Heijing: Ancient Salt Capital /黑井: 千年盐都
China, Yunnan, just over 100 kilometers Northwest of Kunming.
Imagine being the only guests in a Ming dynasty courtyard mansion in which little has changed since the days of its previous owners, several generations of a wealthy salt merchant’s family, the last unfortunate member of which – Wu Weiyang – was executed by the communists in 1949…
Imaging strolling back to this mansion after dining on some of the world’s most delicious and expensive mushrooms in an atmospheric open-air restaurant where Chinese day-trippers squat down under the shady trees for the serious task of selecting and cleaning their own choice of ‘edible fungus’… Imagine being woken from your siesta by local residents singing traditional opera and performing folk dances to celebrate the 70th birthday of one of their neighbours…
This is exactly what it was like when we visited Heijing / Black Well Town, one of China’s ancient salt capitals. A mere 100 kilometres away from Yunnan’s booming capital Kunming, Heijing nevertheless belongs to another time and place: its streets are narrow, cobble-stoned and festooned with red lanterns; donkey carts are still the most popular means of transport and there isn’t a single souvenir shop to be found.
Even those 100 kilometres that separate Heijing from modernity take forever to traverse, either by bus, or on board one of the infrequent slow trains that pass through every day.
Heijing belongs to a string of ancient towns that once supplied the Imperial court with salt. In fact, it is said that Heijing produced up to 70% of the imperial salt during the Ming dynasty.
Later on, the town’s fortunes changed for the worse with the coming of the Communists, when the salt merchant families were either driven out or annihilated.
Nowadays, Heijing is an off-the-beaten track, quiet backwater. It really is on the road to nowhere, unless you are looking to break up a journey from Kunming to Chengdu on slow trains.
On arriving at the train station you will be greeted by a dozen or so horse cart drivers, offering to take you to the entrance to the Old Town.
Remote it may be, but even Heijing hasn’t escaped the dreaded Menpiao 门票 , or entrance ticket. You will be shown into a small office where you hand over 30 Yuan for a combo ticket that gives you access to all the sights. From there on it’s up to you. Visit the sights or just stroll around the flagstone streets, dive down narrow alleys, poke your nose into old courtyard houses, or head off into the hills above the town to explore temples and ancient tombs.
Alternatively, you can do what we did, and start your visit with a great meal. After all, you can always do your sightseeing a little later; in sleepy Heijing there’s no need to hurry.
Things to See and Do
Heijing’s sights are small- scale, but there are plenty of them, strewn around the winding alleys and hidden among the traditional wood and stone houses.
In town, there are several well- preserved mansions, such as the Wu Family Courtyard (武家大院 wǔjiā dàyuàn) where we stayed, or clan halls, like the Dàlóng Cí (大龙祠). Just below this latter site you can find the Black Cow Well (黑牛井). Near the bridge, on the train station side of town, there is an interesting memorial archway that dates from the time of Empress Cixi and is decorated with her half-phoenix, half-dragon emblem.
Attractive temples dot the hillsides around the town and offer ample opportunities for walking.
There is a great circuit that takes you through forgotten cemeteries of half-overgrown tombs guarded by statues, past bucolic temples and along narrow ridges high above the town.
The effort is rewarded by great views over the valley and towards some distant hill- top pagodas. Ask anyone for Feilai Si (飞来寺 Feilai Temple), and they will point you in the right direction.
Guyan Fang (古盐坊)
A pleasant, half-hour walk, or 15-minute horse cart ride, will take you to the Guyan Fang salt mine and its engaging museum. Here you can buy any number of salt products / souvenirs, or watch the bowl- shaped salt blocks being baked. You can even have your name inscribed and baked onto your very own salt block.
In one of the old factory halls, there are some wonderful photos of old Heijing, depicting the harshness of life in the salt mines and how it contrasted with the lifestyle of the affluent merchant families.
The photos date from the late Qing dynasty and the early years of the Republic. For me they were the highlight of the museum, as they really brought the Chinese History I studied at university to life. To Margie they looked like scenes straight from Lisa See’s moving book “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”.
One amazing photo stands out: it shows the Wu family’s bodyguards; a bunch of young boys, no more than 16, armed to their teeth and dressed in oversized uniforms and incongruously feminine- looking cloth shoes. While they look somewhat ridiculous, they also manage to instil fear in the careful observer.
If you visit at the weekend, you shouldn’t miss Heijing’s Sunday market. Though not quite as exotic as some of the Guizhou or Xinjiang markets, it is still a good place for people watching.
There are many different ethnic minority villages around the town, including Yi, Miao, Hui, Bai and Hani, whose inhabitants come and shop in the market. Unfortunately, very few wear traditional costumes these days, and it’s almost impossible to tell them apart.
The market mostly sells day to day necessities such as fruit and vegetables – including some more exotic mushrooms – as well as household goods and plastics.
The small livestock area is the most exotic: here you can find squealing piglets inside bamboo tubes, wicker baskets full of chickens and chicks, a small parking lot full of donkeys, as well as a couple of large, placid cows for sale.
The market doesn’t really cater for tourists – if you exclude the colourful embroidered shoes the town seems to specialise in – but we managed to score a great plastic rain coat for Margie.
