This laidback centuries' old market town along the Ancient Tea Horse Road has all you need for a restorative weekend away
There’s something about Yunnan – and it’s not just that everyone and their mother seems to be travelling there right now. It’s been a haven for hippies and city folk looking to escape the rat race for decades and you can see why. The chilled-out province imparts instant relaxation.
Set in a lush valley, Shaxi, a township in Jianchuan county halfway between Lijiang and Dali, is one of the last remaining old market towns along the Ancient Tea Horse Road, a trading route linking China to South Asia via Tibet.
The township’s height was in the Ming and Qing dynasties before falling into disrepair during the latter half of the 20th century. In 2001, the market square in the main village of Sideng was put on the World Monument Fund’s Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites and restoration as part of the Shaxi Rehabilitation Project with the local government and the Swiss Development Cooperation began.
The restored town is without a doubt touristy – guesthouses, coffee shops and indistinguishable restaurants and trinket shops speckle the streets – but the restoration has largely been done artfully and, in comparison to the throbbing old towns of Lijiang and Dali, the streets remain relatively quiet. Shaxi isn’t jammed packed with sights to see, though for a long weekend, there’s enough to keep you busy but not overwhelmed, with plenty of time for a lazy afternoon or two.
After wandering around Sideng's weekly Friday market that brings the Bai and Yi people from surrounding villages (it starts around 9am and finishes mid-afternoon), stop by coffee shop Corvus Corax for pour-overs from locally sourced Yunnan beans just off Sideng’s old market square. The square itself is lined on one side with a grand Bai minority-style theatre (currently closed to the public) and on the other with Xingjiaosi, a Ming dynasty Buddhist temple with an excellent exhibition on ritual plant use by the Bai people and a display detailing the Shaxi Rehabilitation Project.
The best way to get around the area is by bicycle, offered for free or for a small fee by most guesthouses, or by scooter (Xialazhe Guesthouse rents them out for 50RMB for the day). Putt out past corn and tobacco fields to Beilong village and wind through small streets until you reach the Shaxi branch of Librairie Avant-Garde, a series of unique bookstores founded first in Nanjing by Qian Xiaohua. Set in a restored cob-walled granary and tobacco curing tower, the gorgeous, light-filled bookshop and its café opened in May after three years of renovations. It’s a strange and beautiful find in such a rural area. Beyond the photo ops, the bookstore holds an exceptional collection of books about the local area, ethnic minorities and history.
Photograph: Librairie Avant-Garde
About 12km from Sideng village also sits nature reserve Shibaoshan, from where you can hike up to the 'hanging temple of Yunnan' Baoxiangsi from the 13th century and Shizhongshan Grottoes, caves filled with Buddhist carvings by the Bai people dating back to 800 AD.
The food in Shaxi is simple, turning on fresh ingredients and a few staple dishes that will reappear at most meals. In the morning, stop by Longfeng Ruiying for ersi (饵丝), thinly sliced rice cakes special to the region that can be served in soup with pickled vegetables or stir-fried. Lunches and dinners are packed with mushrooms and locally cured meats, with a particularly good meal at Chujian Shaxi Private Kitchen.
Get there Return flights from Shanghai to Lijiang start from around 1,350RMB, then hire a taxi or Didi for around 400RMB or take a bus to Jinchuan followed by a minibus to Shaxi.