South of the Clouds: Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Once an important market town on China’s ancient tea-horse road, Shaxi is one of seemingly very few Chinese villages that have retained their original feel. Quiet, with cobblestone lanes and courtyard homes, Shaxi is currently undergoing a “remodel” to restore and preserve its historical market square, inner village, and, eventually, ready the entire Shaxi Valley for tourism. Though only a few hotels and shops currently smatter the tiny village, there’s no way a town like this will stay this quiet for long. You’ll be rewarded by visiting soon, as the vibe is sure to change after the completion of a new highway nearby.

Gadling was lucky enough to visit Shaxi in November on a trip with WildChina, during which we traced parts of China’s tea-horse caravan route.

%Gallery-112119%Shaxi sits roughly between Lijiang and Dali, and was a halfway point for tea and horse traders traveling between southern Yunnan and Tibet. The town experienced its prime from 1368-1911, when it flourished as a way station along the tea-horse trading route. When the last of the caravans passed through in 1949, Shaxi settled into relative isolation. In 2001, the World Monument Fund added Shaxi’s market square to its Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites, as the square had its original theater, temple, and guesthouses. All, however, were in danger from neglect and the potential of shoddy restoration. In partnership between the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich and the People’s Government of Jianchuan County, the first phase of the Shaxi Restoration Project began in 2006, and the village is readying itself for more visitors.

A tour of Shaxi

The first thing to do is visit the village’s market square. Largely unchanged for centuries, the square is a quiet remnant of the bustling tea-horse days. It livens at night, when locals gather to dance and play music, and on Fridays, when Yi villagers dress up and descend from the hills to join Bai locals for trading and fun.

One one side of the square sits Xingjiao Temple, parts of which dates back to the early 1400s. Part of Shaxi’s restoration project, the temple was once a headquarters during the Cultural Revolution and was also used for grain storage. Today it is a quiet courtyard off of a quiet square, interrupted only by the occaisonal Chinese official with a cigarette, screaming into his mobile phone.

Also in the square sits the Sideng Theater, the most prominent building in the area. A small museum has been established in the refurbished building, and plans are underway to re-open shops along the ground floor.

Courtyard homes and guesthouses make up much of the rest of Shaxi. We were invited into the home of Ouyang Shengxian, a 70-year-old Bai man whose father and grandfather were muleteers on the tea-horse road. Ouyang’s ancient courtyard home once housed traders traveling the route. His kitchen has changed very little in the past couple of centuries (see photo gallery), and Ouyang himself seems from another time. Wearing a thin, cracked leather jacket held closed by two pieces of bright red yarn, Ouyeng recalled for us not only his stories, but those of his grandfather and father (who was killed at 33 by bandits). Though he never worked the tea-horse road, Ouyang traded salt from the nearby Misha salt mines, as well as worked in coal mines.

The Laomadian Lodge, off of Market Square, is another venue that was used as accommodation for tea-horse road travelers. Comprised of several coutyards, the 151-year-old venue still has the original cabinets that horsemen slept on top of to guard their personal belongings. White reflecting walls in the courtyards display restored Bai paintings, and, as with all of Shaxi, stepping across the threshold of the inn feels as though you have stepped back through centuries in time.

Stay tuned for more on things to do around Shaxi.

For more about Gadling’s tour of Yunnan, click here.

Though my trip through Yunnan was partially funded by WildChina, the opinions expressed here are 100% my own.