China South of the Clouds

Traveling and Cooking in China's Yunnan Province

Shaxi—An Introduction

October 11th, 2011

According to most guidebooks, Shaxi doesn’t exist. Lonely Planet has no mention of it, neither does Eyewitness Guides, and the otherwise excellent Brant and Rough Guides only note its existence because it is near the 9th Century Buddhist temples scattered across the top of Shibao Mountain. Frommer’s is the only one to give the place any real attention, describing it as “the only surviving temple way-station along the old tea and horse caravan trail which linked Southern China through the Himalayas, to Nepal and India.” Even a search online will turn up only a few mentions on blogs and obscure travel sites and a couple TripAdvisor reviews. Its listing on Wikipedia is a 134 word stub.

For most people visiting China, Shaxi may as well not exist, as the town is very difficult to get to, unconnected to any rail line or highway. The only way to get there is to take a three-to four-hour bus trip along windy, rutted mountain roads from the small cities of Dali, to the south, or Lijiang, to the North. And the buses themselves are extremely unpredictable and inconsistent, breaking down regularly and stopping in all manner of towns along the way to drop off or pick up riders carrying everything from huge appliances to chickens packed into cardboard boxes.

I have never been a fan of bus travel. Give me the choice, and I will pick trains or planes over buses any day. And Chinese buses, on which three quarters of the riders chain smoke with their windows firmly latched shut, certainly have very little appeal for me. And yet here I am, planning to brave scores of buses in the next few months in order to trek back and forth to this tiny, out-of-the-way destination. I am even glad that this is the only way to get to where I’m going, because the poor access goes a long way toward explaining how such a quiet, charming, unspoiled town can still exist while everything around it drowns in the loud, neon character that defines contemporary China.

The temples at Shibao Shan, in the mountains above Shaxi

The first time I went to Shaxi, I arrived late at night, after a thirteen-hour-long trip marked by repeated breakdowns. It was early September, and I was there at the behest of my friend Ari, who wanted to introduce me to her friend Mr. Wu, the owner of a guesthouse there. “Shaxi is this kind of hidden gem that hasn’t been spoiled yet,” she told me. “But you should go soon; they just got their first bar—who knows what it will be like in just a couple years.” My first impression was, indeed, of a tiny town that hadn’t yet been enveloped by the neon lights that had marked the other towns I’d traveled through during the course of my long day. The tiny bus dropped me off at the intersection of two cobblestone streets, next to two little shops that sold sweets and beer. When I called Mr. Wu to let him know I had arrived, he said, “So you’re on the main street?” and I had no way of knowing how to answer him. If he was right, it was certainly the quietest main street I’d ever seen. He met me after a few minutes and drove me to his guesthouse, built in the courtyard of an old theater that he had restored in a small village ten minutes’ drive down the road.

In the morning, I looked out of the gate to find that the guesthouse was situated at the edge of rice paddies, in one of a handful of small villages that were scattered across the valley. The fields were just beginning to turn from green to gold, and in a week or two the rice would be ready to harvest. That weekend, however, everyone in Shaxi would be celebrating the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, so after breakfast, Mr. Wu’s wife introduced me to her neighbors so that I could see how they made their moon cakes, the traditional sweet for that holiday.

The neighbors’ house was an old farmhouse with rooms on four sides, surrounding a courtyard. The sturdiest section of the house, which had two stories, seemed to be the main living quarters, while some sections were devoted to drying tobacco. Strings of chilies hung outside the windows, stacks of firewood took up much of the courtyard, and golden corn hung on one of the porches to dry.

Most residents of the Shaxi valley, and the surrounding areas, are members of the Bai minority—the largest and most prosperous minority group in China—eighty percent of whom live in this part of Yunnan. The Bai are thought to have cultivated this fertile area since the Neolithic Era and they developed unique forms of architecture, art, and handicrafts. The gray tiled roofs of their houses are gently curved and the buildings’ outer walls are often painted with beautiful decorations; their traditional clothing incorporates bright, intricate embroidery; and the Buddhism they practice is rich with a pantheon of local deities and legends.

