Yunnan's ancient salt towns
Exploring Yunnan is not fully completed unless one visits at least one of the three ancient and historically important salt towns in southwest China. Heijing (黑井), Nuodeng (诺邓) and Shiyang (石羊) are three often undiscovered pearls of the province, and can provide travelers with a rare view of China from another time.
These are among the province's best-preserved old towns that have also left indelible marks on the region's economy via the hard work of their former residents. Many ancient people became rich through the salt trade in these towns and often villagers carry on traditions, speaking only the local language. Would-be explorers are advised to learn Chinese a little bit to make the journey more interesting and memorable.
Heijing, or 'black well' in Chinese, is one of the most venerable salt towns in Yunnan. First established during the Tang Dynasty, the trade hub has a history of more than a thousand years. Situated 200 kilometers northwest of Kunming, Heijing has been awarded a national scenic spot rating for its rich history and cultural heritage. It was once a prosperous town mainly because of booming salt production and trade. Now only its ancient architecture and other historical vestiges reveal its long-forgotten past.
On the western side of Heijing, up in the mountains, is the Wu family mansion. The immense home perfectly exemplifies the architectural novelty of the old town. The mansion is built in the shape of the Chinese character wang (王), which means king. It has 108 rooms, which are still largely unchanged in the face of time. It has now been transformed into one of the most expensive hotels for travelers in Heijing.
The old town, with its aged Black Cow Well (黑牛井), cobblestone streets, red lanterns and horse carts still retains the legacy of the old days. Cars are a rare phenomenon and not allowed inside the old town. Another intriguing site in Heijing is the Salt Museum, which still produces salt, although only to demonstrate the procedure to visitors and produce many of the area's traditional delicacies. The museum also contains black and white photographs covering more than 100 years of local history.