The charming little town of Shaxi


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Asia » China » Yunnan » Shaxi
January 24th 2013
Published: February 1st 2013
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Our bus trip (33 yuan each) from Dali was eventful. We passed by many weddings - at one stage the bride and groom tried to catch the bus but we were already over loaded. Another wedding we passed had a rather inebriated groom, half undressed staggering down the road, surrounded by other drunken men and trailed by his poor bride and her friends. The sad part was that they were all very young. We came close to having a collision - the bus braked suddenly and we were all thrown violently forward. We felt very vulnerable for the rest of the trip whenever we came close to other vehicles. The last bit of excitement was a drunk or drugged man, covered in blood, standing in the middle of the road attacking vehicles as they went past. He had a very large knife which he was brandishing wildly. We arrived at the highway town of Jianchaun where we transferred to a minivan (10 yuan each plussame for our luggage) for the final hours drive to Shaxi.
Shaxi is only very tiny and once was a very important staging post on theTea Horse route through to Tibet. In 2008 a restoration project began with the aid of a Swiss company and today it is still very small, mostly unrestored and soon will become a major spot on the Chinese tourist trail. The old pedestrian only village (Sideng) is full of cobbled streets and mud brick houses set around a central 50 meter wide market square called Sifang. There is a very small new settlement beside the old town in which the minibus dropped us off. Within five minutes we walked into Sideng down a cobbled street lined with old mud brick wooden fronted houses on one side until we arrived in the square. Unfortunately the other side of this street is currently under redevelopment into a hotel and shopping complex - much to our horror. And we found out later the long term residents of the town are pretty upset about it as well. We quickly found a very comfortable room in an old courtyard house down one of the narrow cobbled lanes leading off the main lane into the square. We paid only 100 yuan for a lovely room (wifi with in room modem, modern bathroom with plenty of hot water, good bed) which had recently been redecorated tastefully at the Tea Horse and Caravan Trail Inn.

Dumping our bags we set out to explore and fell totally for this very charming village. It was a haven of absolute peace as there was virtually nobody around and it was so very pretty! At one side of the cobbled square was an amazing five tiered building which was actually a theatre - the stage was open air and fronted the square. Opposite the theatre was Xingjiao Temple, founded by a Buddhist sect in 1415. Out the front were some large rather wild looking stone guardian figures, inside a few courtyards, some ornately gilded Buddhas and some vibrant wall murals. These two buildings had been very sensitively restored by the Swiss company.We spent a very pleasurable afternoon wandering the tiny narrow streets checking out some very ornately carved doorways and peering into lovely old courtyards. The town was virtually deserted though there was the odd camera toting Chinese tourist. It did get a little busier towards sunset. We did see a lot of the old buildings in the process of being restored - their futures no doubt to be guesthouses. There seemed to be a lack of restaurants in the town but that evening we managed to find a rather grubby spot to eat in at the edge of the old town. Imagine this - filthy floor (we saw customers blow their noses straight onto it!), extremely sticky tables wiped over with a filthy grey cloth, rickety chairs, vegetables and meat displayed in a refrigerated case which wasn't switched on, customers smoking and walking on and out of the kitchen (walls black from grease and smoke) and no preparation area at all next to the wok - I think the floor was used! However the food tasted fine and we ate three meals there with thankfully no ill effects. Lunch there on market day was the most interesting - lots of colourful characters and the floor covered with live chickens in baskets... Total cost for three meals plus beer was under 100 yuan so we certainly couldn't complain about the price!

Late in the afternoon we walked out to the edge of town (all of ten minutes) to see Yujin Bridge, a very picturesque stone arched bridge over which the packhorses following the tea trail walked. From the bridge we had a great view of the row of tiny villages surrounding Shaxi and determined to walk to some of them the next day. The next day was Friday and we had planned to be in Shaxi for their renowned large Friday only market so any village exploring would have to be done after lunch. On one side of the square is an old inn, currently used for its original purpose, where the traders used to sleep. They slept in box beds, storing all their precious items under neath the lift up bed base for safety. Their horses slept on the other side of the bedrooms screened windows so they could guard their horses as well as their valuables from their beds. Next to this inn we found a tiny bar where for the three nights we spent in Shaxi we enjoyed beers and a scotch ( soda water pre purchased at another cafe in town) overlooking the square. It was a quaint little wooden bar (Trail Bar) run by a lovely English speaking Chinese lady. She also made great banana muffins.

