After a 3 hour bus ride, we arrived in Jianshui, which is actually north of the rice terraces, but warmer due to its lower elevation. From the bus stop, the taxi took us to a commercialized shopping district with all the typical Chinese brands and plenty of high end juice shops. This was Old Town, where most of the tourist sites are located…he pointed at the archway to the shopping district and told us our inn was “this.” O…kay… After asking for directions a couple more times, we did find our way. We set down our bags and ventured out to find some street food. But there is not so much to be had here in the center of Jianshui. Looks like the mighty arm of tourism has knocked most of the charm right out of the place, but we did manage to find some spicy tofu on sticks and greasy onion bread from a cheerful lady set up in an alley. The morning market was a little more promising:
But we were really on a hunt for the famous tofu. Jianshui is known for the freshness and tastiness of its “stinky tofu,” a favorite in many places in China. However, the “stinky” moniker is mostly from the versions you buy in other cities. The search was on!
We headed through the middle of old town following the signs for the Western Gate Wells, but we took time to poke our noses into some of the other spots, as well. The important ones, like the Confucian Temple and the Zhu Family Gardens, charge exorbitant fees and were passed by these two travelers. We did, however, find some quirky corners to investigate:
Finally, we found the Western edge of town and started to follow the signs to the ancient wells. Centuries old, they still provide pure spring water for the neighborhood and its tofu production! Through a labyrinth of back alleys, we eventually stumbled on a large one. It was a peaceful spot, despite the constant traffic of locals getting their water. Across the street, there were several tofu shops, where women mixed the freshly drawn water with fermenting beans and wrapped it in packs with lightning fingers. Then they push it in a wheelbarrow up the street to the tofu grills…you can even follow the little splatter trail to the best hole-in-the-wall grills, where they count out your pieces using corn kernels in a jar lid. Add some STRONG rice liquor and it was one of our favorite meals during our whole time in China.
We left on the sleeper bus (a bus..with bunk beds!!!) to Jinghong with full bellies. Which was good, because it saved us from anger when the bus driver and another rider got into a fight over the patron repeatedly trying to smoke on the bus…so we were all tortured with the safety video on loop for an hour, then a further hour of terrible music videos.
We only spent a few short hours in Jinghong, but the fresh morning air was good to stretch our legs in and explore. I can say one thing…they LOVE elephants there. Everything elephant, and the whole place has a distinctly Thai feeling, due to the high number of Dai ethnic minority, who are closer to Thais in custom and background. However, the morning sessions of tai chi with the older residents let you know that you were still in China…for the moment…
By late morning, we were back on a bus for the short ride to Menglun…a tiny speck of a village on the map that just happens to have the largest botanical garden with the largest variety of species in the whole country. It also has a great research center, populated by herds of both Chinese and foreign students working on their PhDs. Our host, Beng, from Cameroon, was one such student, so we got into the garden for FREE and slept in the dorm on the grounds. I truly wish I could post scents on the blog, because the air was heavy with the smell of flowers and ripening fruits. It was like swimming in an invisible sea of perfume, for lack of a better metaphor. And of course, there was a whole new orchestra of bird calls…I heard somewhere that the more sunlight an area receives, the “brighter” the sounds of its nature, as well. Comparing the bird calls and general forest noises to a place like Hongcun, I can totally see how this is the case!
We spent our days exploring the three parts XBTG, Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden: the main Western Gardens, the Tropical Rainforest, and the Green Stone Forest (limestone rainforest, which is different). REgular tourists opt for the electric shuttles, but we were hardcore. We hiked all the way across the park (6km) and all the way back, taking in most of the side paths on the way. With 37 degree highs each day, it was certainly hot, but we got to see all kinds of exotic trees, flowers, and…BUGS!!!
It was a spectacularly beautiful place to spend our last days in China, and we had a spectacular host who happened to speak great Chinese! We had a couple pleasant evenings, eating the local specialties and chatting over beers, with the villagers all coming over to greet us as “friends of Beng.”