South of the Clouds: Around Shaxi in Yunnan, China

A few days ago, Gadling told you about the historical charm of Shaxi, an intact way station from the ancient tea-horse road days. Though the little village offers plenty for a mellow day or two, part of what makes it so great is the quiet valley it sits in, as well as the surrounding hills.

Just outside the village’s walls runs the clear Heihui River, with walking paths on either side and arched bridges providing photo-ops. The paths are great for strolling, and you’re likely to encounter Bai villagers going about their daily routines. Follow any of the cobblestone roads across one of the bridges to catch a glimpse of rural life as you pass through tiny villages and farmland.

Around 4km from Shaxi is the even smaller village of Duanjia. Its theater was used as a model for Shaxi’s restored venue. Duanjia makes a pleasant day trip destination; rent a bike and enjoy lunch in the village.

%Gallery-112119%The hills are fabulous for hiking; we spent one day exploring Shibao mountain. Our bus dropped us off at the top, and we explored some Buddhist grottoes that escaped the Cultural Revolution. In one grotto a giant vagina is carved into the rock; that would be shocking enough on its own, but this vagina is slick with the cooking oil of pregnant women who come to pray for a smooth delivery. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed.

From the grottoes, a paved path leads down the mountain through a small, green valley. It should take just under two hours to walk back to Shaxi.

There are several multi-day trekking options, as well. Check out for more info.

Shaxi and the surrounding valley are undergoing a renovation to preserve their history as well as ready them for tourism. Now is the golden time to visit; much of the restoration has been done, but the village has yet to become overrun with tourists.

For more information on Gadling’s trip to Yunnan, click here.

Though our trip to Shaxi was funded by WildChina, the opinions expressed here are 100% our own.

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.

South of the Clouds: Yunnan’s ancient tea-horse road

In November, Gadling traveled with WildChina throughout Yunnan province. The theme of the trip was “the ancient tea-horse road,” and it followed a trading route that runs from Yunnan’s tropical lowlands up to the Tibetan plateau and eventually in to India.

As the name implies, the “road” was a caravan route along which tea and horses were traded, though salt was also a major commodity. Lesser known than its glamorous older sibling, the Silk Road, the tea-horse road was nevertheless an important trade route. Though defined in the singular, the tea-horse road was actually a series of small trade routes; it was rare for traders to travel the entire route.

Tea, still grown and fermented for travel in Yunnan today, was carried north, while mules and horses from Tibet plodded south. Small traces of the original trade still exist: condensed bundles of tea packed into bamboo pipes at a rural market, an old square in a village where horse stalls still sit behind a guesthouse once used by muleteers (those who traveled the route with mules), and even a few people who worked in the trade before 1949.

Though the route extends all the way to India, we focused only on locations in Yunnan. First we visited Xishuangbanna prefecture, at the south of the province. Here, Pu-er tea is grown on small trees whose size belies their age: many are several hundred years old. We then traveled to Dali, a conduit market town where tea traders and growers traveled north to meet Tibetans who had journeyed south. The Bai minority group still live in and around Dali and were middlemen between the tea and horse traders.

After Dali came Shaxi, a market town where we met the son of a muleteer who was killed by bandits. Everyone in Shaxi once depended on the tea-horse trade, as it was an important stopover town along the route. Today, Shaxi’s market square still fills every Friday with Yi villagers who dress up and travel for fun, trading, and food.

After a quick stop in Lijiang, another conduit market town filled with rushing canals and cobble-stoned streets, we climbed up to Shangri-la. A town packed with prayer flags, restaurants serving yak meat, and the distant lure of giant mountains, Shangri-la (also called Zhongdian) at times feels more Tibetan than mainstream Chinese. A few sad horses lingered near a marshy lake, decorated and waiting for tourists to reenact the glory days of the trade route with horse rides.

By no means the end of the line for traders, Shangri-la was nevertheless an appropriate ending point for our trip. We’d gone from summer temps in sub-tropical Xishuangbanna to near-freezing at 10,000 feet, and it was time to go home and warm up with a nice cup of tea.

Read more about our travels in Yunnan here.

Though my trip was funded by WildChina, the opinions expressed here are all my own.