My recollections of Jianshui are a bit hazy, my desperate desire not to get Yvonne sick being the most vivid memory of our stay there.
But let’s start from the beginning. Everybody from Lonely Planet to Yvonne’s parents told us that we should go and see the Yuanyang mountain rice terraces in winter. As a crow flies, the rice terraces are only hundred fifty miles away from Kunming. Unfortunately, a bus takes seven and a half hours to get there, the key word being “mountain”. We decided to break an exhausting bus trip in two stages and spend a day at the town of Juanshui – located exactly in the middle of the ride. Lonely Planet agreed with me and recommended a few attractions worth visiting and a small historic old town.
By the way, in standard Mandarin Jianshui is pronounced as D’en Tswei. Traveling in China, I’ve often had the uncivilized desire to find the people responsible for the English transliteration of Mandarin names and do something unspeakably violent to them. Yvonne can only speak halting Mandarin and she can’t read it at all; my white ignorant barbarian self is, of course, completely useless. Traveling in China is different enough for us already. Not knowing even approximately how to pronounce a name of the town, doesn’t make it any easier to buy the tickets or find the right bus.
The outside of D’en Tswei bus station looks like construction in a recent war zone. The piles of rubble are higher than our bus; cranes and trucks roam everywhere, and the air consists of nitrogen, oxygen and gasoline. Fortunately, a four kilometer taxi ride fixes the problem. A wall of densely packed modern residential buildings separates historic D’en Tswei from the feverish polluted construction taking place outside. Only scooters taxis and buses are allowed to pass a newly built historic-looking town gate that resembles a small fortress.
The old town center consists of a half a mile long street and a few short dead-end alleys with hotels, stores and restaurants. Two story wooden buildings with tiled dragon roofs, carvings, courtyards, ink drawings on whitewashed walls and occasional columns merge together to form a two hundred year old Qing town. The police department is my favorite building.
I give Yvonne ten tries to guess what the building houses and she never even gets close.
Chinese Imperial Lions guard a multi-tiered entrance gate at each end of the main street. Ignorant Western barbarians disrespectfully call them Foo dogs. The not quite so old town, on the other side of the gates, is bustling with life. Traditional and modern buildings co-exist in more or less peaceful harmony. Present-day students pray for the successful results of their exams at an examination hall built hundreds of years ago by their far removed ancestors. A dozen kids dance a lame hip hop in a park. A three dozen of their mothers are doing an out of sync dance aerobics nearby. Taxis illegally drive in pedestrian only zone and honk when the rude pedestrians block their way. And, one of the sweetest phone office employees in the world spends thirty minutes fixing our SIM card issues.
My head hurts all evening, slowly getting worse, but I ignore it.
The next morning I wake up, get out of bed and almost trip over my feet with weakness and nausea. Hi, virus.
“Yvonne must not get sick,” a police siren with blue and red flashing lights turns on inside my head.
In the beginning of December, I generously shared a cold with her. She spent two weeks in bed and she stopped coughing a full five weeks later. Another cold like this will effectively terminate our sweet dream trip; we will have to go back to the US. Yvonne should listen to the sweet voice of reason, I think. Even with her brain shrunk from pregnancy, she should remember two week old events. If we are lucky, a combination of facemask, separate rooms, and salt water gurgling may keep the virus at bay.
Predictably, Yvonne complains, pouts and takes my suggestions as a personal offense. I stand firm against the storm of abuse. Finally, to my great relief, my sweet little pea relents. To commemorate us making peace, we walk out to visit the Zhu family garden and residence, one of two key attractions D’en Tswei. Your humble servant is muzzled with a white medical face mask and walking six feet away from Yvonne.
We enter the garden through a perfectly round hole in the wall, just slightly taller than me. It is a labyrinth of the seemingly endless courtyards and identical looking almost empty rooms with a few random clearly never used furniture items arranged in a perfectly symmetrical way. The place is serene and quiet, white walls are just tall enough that I am not tempted to jump and look over them; the doors and windows on the two story buildings are made out numerous carved wooden screens, dark from aging. Stone tiles form patterns under our feet. Occasional photographs and texts inside the rooms provide us with some information though the English translation is as flowery as it is confusing.
I am feeling weak and miserable, barely able to walk. Every couple of minutes, I have to park my sick ass into a generously provided chair.
And, then, we pass by a walking oxymoron, a knowledgeable local guide. A serene young woman dressed in a long yellow dress, glides like a swan from one courtyard to another, followed by a small flock of tourists. Yvonne listens to her for a bit and, to our great surprise, approves of her. As a great favor for a pitiful sad puppy, i.e. me, she agrees to hire the guide and act as a translator for me.