Though Bai communities across the region have reaped the benefits of modern conveniences like electricity and cell phones, many residents of Shaxi seemed to hold fast to traditional ways of handling daily activities. At Mr. Wu’s neighbors’ house, the women made their mooncakes on a small fire, nestling a cast-iron pan into the coals. In other parts of the village, men led donkeys strapped with rattan baskets up into the hillsides, and old women carried everything from freshly harvested corn to boxes of groceries in baskets on their backs, the load supported by a strap stretched over their foreheads. And while a few residents owned their own, private cars, and many more rode motorbikes, the large majority of the population seemed to travel by foot or bicycle.

After watching the neighbors make mooncakes, I walked through the rice fields and along the valley’s main, paved road down to the largest town, called Sideng, where I had been dropped off the night before. Sideng boasted a handful of nondescript eateries along its main road, as well as a newly opened supermarket with shelves stocked with name brand detergents and dry goods, but it was still almost shockingly quiet and peaceful. The center of town was a cobblestone pedestrian street, which had small channels of water flowing along either side of it, and an empty square lined with still-shuttered coffee shops and flanked by an old theater and a temple. Inside the temple, an exhibition titled The Shaxi Rehabilitation Project finally made it clear why this little area of Yunnan had managed to stay so beautiful and develop so tastefully.

In 2001, the marketplace in Shaxi, long an important stop on the Tea Horse Caravan Trail (or “southern silk route”) that connected India to Tibet and China, was nominated by the World Monument Fund as one of the world’s 100 most endangered sites, and international aid organizations stepped in to help. They helped rebuild the city’s center, established a sewer system, and helped the community create a plan to improve the area’s economic prospects through tourism and micro-financing. The idea, as I came to understand it, was to help the villagers improve their lives by embracing their traditional ways rather than by copying what other towns have done and losing their cultural identity.

For the rest of the afternoon I wandered around the town, meandering down one tiny alley after the next. Many boasted a guesthouse or small coffee shop, but even these seemed to be mostly empty, and everywhere I went a kind of sleepy calm reigned. By the time I walked back along the road, the quiet broken occasionally by small trucks powered by tractor engines, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt so relaxed.

That night, Ari arrived late, as I’d been, and we spent the next two days wandering around the villages, taking long walks, and following goat paths up into the hills. There was really no more to Shaxi than I’d already seen, and that suited me perfectly. Each day we would walk along the same roads, watch the same rice ripen, and return for a delicious dinner made by Mr. Wu’s wife and teenage daughter. One night, I spoke with Mr. Wu to arrange a dinner for my mother, when she visited the following week, and I made a proposal: could I come back later in the season, when they were not busy, and take some cooking classes? If Mr. Wu’s wife enjoyed giving the classes, I could help her set up a more permanent cooking school, with a set menu of dishes to teach and a small booklet of recipes to go with them. And if she decided that it was not for her, I would simply pay for my private lessons. He discussed the idea with his wife, and they agreed that if I could visit only during quiet seasons, they would give it a try.

My last night in Shaxi, the villagers celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival. It was a quiet kind of celebration, with no public gatherings or loud rituals. We had dinner as usual, then snacked on soybeans still on their stems, a golden pomegranate, and slices of sweet, soft moon cake filled with sugar and walnuts and flavored with a minty herb. When the moon came out Mr. Wu filled a table with moon cake, fruit, and incense, and set it in the courtyard, as an offering. I stood in the dark by myself for a few minutes, admiring the makeshift altar, and heard the lilting sound of a flute being played out in the fields.

The next morning I left reluctantly, wishing I could just rent a house and stay forever, and feeling glad that I’d made plans to come back in just a few days. As the van made its way out of the valley and toward Lijiang, however, I noticed something that I hadn’t seen on the way in: in the larger valleys just over the hills from Shaxi, a highway was being built. The construction had just started, and the crews were working on the large concrete supports for what would be a series of bridges. It was already clear that the new highway would be at least six lanes wide, like the one that brought tourists to Dali by the hundreds every day. The highway wasn’t headed toward Shaxi—it looked like it would bypass it entirely on its way from Dali to Lijiang—but I knew that no matter what, this meant that in a couple years time Shaxi would be much more accessible to regular tourists. For many people I’m sure this will be a good thing, and no doubt the economies of all the towns in the area will be improved, but as for the rich culture and quiet life that has persisted there up until this point, who knows how much longer it will be able to hold out against the forces of Chinese-style modernization.

Photos: Georgia Freedman