Jianshui skyline from my hotel room

We were headed for Jianshui but there was another stop on the way - Tuanshan, a traditional walled village. This looked interesting at first as we drove in past a narrow-gauge railway and quaint station but ultimately proved disappointing, a series of very similar, mostly empty 'historic' houses. We'd seen a couple of people in the distinctive dress of the Yi minority group earlier but there were none in the village itself. On top of this the official guides in the village came equipped with personal voice amplifiers (something we would see again) and their loud, harsh narration followed us around the town. We were very happy to get back in the minibus and head off.

Confused receptionists

We'd been promised some luxury at our Jianshui hotel and the lobby certainly gave that impression - a cavernous lobby with a grand staircase at one side and what looked like a giant Tardis console mounted upside-down in the ceiling. Keycards were handed out and we headed up to freshen up before reassembling for a walking tour of the town.

At this point the Laundry Bag Saga began to unfold. I was running low on clean clothes and had decided to pay to get some washed rather than eke out my remaining unsoiled garments. In my room I put a handful of shirts & undies into the supplied laundry bag, filled out the list of items, and took them down to reception to start the process. Things started to go awry from the outset - the receptionists spoke virtually no English and although they had a nifty translation app I was limited to yes or no replies, along with lots of arm waving. Eventually we established that I wasn't leaving the next day and so there was time for the washing to be done, and I was informed, via the app, that laundry would be picked up from my room. I took the lift back up to my room and as soon as I got there another member of staff arrived to take the bag away. It seemed like everything was sorted...

I don't know if it was the smaller size (the population was a paltry half million), the location (we were only 100km from Vietnam & Laos), or just getting used to China but I felt much more relaxed and at ease in Jianshui than I had in the other places we'd visited. The streets were wide & uncrowded, the buildings were generally low (2-3 stories), and as we entered the old town through the impressive East Gate we found tree-lined avenues where pedestrians were (mostly) given priority over scooters & taxis with all other traffic prohibited (mostly). Smaller lanes led off in an easily remembered grid pattern with doorways opening into courtyards, restaurants and other, less discernable destinations. Red lanterns hung in great profusion from the wildly varying (while still somehow harmonious) buildings, nearly every one a shop or diner. Even the weather played its part, pleasantly shirtsleeves warm under almost cloudlessly blue skies. This felt like a town I'd enjoy exploring.

Park performers (click for videos)

That evening's group meal was at a typical restaurant - an open-fronted room with extra tables laid out into the street. The menu was nicely simple, choices limited to the size of your bowl (which ranged from big to enormously big) and which meat (or the vegetarian option) you preferred. I plumped for a 'medium' and was presented with what looked like a soup tureen, half-filled with broth, noodles, herbs, veggies and meat with powdered chilli available in a sizeable bowl of its own. There were also extra noodles in case your hunger ran strong and, of course, local beer. The food was, as expected, gloriously delicious and although I did add a few more noodles it was good to discover that you weren't expected to finish all of the broth.

We were clearly a bit further off the regular tourist routes as several Chinese onlookers took pictures of the exotic Westerners and eagerly shared their English vocabulary - mostly "Hello" and "Bye bye" but in a few cases some faltering conversation. It was all very affable and it felt quite nice to be an outlandish visitor to somebody else's world.

Next morning started with some of Jianshui's special attractions. The first stop was in the central square where several groups were engaged in a variety of exercise or artistic activities. One group was doing something between Tai Chi and modern dance, another something similar but with a tennis racket & ball that they would tap into the air every so often, some people were practising a smoothly arranged kind of folk dance, while still more danced with pom-poms or large fans. A few women twirled streamers in the shape of dragons while some older men kept metal tops spinning by periodically whipping them. It looked more convivial than aerobic but everyone seemed to be having a really good time.

From there we went through into the town's Confucian temple, the second largest in China. A series of gateways, shrines and other buildings led through serene & beautiful wooded gardens to the imposing temple itself, while an enormous ornamental lake stretched away into the distance. It was a marvellously tranquil space and once we'd finished the formal tour I wandered around soaking up the atmosphere (and taking quite a few pictures). There had been remarkably few parks in our trip and this one came as (and with) a breath of fresh air.

The serenity of the space was dramatically interrupted at one point when three Chinese tourists grabbed one of the women in our group and almost manhandled her over to pose with them for a photo. Presumably Scottish women are considered auspicious omens in that part of the world.

From the temple we walked through town to the Zhu Family Garden, a sprawling (but very harmonious) residential complex with dozens of courtyards dividing it into a maze of doorways & rooms. It was certainly impressive but not hugely different from many other courtyards we'd been led through. Maybe we were getting courtyarded out? When the official guide finally released us I took the opportunity to just sit and soak up the splendid sunny day.

Hijacked by the tourists

After another delightful group meal we separated to explore the town in smaller groups or, in my case, alone. My wanderings led me to climb two of the town's massive gateways (though the town's low, flat topography made for unimpressive vistas) and to weave in & out of the narrow lanes & alleyways, getting a glimpse into life off of the main thoroughfares. On a midweek afternoon things were generally loose & relaxed, I saw several card playing groups and one rattling mah jong game, street vendors chatting while waiting for the passing trade to pick up, and restaurant staff grabbing meals before the evening rush began. After feeling isolated & alien in a land where I could barely communicate this felt like somewhere I could be comfortable in. Which was rather nice.

A Chinese habit that I never got used to was hearing someone unselfconsciously hack & spit in the street. The prime example was a street singer, all dressed up in a fancy frock, who after setting up her portable PA system and practising what sounded like an oriental aria turned one side and loudly brought up & expelled a glob of phlegm before starting to sing. Ewwww.

When I returned to my room the promised laundry had not reappeared. I went down to reception and, after another exchange courtesy of the translation app, it was explained that I needed to pay the bill before my washed clothes would be returned to me. This was a bit odd - I didn't think I looked like someone likely to do a runner without paying - but I dug out a few Yuan and when I came back to my room later that evening the laundry bag was there to greet me.

Our lunch had been very filling and so several of us decided to have a few drinks in the hotel garden rather than find another meal and with no bar in the hotel I volunteered to go out and get some beers. Walking out into the town alone I was quite impressed with myself, calmly crossing through the (semi-)organised chaos of the traffic with quiet confidence that I could deal with whatever might be laid in my path. As a self-confessed country mouse I made a pretty cool & cosmopolitan traveller, something I try to remind myself in my more timorous moments.

I couldn't find any off licences (or their equivalent) but a supermarket seemed like a good possibility. After failing to find the drinks aisle I collared a member of staff and, after ascertaining that we had no common tongue, resorted to mime to ask my question. Acting out opening a bottle with a 'pfft' noise and then raising it to my mouth and gulping resulted in a nod and being led to the bottled water section. Repeating the mime with a big smile and wobbly eyes & legs got me to the beer. Adding a shiver with my arms wrapped around me sadly didn't get me to a chilled cabinet but I resigned myself to cool rather than cold beer and I paid up & left.

Checking out seemed to take an age the next morning. There were several large groups leaving and each room had to be checked before they were allowed to depart. We seemed to be the last group to go and eventually Leon appeared with the explanation - my room was missing a laundry bag. I confess I'd tossed it into my case thinking it might be a small keepsake of my trip, never imagining such things would be so scrupulously audited, and rather than dig it out I paid the fifty Yuan (about the same as the laundry fee) and chalked it up as a life lesson. With all sorted we set off for our final day in China.

Ornamental bridge, Confucian temple

Theatre stage, Zhu Family Garden

Street mah jong game

More pictures

Even more pictures