The rickshaw dropped me in front of Weishan’s Gongchen Tower (拱辰楼) [read the update about the destruction of the Gongchen Tower (拱辰楼)], an impressive tower gate topped with a Chinese style pavilion from which the faded tune of a traditional orchestra rehearsing.
The construction of the Gongchen tower gate during the early days of the Ming dynasty, in 1390, marks the beginning of the Han-Chinese influence in borderland China (most of the villages in the region are home to different ethnic groups : Yi 彝族, Hui 回族, Bai 白族, Lisu 傈僳族, and Miao 苗族).
Today, this landmark marks the entrance to the historical core zone of Weishan (巍山), the ancient capital of the Nanzhao Kingdom (南诏国) and former stop on the old Tea and Horse Road (茶马古道).
As I was walking through the imposing tower-gate towards the historical core zone of Weishan, I was wondering how much had changed since my last time here, when I took a one-day trip from Dali ancient town. Would there be an expensive entrance fee? Had the stores that cater to local people been replaced by trinket stores and jade stores? Had the old Ming-Qing houses knocked down?
Untouched by Time
Nothing had changed. Weishan has stayed away from tourism and is untouched by time. The cobblestone street that runs from north to south is still lined with centuries old Ming-Qing dynasties style houses and tower-gates which saw the caravans transporting Pu’er bricks on the former Tea and Horse Road.
Most of the houses combine several construction materials : wood, stone bricks and mud bricks. Some are so old and crooked that they look like they are on the verge of collapse. Somehow, it’s a miracle that they are still standing and that they have not been knocked down yet.
The devil is the detail
The amount of architectural detail is impressive. Between the patterns of the wooden window covers, the carefully painted eaves, the design of the tiles cap, or the courtyard gates’ beams carved into a dragon head, the auspicious patterns painted on the walls, and all the decorative niches that lost their ornaments, the houses of Weishan are a real live art museum.
I found Weishan much more attractive and interesting than the ancient city of Dali. Not only because they are fewer tourists, but also because the shops that line the streets of Weishan have a more authentic feel to them. They do not cater to tourists (although a few of them do sell souvenirs for tourists), but to the locals.
Walking down the main street of Weishan, from far away, I saw a woman hanging yellow-ish bed sheet to dry in the streets. Nothing unusual in rural China. However, when I arrived in front of her store, I realized that she was hanging stretched home made noodles.
There was a smell of freshly cut pasta and I could hear the sound of a machine cutting a thin sheet of pasta base into long thin noodles. After they are dry, the noodles are cut, packaged on sold on the local markets. I have to admit that it was pretty rare sight.
Another storefront that picked my curiosity was this sign carving shop, the “Nanzhao Shuke Bu” (南诏书刻部) which breathes of history, skills and knowledge.
I passed in front of it several time and it seemed it was seating idle, as if the master carver had no job. The last day, when I was about to leave Weishan, I finally got the opportunity to see the owner carving a new sign that must be hung on a storefront of the old town.
Beyond the Xinggong Tower
The Xinggong Tower (星拱楼) dominates the center of the historical core zone and is located at the intersection of the main street and a ring road on which electric cars transport passengers around Weishan.
Unfortunately, there was no going up on the Xinggong Tower which was built in the same time as the Gongchen Tower Gate, more than 600 years ago.
Instead, I followed the small paved ring-road that circles around Weishan. When there is no electric car passing me by and honking, the old cobblestone streets lined with decaying mud-brick walls and courtyard gate made me feel I was going back in time. However, in some parts of the old town, some of these old buildings have been knocked down. Mud-brick constructions do not last forever. Let’s see how they are going to rebuild them.
How to get there
From Xiaguan, the big town just south of Dali ancient town, take a bus from the Southwest bus station (西南站), there is bus every 15 minutes, so you won’t have to wait to long. It’s a one hour drive.
Once at the bus station, take a tuk-tuk for 5 RMB to the old town (古城). The driver will drop you at the Gongchen Tower Gate, in the middle of the ancient town.
The best old town
Weishan is probably my favorite old town. It is is still virtually untouched by tourism and commercialization (unlike Dali). Although Dali is an interesting place where you can meet foreign travelers and exchange stories, it does not feel nearly as authentic as Weishan.
How do you prefer your ancient town in China? Lined with souvenir shops and bars where you can get a pizza like Dali or untouched by tourism like Weishan?