March 21st, 2013
Shaxi is the best of China, and my favorite place to visit. The valley is dotted with tiny villages of traditional Bai farmhouses, and everyone grows rice, wheat, mustard, and other seasonal crops. The main town, Sideng, has a couple of restaurants, a handful of coffee shops and quiet bars, and a growing number of little inns and guesthouses. It’s hard to get to, but that’s why it’s still such a beautiful, pristine spot, and it’s more than worth the trip.
There are tons of tiny inns scattered around Sideng, but my favorite spot is actually in one of the other little towns, a twenty minute walk through the fields. The Old Theater Inn is a rustic but homey guesthouse made up of rooms built around the courtyard of a restored theater building. It’s quiet and homey, the staff is lovely, the food is fantastic, and you end up feeling like you could just move in and live there for a while.
The most high-end option in town is the Lao Ma Dian guesthouse which is right in Sideng’s (sleepy) central square. The old courtyard home was restored by the owner, who is also a designer for high-end international hotels, with beautiful old furniture, tapestries, and stunning bathrooms.
There are also tons of less known little guesthouses in Sideng, and if you arrive there without a booking, you’ll be able to find something (as long as it’s not a holiday weekend). But if you don’t speak Chinese, you may have to spend a lot of time with a dictionary to book the room. The youth hostel, Shaxi Horsepen 46 might be the easiest of these to book.
Getting to Shaxi is tough. The easiest way to get there is to go to Dali first for a night, then have your guesthouse help you hire a car to drive you directly to Shaxi. The drive will take around three hours and cost a little less than $100 (usd). From Dali you could also take a sign with the words Shaxi on it out to the main road and hop onto a minibus headed in that direction. The ride would be very cheap, but it will also be very crowded and could take for as long as five hours. Alternately, you can take an eight hour bus ride straight from Kunming to Jianchuan county, then hire a van/car to take you to Shaxi. (The guesthouse you stay at should be able to help you arrange that leg of the trip if they speak English.)
Once in Shaxi, you can really just walk everywhere, but you can also rent bikes at the Old Theater Inn or the youth hostel or bargain with one of the van drivers who hang around on the main street to take you where you need to go.
Many people only hear about Shaxi when they head to the area to go to Shibao Shan, a collection of temples and hermit caves built into the mountains just above the Shaxi valley. They were overlooked during the destruction of the Cultural Revolution, so they’re some of the oldest non-“restored” temples in the country. The official entrance to the complex is a 15 minute drive from Sideng, but if you have a little more time and want to really explore the mountains, you can also hike up from the valley.
On Fridays, Sideng hosts an enormous market. Villagers from the surrounding area, including Yi minority peasants from the nearby mountains, dress in their traditional costumes and come to buy and sell everything from livestock (in an area just behind the town), to clothes and jewelry, household supplies, shoes, baskets, dry goods, and food. The town’s main street is packed with vendors and little tables set up by ladies selling snacks. The market is an amazing place to find things like the woven baskets that the peasants wear like backpacks when they go to market, spices specific to the region, local styles of jewelry, cute Chinese kids’ clothes, and all kinds of other things. You could even buy a small Tibetan horse if you wanted.
If you visit the area in the fall, the staff at the Old Theater Inn can arrange for you to go foraging for mushrooms, including prized matsutakes and boletus, with local farmers. You can also hike into the mountains to forage for medicinal herbs or to look for wild rhododendrons and azaleas.
Every night, the women of the area gather in the main square in Sideng after dinner to dance together. Gathering to do choreographed line or circle dances has become very popular as a form of exercise in China, and you can see similar groups of women every evening in parks and squares all over the country. But there is something particularly lovely about the gathering in Shaxi. Everyone from grandmothers to young girls join in, husbands and kids sit around the square watching, the teenage boys hang out just a few yards away, teasing each other and flirting with the teen girls who join in on the dancing.
Shaxi is not a real tourist town in certain ways and does not have many stand-alone restaurants. But what there is is absolutely delicious.
My favorite place in town is Long Feng Muslim Restaurant, a small family-run place that serves fantastic Hui food. It’s a little open space a bit below street level on Sideng’s main road, on your right after the road after it makes a 45-degree right turn in the middle of town. Everything is good. I particularly like the stir-fried beef (above), stir-fried lotus root, and pancake of shredded potatoes. If you don’t know what to order, you could hang out by the door, next to where the owner does the cooking, and see what looks good.
Guests at the Old Theater Inn usually just eat dinner there, in the upper part of the main building or even on the balcony, and non-guests can call ahead and arrange to join for dinner for a set per person price. Parties are seated separately, but everyone eats the same meal, made of whatever local, seasonal ingredients the cooks find in the market, but if you book dinner, you might be able to make a request or two. Some of my favorites are the sugar-coated fried peanuts, stir-fried pork with Sichuan peppercorn oil, stir-fried fern shoots with fava beans (a seasonal dish served in the spring), and a cold cucumber dish with Sichuan peppercorns that the owner’s wife sometimes makes when she’s there.
Lao Ma Dian guesthouse has a restaurant tucked back in its depths that serves Western-style fare (including a Western breakfast for their guests) as well as fusion dishes like yak meat curry.
There are also lots of little coffee shops in and near the old square in Sideng. They’re lovely places to relax and read with some tea or coffee, and many also offer a bit of lunch.
Photos: Georgia Freedman (4)