Ancient towns of Yunnan | The old streets of Jianchuan

Jianchuan 剑川 is a small town between Lijiang 丽江 and Dali 大理 that I have presented as the home of the One Thousand Lions Mountain (千狮山) and the gateway to the Shaxi 沙溪 valley and its sights. Unless one has hired a driver, all the travelers on their way to Shaxi 沙溪 will have to transit in Jianchuan 剑川 and change to a green mini-van.

From Jianchuan bus station, the town, with its chaotic traffic, its outskirts mushrooming with new concrete and modern building, looks like any somewhat impoverished rural town of Yunnan, ugly, grey and uninteresting.

Yet, a few steps away from the bus station, behind a stone gate (or paifang 牌坊), an interesting and somewhat well-preserved old town, where stores cater to local people and not tourists, reminds hidden and so far, intact.

Entering the old town of Jianchuan in Yunnan

Entering the old town of Jianchuan in Yunnan

The hometown of wood carving

For some reasons unknown to me, Jianchuan is famous for its wood carvers. When driving into town, you may drive by a few workshops and in the streets of the old town, look at the wooden doors exquisitely carved by local craftsmen who decorated the panels with flowers, traditional patterns or legendary animals like the kirin (麒麟) straight from the Chinese mythological bestiary.  In Yunnan, Jianchuan craftsmanship enjoy such a good reputation, that some locals travel all around the province and, in the past, went as far as Guizhou or Sichuan.

Important stop on the old Tea and Horse Road (茶马古道), it this legendary trade route that has allowed for the dissemination of Jianchuan’s wood craftsmanship in southwest China.

In the old town of Jianchuan, Yunnan

In the old town of Jianchuan, Yunnan

Old Residences from the Imperial Era

During the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) the development of trade on the old Tea and Horse Road (茶马古道) has allowed for the emergence of a class of merchants, scholars and officials who built imposing courtyard mansions all hidden behind magnificent wood and stone gates.

The details of the stories behind this historical figures, their deeds and accomplishments is embedded in the intricate meanders of local histories. In the streets of Jianchuan old town, there is a dozen of ancient residential buildings which were built (or founded) between the early years of the Ming dynasty (the oldest I saw was 1397) and the late Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911) and that are now protected as historical heritage site at the provincial level.

Ancient courtyard mansion in the old town of Jianchuan, Yunnan

Ancient courtyard mansion in the old town of Jianchuan, Yunnan

Protection, decay and modernization

Ximen Street (西门街) feels empty, deserted and very quiet compared to the contemporary Jianchuan which is striving and noisy. It is in the streets of the old Jianchuan that one can truly appreciate the ambiguities of today’s China.

On one hand, the ancient Ming and Qing buildings protected by the province are abandoned and hollow (or at least, that the way they looked to me) and also in a sad state of disrepair. There is obviously no money to maintain these centuries-old structures. On the other hand, other historical buildings, which are not protected, are being torn down by locals who want to renovate them and improve their living standards.

In Ximen Street, old town of Jianchuan, Yunnan

In Ximen Street, old town of Jianchuan, Yunnan

Visiting Jianchuan old town

Compared to other ancient towns in Yunnan like Dali, Lijiang, or the emerging Weishan and Xizhou, the old streets of Jianchuan are not on the radar of travelers and you will find no tourists, foreign or domestic, while looking at the Ming and Qing era courtyard building of Ximen street. The fact that all the shops cater to local consumers and the absence of trinket stores that we find in all the touristy spot across Yunnan and China adds a layer of what we could call ‘authenticity’.

Even though as foreign traveler, I was not aware of the local history and therefore could not truly understand the depth of what I was seeing, I really felt I was in a different ‘real’ China where the foreign tourist is pointed at and laughed at because of its big nose by the locals as opposed to a place like Dali or Lijiang where the hordes of travelers, which I am a part of, are hunting the true, pure, local people with their camera.

If you are going back to Shaxi after visiting the One Thousand Lions Mountain aka Qianshi Shan (千狮山) before going on with your itinerary, or are in transit in Jianchuan, the old town definitely deserves a couple of hours of your time.

Jianchuan, Yunnan

How to get to Jianchuan

From Dali / Xiaguan area : I refer you to my transportation guide to the Dali / Xiaguan area. It take around 2 to 3 hours.
From Lijiang : there are buses from the main bus station (丽江汽车客运站) departing at 8:20 AM, 11:10 AM, 11:30 AM, 1.30 PM, 3 PM and 4 PM – double check bus schedule. It should not take more than 2 hours.
From Shaxi : just take the green-mini van which leave once full.