YUNNAN Province is an incredible area with much to offer travelers. Lijiang, Shangri-la, Dali, Tiger Leaping Gorge and Xishuangbanna are all well-known places popular with tourists. But there’s more to explore, especially for those who don’t mind “roughing” it a bit. Humans have lived in Shaxi Township for about 2,400 years and it was once a trading hub along the ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Road. The area is tucked in the mountains near the Myanmar border and about 3 hours from Shuanglang, an overly touristy fishing village popular with China’s urban middle-class and travel groups.
With some travel blogs calling Shaxi “a part of real China” and a “step back in time,” the village is the antidote to places like Shuanglang, where shops sell tacky souvenirs and it feels as though everyone is just trying to make a quick buck.
Travelers will be quick to notice that vehicles are banned in Shaxi, making it a peaceful retreat where you don’t have to worry about getting hit by a speeding bus or taxi.
The write ups about Shaxi are indeed accurate. The old temple and pagoda make it appear as though time stopped hundreds of years ago.
In 2001, the World Monuments Fund listed Shaxi among the 100 most endangered ancient sites on the planet. The local government received a US$1.3 million subsidy at that time from the fund to help with its restoration and improve the living conditions of residents.
Where as some villages embark on similar projects and end up with “artificial” looking old buildings, the Shaxi government worked with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich to maintain the town’s original appearance. The project’s mandate was to intervene only where necessary, preserve as much as possible and keep the town’s history.
Swiss experts adopted, as much as possible, traditional building techniques and used local materials that residents have been using for hundreds of years.
The results prove it has been worth the effort. Strolling around the town’s streets feels like traveling through time as it’s hard to detect any inauthentic details.
Shaxi is small. It takes 10 to 15 minutes to walk from one city gate to the other so take some time to explore the side streets.
The square, also called Market Place, is known as a former trading center on the Tea and Horse Caravan Road during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). This route eventually became a part of the Silk Road in southwestern China.
The emergence of large-scale commerce in tea and horses between the Tibet region and central China led to the creation of the trails that zigzagged through the mountainous terrain of southwestern China. The Tea and Horse Caravan Road prospered in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and Shaxi is noted as an important stopping point along the route where traders rested.
A small museum traces changes to the Silk Road through the years and the lives of the horsemen who traveled it. Saddles, old tools and other relics make up the bulk of the displays.
Kuixing Tower and Theater Stage is another historic building. Constructed during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), it is the town’s biggest building. It dominates the square, but take a closer look at the pillars and ridges as they are beautifully decorated. The climb to the top of the tower provides nice views of Shaxi.
The stage features many colorful paintings that the Swiss experts and Bai minority painters have restored. They have worked together to restore the original patterns while using durable pigments so the paintings can stand the test of time.
One modern alteration has been made to the stage. The wooden stairway at the back is a special stage entrance made in a Swiss style. It fits seamlessly with the Chinese architecture although very few untrained eyes can spot it.
Some devout Buddhists may think it’s strange to build a stage across from a temple, where tranquility and peace usually are desired for prayers. But Bai minority people believe inviting Buddha and gods to watch their performances leads to greater happiness.
Bai people are known for their openness and tolerance. This is reflected in a mixture of beliefs. It’s common for Bai people to worship both a local deity and Azhali, another name for Esoteric Buddhism. The main square is also home to Xingjiao Temple, which was built as early as the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), a place for Azhali followers to pray.
One of the few Buddhist temples in Shaxi, it boasts grand halls and exquisite courtyards. From the guardian statues at the newly restored gates to the fine murals in the halls, it makes for an interesting visit whether you are a believer or not.
The theater stage and the temple are connected by a line of flat houses. They used to serve as hostels for the caravans but nowadays house a bunch of restaurants, cafes and boutique shops. Here you can find some nice souvenirs and handicrafts that make for good gifts.
Ouyang’s House is in a quiet lane about five minutes from the square and is a nice example of how locals live. The entrance is a stone-carved gate which leads to a small courtyard. The premises has been well cared for through the generations, making it an excellent example of Bai architecture.
Shaxi’s natural and man-made scenery is something to behold. A clean river gurgled through and around the town. The old stone bridges and red-brick gates provide great backdrops for a variety of photographs. Majestic Cangshan Mountain looms over the town and adds a sense of timelessness.
Shaxi is the type of place that will soon be discovered by the big tour groups and become a mainstream destination. Go now before they take over the town.
Where to stay:
• Lan House
A Zen style boutique hotel that was formerly a family home. The hotel has nine well-designed rooms providing a chance to experience local culture without sacrificing modern comforts. If the weather permits, have a cup of tea and read in the yard. They also have a good breakfast.
Where to eat:
• Tumu Kitchen
Italian pizzas with a local twist. The chef is from Luxumbourg and the eatery has a good reputation among both locals and travelers. The pastas and steaks are also worth trying. Tumu Kitchen is also the best vegetarian restaurant in Shaxi Old Town.
• Nakhi farm houses
There are a dozen farm houses in town that serve dinner in their own courtyards. Try local cuisine while enjoying a cultural performance by ethnic Nakhi people. Traditional Nakhi music is an intangible cultural heritage.
The best times to visit Shaxi is February to June or September to November when the weather is pleasant with plenty of sunshine. Every Friday the town holds a bazaar reminiscent of “Tea and Horse Caravan Road.”
Take a flight from Shanghai to Dali via Kunming (about four hours). If you hire a car and driver to Shaxi, the fare ranges from 500 yuan (US$80) to 600 yuan and takes three to four hours. There’s no direct bus from Dali to Shaxi so travelers have to change in Jianchuan County. Foreigners are advised to take a taxi or hire a chauffeur to Shaxi. Negotiate the fare before departing.