Discover Shaxi, Yunnan

Skip tourist traps and visit this ancient trading village instead

If you’re looking to experience Yunnan without succumbing to the tourist traps of Dali and Lijiang, the ancient trading village of Shaxi may be the perfect solution

Scuffling pig trotters break the morning stillness of Shaxi’s market square. With a stick lightly tapping the animal’s rump, a farmer guides it over cobbled stones and down a side street, which is flanked by mud brick buildings. Though the sunshine is warm and inviting – the area is known for its perpetually spring-like weather – there are few people around. In a café a few tourists sip Yunnanese coffee, while a group of elderly women in elaborately embroidered Bai minority dress chat in a doorway.

Situated in a remote corner of Yunnan province, Shaxi has so far escaped the trappings of modernity. Advising people to visit now, before it transforms, feels contrived. But the ancient market village has been preserved in ways that make it more rewarding than its on-the-beaten-path neighbours, Lijiang and Dali. And changes are underway. A new four-lane highway will open imminently, reducing the four hours of road travel from Dali to 90 minutes. Shaxi is soon to be accessible.

The area has many draws. Shaxi valley receives more hours of sunshine than California. With fertile land replenished by water from the nearby Cangshan mountains, Bai farmers have been prosperous in the area for thousands of years. The village thrived with the establishment of the Tea Horse Road, a network of paths traversed by mule-riding merchants trading salt, animal hides and tea for horses. The route connected Tibet with southeast Asia from the 14th to 19th centuries and Shaxi is the most complete surviving example of one of the ancient trading centres that provided commerce and respite for tradesmen. Somehow most of the buildings survived the historical upheaval that razed many of China’s heritage sites in the 1950s and ’60s. With the Communist Party ban on private markets, trade in Shaxi came to an abrupt halt. As activity ceased, the village slowly became dilapidated. Perhaps this spared the structures.

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The village has since benefited from outside interest. In 2001 the World Monuments Fund, an international non-profit organisation, added the village to its watch list of most endangered sites. A year later the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich and the government of Jianchuan County, to which Shaxi belongs, embarked on a 1.3 million USD rehabilitation project that included the hire of Jacques Feiner, a conservation expert. With an emphasis on restoration – rather than the default ‘rebuild’ approach, as seen in many Chinese locales of historical relevance – traditional techniques and materials were used.

Today, a sense of tranquility permeates Shaxi. Along the winding streets that make up the small village centre are timber buildings that seem as if they have been preserved for centuries. Sideng Temple, a striking two-storey structure with spiked gables and colourful eaves, presides over the main square. Opposite is the Xingjiao Temple, which dates back to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). There, a mural depicting a female Buddha speaks of the area’s matriarchal social structure; even today surnames are passed down through the female line. It is rewarding to simply meander around the village, particularly on Friday when a market recreates the bustle of old, albeit with plasticised goods sold from the back of trucks, not horses.

Yunnan’s rich biodiversity has attracted visitors for centuries. In the late 1800s Victorian botanists collected specimens – orchids, roses, rhododendrons and magnolias – that made their way back to prettify elaborate English gardens. A good place for modern explorers to start is Shibao Mountain (50RMB/person for entry), a 15-minute drive from Shaxi. There, Shizhong, or ‘Stone Bell’ Temple is populated with wild monkeys and tourists, who come to view two ten-foot Buddhas. Paths leading off the site wind up into pine tree groves, making for vigorous hiking around gentle mountains that is rewarded with panoramic views. Bicycles, which can be hired at most of the village’s accommodations, allow for exploration beyond the village bounds through fields and into neighbouring villages. Meanwhile, rock climbing with a licensed guide is offered at the Horse Pen youth hostel for 200RMB/person for a half day.

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True to its Tea Horse Road rest stop roots, Shaxi offers a variety of accommodation options. A unique night can be spent at The Old Theatre Inn (Double rooms are around 350RMB/night), which is situated in the neighbouring village of Duan, a 15-minute bike ride from Shaxi. The centerpiece of this boutique hotel is a 17th century folk theatre featuring a shrine to the culture god Kuai Ge, which was restored as part of the Swiss project. An adjacent former schoolhouse has been converted into five cosy rooms with en suite bathrooms (rainforest showers, fluffy bathrobes) that are decorated with elegance befitting its location: antique Bai embroidery, for instance, is framed on the walls. For budget travelers, the Horse Pen 46 Youth Hostel (087 2472 2299) offers sparse but cheap rooms set around a courtyard. Dorm beds are 20RMB/night, while doubles, some with en suite, cost between 50-150RMB/night.

Food in Shaxi is simple and seasonal. In the late summer villagers head to the mountains to seek songrong mushrooms, a variety that the Japanese call matsutake and value above all others. On our visit in winter mushroom season is over. Instead we eat homestyle Yunnanese – rubing, or goats’ milk cheese, and steam pot chicken – at Xi Lu Inn (33084 County Road, near the post office), where classic dishes are served with a Sichuanese influence. Dinner is al fresco in the restaurant’s inner courtyard where, on occasion, customers are serenaded by a Bai dance troupe and band. Meanwhile, The Hungry Buddha (located on the short path between the main square and the east gate) offers something wholly different: vegetarian Italian home cooking. Inside, a dozen stools are placed around an open kitchen, where the Italian chef (Maurino) makes pizza – topped with his own freshly churned mozzarella – gnocchi and tiramisu, among other things. It is a dining experience that delights in ways unexpected and reminds one that, nowadays, the outside world is not so far away.

Get there

China Eastern Airlines flights to Lijiang cost approximately 2,000RMB/person return (flights to Kunming are cheaper but the drive to Shaxi is around six hours). Local buses from Lijiang’s long distance bus station (Lijiang keyun zhan, 丽江客运站) to Jianchuan cost 25RMB and take two and a half hours. Minibuses from Jianchuan to Shaxi are available outside the station. The journey takes around 45 minutes and costs 10RMB/person. The Old Theatre Inn offers pickup services from Lijiang or Dail, starting from 550RMB for a five-seat sedan.
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