I’d never even heard of Shaxi when we set off on our Yunnan adventure. But while staying at the Bruce Chalet, we met up with an Australian family who were touring Yunnan with a guide. I asked what they thought of Lijiang Old Town. They were polite but noncommittal. “It’s fine, I suppose. A bit touristy.” Was Shuhe better? “Maybe… It’s just that we’ve been spoiled by visiting much nicer small towns. We’ve seen some amazing ones, so these touristy places don’t do much for us.” And what was the best old town they’d seen?
That evening, I googled Shaxi and knew it had to be added to our itinerary. We booked a hotel for three nights, but now that we’re here, I think we’ll stay a week. It’s a treasured respite from the unbridled tourism elsewhere in Yunnan.
And that, my friends, was as far as my draft blog post got on July 4. We did indeed stay in Shaxi–for eight days. Like Odysseus in the land of the lotus eaters, we lounged about for days, sipping fine coffees, eating delicious food, and marveling at this land full of western comforts, beautiful weather, and a slow, comfortable pace. I’m hesitant to even talk about it, as I want to keep it our little secret paradise. So, shhh… Here’s where we were:
Shaxi is widely recognized as the last or best preserved trading town along a route known as the Tea Horse Caravan Route. Many people are familiar with the famous Silk Road that connected China to India and the Middle East. But to call the Tea Horse Caravan the “southern Silk Road” really diminishes it’s stand-alone importance. Tea, originating in Yunnan Province, would be transported to India along a 1400-mile route that traverses nearly 80 mountains. Small towns like Shaxi were critical stop-overs and centers of trade along the way.
Today, Shaxi is a sleepy village. It’s central square has been recognized by the World Monuments Fund as one of the Most Endangered Sites in the world, and multiple international non-profits are cooperating to preserve and restore it.
Shaxi sits in a valley, nestled among low mountains. While the hills are arid, here’s a lot of agriculture in the valley, thanks to mild year-round temperatures and frequent, light rain showers
For us, Sideng Market Square became the center of our universe for the week. It’s a quirky place. Two buildings dominate the square. Xingjiao Temple dates to the 15th century Ming Dynasty. It’s unmissable, thanks primarily to the two temple guardians perched on either side of its entrance.
Despite their grimaces, I felt like they presented a friendly vibe. They must have been able to perceive that we came peacefully.
Across from the temple was an old theater. It’s not currently used for productions, as I understand it, but there was a small museum inside. Hipster backpackers would perch under its colorful awning all day.
We stayed just next door to the theater in a youth hostel called Horse Pen 46. It’s an old Bai-minority courtyard that perhaps once served as accommodation for weary travelers along the Tea Horse Caravan. We stayed in Mustang Stall 2-1. They had a bit of a horse theme, you see.
But the real win was being able to step outside the hostel, into that lovely, peaceful Sideng Market Square.
The market no longer takes place in the square. Instead, the square is shaded by a grand 300+ year-old tree. Research tells me it’s a “pagoda tree,” Sapora japonica.
The tree produces copious quantities of fragrant white flowers in the summer. Local people collect and dry them for tea, baking, and medicine. (Coincidence: these are the same flowers we ate at the farmhouse on our Great Wall camping trip. I’m sure of it!) Everyday, shopkeepers or restauranteurs would sweep up the flowers and lay tarps to collect more as the wind blew. From there, they’d be placed into large, flat baskets to dry.
And each morning, the tree would be blooming again, the air filled with the buzz of delighted bees.
At the four corners of the square are coffee shops. European-style, ground coffee. Our favorite was definitely the Old Tree Cafe. The owners, a semi-retired couple from Guangdong Province, spoke excellent English and were all-around lovely.
Their resident cat had two kittens. Simon was fascinated and the owners let him follow the cats into their private courtyard. There, he learned a new word. He started by trying to respond to the cats’ cries and the result was the Chinese “mao,” which means cat. It’s now one of his favorite words and gets used at least 10 times per day.
We only went inside Xingjiao Temple on one occasion. In addition to the religious artefacts, there was a great display that explained the local commitment to Shaxi’s restoration and preservation. I’m hopeful that the community will be successful, and Shaxi won’t turn into another Lijiang.
Like most temples in China, Xingjiao is still (again?) an active place of worship. When we arrived in the hall with the golden Buddhas, a woman and her daughter were praying to the central figure. Simon was impressed. As soon as the woman stood up from her prayer mat, Simon knelt down in her place and repeated her actions: prostrating to the Buddha, then praying with hands over his head. Maybe we’re raising a little Buddhist.