Located a few hours south of Kunming (昆明), the capital of Yunnan province, Jianshui (建水) is a ancient town where the cobble-stone streets are lined with well-preserved mansions built during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Over-looked travel destination on the way to the border town of Hekou 河口 (for those crossing to Vietnam) and the touristy landscape of the Yuanyang rice terraces (元阳梯田), Jianshui deserves a stop on your itinerary.
Here is a short list of 7 places to visit during your stay in Jianshui.
#1. The Zhu Family Gardens (朱家花园)
Located on Hanlin Street (翰林街) in the heart of the historical core zone of Jianshui , the Zhu Family Garden (朱家花园), is a 5000 m2 estate with a maze of courtyards, a pond, large garden and an ancestral hall in front of which there is a theater stage on the water.
Built during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) to emulate the style and layout of the magnificent estate and gardens in which the Chinese novel “Dream of the Red Chamber” (红楼梦) takes place, the configuration of the residential quarters and the successions of courtyards and their sky-well will make you feel like you have entered a maze in which you’ll love to get lost.
The Qing style roofs, the patterns on windows and painted miniatures scenes on the facades and gates are praised as perfect example of late imperial classical architecture.
#2. The Confucius temple
With 10 hectares, the Confucius Temple or Wenmiao (文庙) is an imposing complex that was built in the 13th century. The main entrance is located on Lin’an Road (临安路), just 200 meters from the Zhu Family Gardens.
Behind the pond, a massive gate (坊) stands on a platform built in white stone. Beyond this point it takes at least one hour to wander around and find the one altar (坛), two palace halls (殿), three multi-storied pavilion (阁), four gates (门), six temples (祠) and 8 stone arches (坊). If you reach the hall of Xianshi (先师殿), look closely at the pillars on which rests the temple.
Look closely at the pillars of the hall of see washed-out yellow characters 伟大毛泽东主席万岁 (Long Life to Chairman Mao) which dates back from the anti-Confucius campaign of the 1960s.
With local having free access, it is particularly animated on week-ends and in the evenings when families come for a walk and when old men play cards in the gardens. You will even see some of them practice old tunes of Chinese opera with ancient musical instruments.
#3. Chaoyang Tower (朝阳楼)
Chaoyang Tower (which literally means the “Tower that Faces the Sun”) will certainly reminds you of the Tian’an Men Gate in Beijing. Situated in the middle of a round-about, it marks the limit between the new town and the ancient town.
Chaoyang Tower is a vestige of the ancient city wall that was built under the Emperor Hongwu of the Ming (end of the 14th century). Despite wars and earthquake, it is still proudly standing.
Climb the stairs for a view of the city.
#4. Temple hopping
Lin’an Street (临安路), the main street that runs through the old of Jianshui starts from Chaoyang Tower , also called the East Gate or Dong Men(东门) and finishes at the West Gate (Xi Men 西门). If you walk from one end to the other end, you will pass in front a few Taoist or Buddhist temples.
There is an entrance fee to get inside the Tianjun temple (天君庙), a Taoist temple but the Puying Temple (普应寺) and the Zhilin Zen Temple (指林禅寺) are free.
#5. Admire the Ming – Qing era architecture
Jianshui was founded during the era of the Kingdom of Nanzhao by members of the Yi ethnic group (彝族); they named the city Huili which means “Great Sea” in old Yi language. Under the Ming dynasty, the city was renamed Jianshui which means literally, “Established Water” and became the town where scholars came to pass the provincial level of imperial examination. Therefore, during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, half of the population of Jianshui were scholars.
What you see when you walk in the core zone of Jianshui old town, the architecture, the painted miniature scenes and the carved wood doors, everything shows that the people who built this part of town where men of arts and culture.
#6. Visit the two old towns of Jianshui
When you stand on top of the Chaoyang Tower and look towards Lin’an Street, where you find the Confucius Temple and the Zhu Family Gardens, you will see the old Jianshui of the scholars, government officials and wealthy merchants. If you look left, you will see a pagoda in the middle of a maze of narrow streets, this was the old Jianshui of the commoners.
One of the main feature of this part of town it the impressive courtyard gates that date back to the Ming and Qing dynasty, the Yuhuang Ge (玉皇阁), an ancient Buddhist temple that was transformed into a warehouse, dozens of temples and shringes, as well as plenty of ancient water wells, some of which are still in use
Find the wells of Jianshui
The old town of Jianshui is also famous for its water wells scattered through the town and are very easy find, but you’ll have to get lost. The most impressive and the largest one, the West Well (西井) is located beyond the West Gate (西门), opposite of the Chaoyang Tower, on the other of Lin’an street.
The local population still uses the wells and each well has a specific use. For example, the West Well water is used for drinking, another well water will be used for tea, another to wash clothes and so on.
Also, you will notice that next to most of well, there is a shrine marked with the words “Crystal Water Palace” or 水晶宫 and dedicated to a dragon spirit.
How to get there
Bus : The best way is take a bus from Kunming South Bus Station (昆明南部客运站); it will take around 45 to 50 minutes by taxi (around 50 to 60 RMB) from Xiao Ximen in downtown Kunming to get to the bus station.
There is a bus every 20 to 30 minutes during day time. Try and buy your ticket in advance in Kunming (the ticket hall can be pretty crowded and you may have to wait in line to get your ticket). Count around 3h30 to 4 hours once your bus leave the bus station.
Train : Passenger train ticket from Kunming to Jianshui are now available. The line is brand new (it opened in April 2013) and passes through Yuxi, Tonghai, Jianshui and ends in Mengzi. Once the line is completed, passengers will be able to ride directly to the border town of Hekou, before crossing into Vietnam.