened it slightly to find the caretakers having dinner. The two men at the table declined my request to see the interior, while the woman agreed to let me in for ten minutes.
Dusk was setting in, and even the temple courtyard was getting dark, while the arid hilltops across the valley bathed in the day's last light. In the same scene, a nearly full moon hung directly above a solitary pagoda flanked by wind turbines. Turning my attention to the temple's main hall, I could only take a peek at the seated golden Buddha through locked doors. A small chamber to the left housed a white Guanyin statue with a near-circular face. She gracefully poured her blessings from a delicate ceramic bottle. Her calming presence, the surrounding views and my apparent luck had finally made the hasty pilgrimage seem worthwhile. Ironically, looking back, I could have pursued true Buddhist contentment and found equal satisfaction by simply appreciating the hike's scenic treasures.
The caretaker patiently waited for me in the temple atrium as I browsed the compact chambers. I thanked her and made my way back to town one last time. The descent was quick, leaving me plenty of time for my train. While waiting, I found Mr Li from the previous night, along with his wife, chatting on the east bank. In a small town, it's certainly not unusual to see familiar faces, but I saw the encounter as an added blessing to what had already been a memorable visit. Li used a handy mobile phone app to discover that the 6161 train, my ride back to Kunming, was running about a half hour late. Even with the extra time, it seemed appropriate to say goodbye to the town that has been one of my most pleasant surprises in China.
Each day, there are two morning trains from Kunming to Heijing, with no afternoon departures. The early 6161 — which takes three hours and costs 22.5 yuan — leaves Kunming Train Station at 7:10am and gets you to Heijing at 10:12. The faster and slightly more expensive K114 departs Kunming at 8:48am and should still drop you off at Heijing before 11:00am. It costs 28.5 yuan. Two daily trains can get you back to Kunming. In the morning, the express K1501 takes a little over two hours and leaves Heijing at 8:30am, while the evening 6161 pulls out of Heijing at just after 7pm, arriving in Kunming at 9:51pm. Again, the faster train is 28.5 yuan and the slower option is 22.5 yuan.
Although these trains are a must for China adventurers, they are often late. On my return to the Spring City, the 6161 was about half an hour behind schedule. A minivan from the station to Five Horses Bridge in Heijing costs three to five yuan. You can also take one of the popular donkey carriages between the two. Taking the bus to and from Heijing is also an option, but it is slower, as it follows the less direct route over the mountains.
Editor's note: Veta Wang and Judy Yuan contributed to this article.