The market takes place at the far end of town, in the direction of the Guyan Fang salt mine, and it doesn’t really get going until after 10.
A Very Special Birthday
On Sunday morning, on our way to the market, an old house near our hotel had caught our attention. In the living room we could see the draped and garlanded portrait of an old man on display, while there were several huge sticks of incense burning outside, as well as the charred remains of fire crackers littering the street.
We had wondered whether all this indicated that someone had died, or if perhaps it was a celebration. We found out later that afternoon, when our nap was disturbed by the sound of music and singing, coming from the main courtyard of our hotel.
We ambled over curiously to have a look and found a local troupe of actors performing a medley of popular Chinese Folk song and dance routines, opera songs and comical sketches (xiangxiang). The members of the troupe were mostly elderly ladies, their faces comically caked in white powder and rouge, and their performance far from perfect.
But they were making quite an effort, changing costumes for each new act, and dashing across the stage with great energy and gusto. When we asked about the occasion, we were told that one of the nearby neighbours was celebrating his 70th birthday. Unfortunately for the artists, there wasn’t much of an audience.
Apart from us, there was a handful of children, and a few family members of the elderly gentleman in whose honour this had all been organised. And although the old man seemed happy enough, he wasn’t exactly riveted by the performance. In fact, on several occasions his head wobbled precariously and he appeared to be nodding off.
We felt quite sorry for the actors, especially since few people clapped – basically just us and two little girls – when they finished their show. However, later that evening we passed the old man’s house again and witnessed quite a different scene. The Baijiu (White Rice Wine) was flowing freely, and the old man, his family and all the performers were sitting out in the lantern-lit street under a full moon, eating and drinking and generally having a great time.
There is plenty of cheap accommodation in Heijing, most of it in local inns. Rooms can range from as little as 20 to 60 Yuan for a double, depending on facilities, time of year and general cleanliness. However, if you are going to stay here, why not treat yourself to something a little special.
The Wu Family Courtyard (武家大院 wǔjiā dàyuàn) is one of those few Chinese hotels you’ll remember. While its price, 180 Yuan, may seem a little excessive for Heijing, and its rooms and bathrooms are spartan but clean, you’ll be hard pushed to find a more atmospheric or genuinely authentic place; the hotel is a maze of courtyards, galleries, ponds and hidden rooms. Some of the wood carving is stunning.
Come in mid-week and you’ll probably have the place to yourself. When roaming the empty, lantern- lit courtyards at night you can almost hear and feel the ghosts of the past.
A cheaper alternative to the Wu Family Courtyard is the pleasant Wang Family Courtyard (王家大院 wángjiā dàyuàn), situated a little before the Wu courtyard, on the main street in the centre of town.
Be careful: there is another Wu family courtyard at the beginning of town, when you are coming from the train station. It looked basic, but quite pleasant, but advertised itself as a guesthouse and Karaoke bar!
Fortunately for a vegetarian like me, the specialty of Heijing is mushrooms, mushrooms and some more mushrooms.
You can really pig out here on a wide range of special mushrooms that would cost you a fortune back home. There is plenty of tofu and a wide range of tasty veggies to complement your meals. For the carnivores, another local speciality is salt baked chicken (盐焖鸡 Yánmènjī), which is served whole on a plate, head included, and cut up in a similar way to the Spanish suckling pig.
These were our two favourite restaurants in Heijing. The first one is a cheap hotel and courtyard restaurant at the far end of the main street (when you are coming from the station) run by an efficient Yi lady. Look out for a restaurant with a large front window, from where you can see into a beautiful shaded courtyard at the back.
On hot summer days, the tables in the patio are shaded by enormous camellia trees. If the weather is bad, there’s an indoor are as well.
The restaurant is popular with Chinese family groups who take great pleasure in sorting and cleaning their own mushrooms, scurrying in and out of the kitchen with their plates heaped high.
The other restaurant is the friendly Hui You Tang 会友堂 at the beginning of the main street (when you are coming from the station). It is probably the only restaurant in Heijing with a nice décor; guests sit on low wooden benches, the walls are hung with antique farming implements and the waiters wear traditional costume. They also do some good mushrooms and serve a pretty strong local rice wine that packs a real punch.
Both restaurants are on the main street. Other, more humble eateries are ubiquitous.
By Train: The easiest way to get to Heijing is by train from Kunming. There is an early morning train at 7.16 that takes a painless 3½ hours to get there. It is better to get a reserved seat (book a day before), as all hell breaks loose when the train arrives at Guan Tang, about an hour before Heijing.
Returning from Heijing to Kunming is more problematic, at least if comfort is your priority. You can’t reserve any seats at Heijing station, and the train is nearly always full – especially in summer – when it passes through. Your best bet is to ask for a hard sleeper, more than twice the hard seat price, but you get to lie down and enjoy the ride. A small number of berths seem to become available as a few overnight passengers from Chengdu alight in Heijing. The train arrives in Heijing at around 7.59 in the morning.
By Bus: there are frequent buses from the bridge to either Guantang or Chuxiong. The latter may be an interesting option if you are heading towards Dali, but rather a roundabout route if you are heading back to Kunming. Take the train!