We woke next morning and headed out to look for the Friday market. It wasn't hard to find as it stretched the length of the new town. Market days are always busy and this one was total chaos - which got worse as the day wore on! Everything was of sale - traditional and cheap western clothes, food, hardware, plastic goods, dentistry, baskets, animals, herbs, incense and lots of New Year decorations (red lanterns and door banners). Weaving through the crowds were women in the traditional dress of the region - the Bai tunics (this time worn with blue waist ties mainly) plus women wearing ground length finely pleated skirts in bright red, greens and yellows. They wore heavy woven headscarves which were wrapped with plaits of hair. The older women wore these big square flat headdresses - I tried one on and have no idea how they manage to keep them on, let alone work in them. Since then we've seen quite a few ladies wearing them whilst shopping or at the bus station and realised that they usually tie them on under their chins with a headscarf. We also saw bags of hair (natural) being sold, presumably for these plaits. We both love the colour and vibe of these markets and never get tired of them. Most of the stall holders are very welcoming and we always get smiles in return for our greetings. After lunch at the restaurant where we had great company - lots of traditionally dressed locals (including one old lady who puffed on a long thin brass pipe) and various animals, we decided to walk to some of the nearby villages. It was a tasty lunch and I managed pretty successfully to try and ignore the extra layer of market dirt on the restaurant floor - after which we set off into the pretty but very dry countryside.

We followed lots of market goers home and ended up walking through three villages before following the river back to Shaxi. They were all very traditional and obviously much more in a general state of disrepair then Shaxi. Mostly mud brick courtyard houses with ornately carved doors. That evening seemed much colder then previously and I huddled in front of little heated bricks in a tin bowl in the restaurant whilst they cooked our dinner. The street outside was a shambles of leftover market rubbish. After dinner I left Jerry to finish his beer and headed back through the dark streets to the relative warmth of our room. When he returned he told me that he'd struck up a conversation with a lovely English couple near our ages who may join us the next morning on our trip to visit Shibaoshan (Stone Treasure Mountain), 10 kilometres from Shaxi, and one of the reasons we wanted to visit Shaxi in the first place. The region consists of three mountains, four temples and some 1300 year old rock carvings. The whole area was one of the first officially protected nature and religious site in China. Next morning Glynnis and Seamus met us at our hotel and we set off to the bus station to negotiate the price for the hire of a minivan to take us there. Easier said then done but eventually our negotiations were interrupted by a local man who offered to drive us in his car to the site for 150 yuan which we were all happy to pay. There was a slight breakdown in communications though because even though he spoke English we ended up at one of the lesser temples (Baoxing). The entrance fee to Shibao Shan was 50 yuan each. This temple was still very interesting, full of gaudy colour and we wandered the cave grottos behind the temple checking out all the grotesque statues before being frightened off by a large gang of nasty wild monkeys. Walking back down the many steps (harder to walk up them though!) to the carpark we reexplained to our waiting driver where we wished to go. Our kind driver then happily drove us the ten kilometres to the main temple, Shizhong, where he showed us the path down the mountain before arranging to meet us at the bottom when we were ready to leave. Glynnis and Seamus are teaching over here so had local numbers (something Jerry and I planned on getting but have found too hard to do!) so they wer able to phone our driver when we finished. The statues were astounding. They didn't particularly look Buddhist, in fact they seemed to have a strong Indian influence. I really enjoyed seeing them. Our walk down the flagstoned mountain path was fun as both of us really enjoyed Glynnis and Seamus's company. It took an hour to walk down and our friendly driver was waiting as promised at the bottom. After talking to him we found that he managed one of the inns (Lomadian Lodge) in Shaxi. His wife and child lived in a nearby village and he had lunched with them whilst he waited for us. The half day we had 'booked' him for had turned into a much longer day as it was 3.30 before he dropped us back in Shaxi. He was appreciative of the 100 yuan (each couple) paid him. It was very nice of him to offer to take us to the site - I'm sure the minibus driver would have charged much more!

We promised to eat at his lodge that night. Glynnis and Seamus managed to get some service there (and a great candlelit meal in a very cold dining room right at the back of the lodge) but Jerry and I gave up eventually as we could see no evidence of a dining room and had some very unresponsive service from the young girl at the front desk. I did however manage to sneak a peek in one of the empty bedrooms and see the box beds used by the traders in the days of the tea horse trade, this being the lodge that use to accommadate them. Next morning we left, with Glynnis and Seamus, in a prearranged taxi (50 yuan couple) for the return trip to Jianchaun and onwards to Shangri-La. We were very sad to leave Shaxi - we loved its tiny narrow lanes, it's peace and quiet, the old crumbling city gates, the empty countryside, the pretty square, stone bridge and friendly locals. We even missed the dirty restaurant.....


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