For the next hour, Yvonne and the guide patiently explain and translate from English to Mandarin and back. I learn a variety of random things. The flowing calligraphy and numerous landscapes with sages and animals on the whitewashed walls have to be painted anew every several years; such is the nature of ink drawings. The dark massive chairs and tables carved out of expensive wood with hard and cold marble sections in the middle were made about ten years ago for the visitors to use. The dozens of bonsai trees in pots are all original, between one and two hundred year old.
I finally find out that an entrance in the shape of a perfect circle was not supposed to be just a round hole in a wall. Originally, there were intricately decorated round wooden gates, but a hole in the wall has proved to be a more historically stable formation.
From the guide, we learn the full history of the place. A couple hundred years ago, a rich merchant Zhu moved to a provincial town of Juanshui. To accommodate his immediate family, eventually, he built a modest residence containing almost one hundred fifty rooms, forty courtyards, one pond, large enough for the Olympics, and a few gardens. Over the nineteenth century, the clan grew and prospered, traded, dabbled in and supported the arts and scholarship, and, finally, started dabbling in opposition politics. The latter proved to be the clan’s undoing. By the beginning of twentieth century, the Qing dynasty was weak and dysfunctional, mired in corruption and pulled apart by the internal strife and the outside enemies alike. It was still an imperial power and the opposition clan leaders’ heads ended up in rusty iron cages hung of a fortress wall somewhere.
Yvonne’s faltering Mandarin cuts through the guide’s detailed story down to the core.
“They killed all of them,” Yvonne helpfully explains to me.
Somehow, the house itself managed to survive the imperial wrath, the subsequent warlord mess and, the most impressively, the liberating Red Army troops. Luckily, it was used as a hospital for the soldiers, so it wasn’t burnt down or trashed, just sacked mildly by the zealous revolutionaries.
An hour passes quickly and our guide glides away, her long yellow skirt flowing in her wake. It is right around time, too, since I am losing the fight with the virus. Isn’t it amazing how much can one’s body get screwed by a few strands of random DNA coated by a few thousand repeating small protein molecules? I turn in for a nap and kick Yvonne out of my room to sulk.
In the afternoon, Yvonne patiently accompanies me as I slowly drag myself an intolerably long way of almost a kilometer across the old town – to visit Confucius temple. Why are we going there? Both Yvonne and I despise the dude. His so-called philosophy is mostly a bunch of whining on how best to suck up to your ruler, boss, parent, husband and elder in exactly this order. I can see why Asian rulers picked it up as a convenient political philosophy but to Yvonne and me, it’s as repulsive as it is primitive. For more than a thousand years the Chinese bureaucrats were selected based on their studies, analysis and essays over Confucius writings. The truly amazing thing is that they ruled the country successfully.
In spite of our feelings for Confucius, we like the place.
Unlike Zhu mansion, it was built to impress, but to impress modestly and ethically, following Confucian doctrine.
The solemn dark red walls and equally solemn dark brown buildings spread in a park. Two hundred year old trees loom over us; they have survived the vicissitudes of life. We pass several statues of an oversized solemn Confucius and his small students, looking enlightened by their proximity to the Great Master. Every student wears Confucian thin mustache and foot long skinny beard. There is one person with a bare face and Yvonne and I spend speculate whether it was a eunuch or a woman. We pick the former option, since, accordingly to Confucius, a woman’s place is in the kitchen.
It seems that the only outlay for any kind of humor, playfulness or creativity, poor Confucian students got was in carving small stone figures guarding the balustrades from evil spirits. There are howling pigs, fierce turtles, friendly lions, and many other confusing animals in various stages of drooling, snarling, baring teeth, and sitting in satisfied contemplation. Their stone heads were thoroughly polished by many generations of Confucian students and, later, visitors patting them.
It is cold in the park; the temperature is in the low forties; it is overcast and slightly breezy. There is not a single soul anywhere other than us and a few miserable looking employees, matching the temple color scheme in their dark red uniforms. Today, the Confucian temple belongs to us and its Lord is cradling me in his arms.
In my dialectic fight with the virus, the latter starts winning again. A splitting headache is back with a vengeance; I am so weak that it’s difficult to walk.
In the evening, Yvonne tries to sneak into my room again – she is lonely. I kick her out; she walks away pouting and muttering something not particularly nice under her breath. Tough shit; whatever it takes not get her sick.
The next morning we leave the town for Yuanyang. I am not aware of it yet, but I am going to have the most unpleasant bus ride of my life.