After you’ve had a bad week, you can do several things: a) Go home and pass out, b) Go out, drink large quantities of grain alcohol and then go home and pass out, c) Catch the first bus out of town. On Friday evening I opted for C, and next time you have a bad week I recommend you do the same. Even if it’s a bus to a random Chinese town. Even if the bus will get you there in the middle of the night. Even if you have nowhere to stay. Like I did.
Nooo! You’re probably thinking. She’s going to get stabbed and killed and murdered! Not to worry – that’s not how the story ends, because this is China. In China this story usually ends with you sipping weak tea with a weird old man with bad teeth in his auto parts shop at midnight while his daughter ambles over to her friend who works in a run-down hotel to see if there are any rooms available.
But, in this case, it just ends with me wandering around for an hour in the dark trying to find a hotel, which I eventually did. It was being staffed by two 14-year old girls (I asked) who literally dropped their jaws when I walked in the door. Possibly because no one had ever ventured into this alley and asked for a room before.
Lesson #1: It is important to occasionally wander off on your own to a strange place, without friends or family, just to remind yourself that it’s really not that hard to get by in the world.
Anyway I woke up the next morning in Jianshui, a diverting and kitschy little town with a few beautiful sites to see, including a 700-year old Confucian temple and a lovely Qing dynasty house/garden complex.
It was a good change of pace and was full of ancient buildings and gateways, and reminded me immediately of…
Lesson #2: When living abroad, remember that you are a tourist, albeit a long-term one. Because I live in Kunming, and have an apartment and a bank account and get up and go to the office every morning, it would be easy to forget that this will not be my life for all that long (in the scheme of things). This is not like living a regular life in New York City – I won’t live in China forever. This is an opportunity to go see what it’s like around here.
I spent a good chunk of a day walking around Jianshui’s old town (since the rest of Jianshui is basically an unremarkable, podunky little Chinese city), before hopping a little yellow bus out to a nearby village. I had heard that Tuanshan village was a nice place to visit, with a history of 600 years, interesting architecture and a mixture of Han and Yi people.
The reality is that the streets looked like this:
And some of the doorways looked like this:
But a lot of it looked like this:
It turns out that the place was chosen for “preservation” by the World Monuments Architectural Foundation a few years ago – oh, how the Chinese love their international ranks and designations of dubious repute! – and now you get the privilege of paying 20 yuan at the bottom of a hill to go bother a bunch of people who live in this village (857 people, if you believe the sign outside – but all I saw were a few old peasant farmers and a few children scampering around whose parents probably work in Jianshui). This village grew mainly chili peppers, corn and pomegranates (which were delicious).
It turns out that going to a village like this is like going over to someone’s house without being invited. Or, in this case, like the government inviting you to go over to someone’s house without the occupants’ permission. So you go, and there’s nothing to really see exactly, and all the people who live in the village try to ignore you, except that you brought your giant camera around your neck and your backpack and your sunglasses and your umbrella (for extra sun protection) and your big white face, so you’re kind of noticeable.
After some hemming and hawing, this guy let me take his picture:
But he seemed a little annoyed and I felt bad. Then, while I was waiting for a bus to go back to Jianshui, a bunch of tourists from Shanghai showed up, surrounded me and started taking my picture with giant lenses, paparazzi-style, while I protested weakly. I think this is called karma.
The rest of the weekend can be told in pictures over at my Picasa album (photos will have captions soon). But, for those of you who are interested in such things, I had some tasty meals in Jianshui. I heard that two things were big there – barbeque and grilled things on sticks served by Hui people. Et voila:
For some perspective, that fish was the length of my forearm. And that red stuff on top is chili. And I asked for the smallest bowl of noodles they could make. Leading me to…
Lesson #3: If you are going to be eating in China, remember that Chinese people don’t do “a little” in the kitchen. If you don’t want it spicy, don’t ask for it to be just a little spicy. If you want noodles, you’re getting noodles. No half-caf, low fat, soy egg whites here. CHINA: NO SUBSTITUTIONS.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering who won the tussle with the fish: me did.
I leave you with these dudes, an orchestra of old monks who were playing outside one of the buildings in Jianshui’s Confucian temple. Unfortunately I didn’t film the introductory singing by the guy who wanders off screen at the beginning – you’ll just have to imagine it for yourself.
Watch the video here: Orchestra of Monks Outside Jianshui’s Confucian Temple.
P.S. Apologies to those of you who preferred my previous bird banner; I had stolen it unattributed from National Geographic. This one I took myself – it’s a detail of a carved door in the Zhu Family Gardens in Jianshui.