On my quest to visiting ancient Chinese villages before they become entangled with contemporary China, it seemed only logical to jump on bus and head over the ancient trade post on the old Tea and Horse road (茶马古道) of Shaxi Valley 沙溪, between Lijiang and Dali (大理).
Nested in a valley behind the Cangshan (苍山) mountain range, Shaxi’s cobble-stone streets have seen horse caravans coming from south Yunnan and heading towards the Tibetan areas beyond Lijiang.
The old town of Shaxi is very small and consists essentially in a few quiet lanes and alleys which radiate from Sideng square (寺等街) in the middle of which thrones the village’s most iconic landmark : the Sideng theater (寺等戏台).
A short walk from the theatre, the Ouyang Courtyard (欧阳大院) is hidden in a narrow lane. It was once home to the Ouyang family whose members were caravan leaders on the ancient Tea and Horse road. At the turn of the 20th century, their house also acted as an inn for the passing caravans, providing shelter, food and a place to rest on the ancient trade road.
The walls of this ancient alley breath of history. I wished they could talk, repeat the stories told by the caravan leaders within these walls and tell the tales of the Tea and Horse road. Knock on the door, if someone is home, they will let you in for a visit.
Shaxi flourished with the trade, but with the development of road transportation which lead to the demise of the Tea and Horse road in the 1950s, Shaxi became a common village in northern Yunnan. The Ming style theatre on Sideng square (寺等街) and the streets lined with adobe courtyard mansions and houses had started crumbling away.
Opposite the Sideng Theater stage, the Xingjiao Temple (兴教寺) is now a museum (there is a 20 RMB entrance fee). An exhibition explains how the Shaxi Rehabilitation Project (SRP) which put together the local government and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technogoly of Zurich have contributed to the renewal of Shaxi.
Besides the area dedicated to telling the story of the SRP, the Xingjiao Temple seems empty and it is hard to imagine that it was once one of the center of religious activity of Shaxi.
The once crumbling adobe buildings have been renovated according to the local architectural style. It is like the theater and the houses and courtyards houses of a small area surrounding Sideng square have never witnessed the burden of time.
Renovation and construction work is still going on with an obvious goal in mind : developing tourism and cashing on it.
The Lijianification of Shaxi ?
The term ‘Lijianification’ describes the process by which a rural town is developed into a travel destination and where locals do not reap the economic benefits of this development because most of the guesthouses/hotels and stores’ owners come from outside the province.
In Shaxi, tourism is burgeoning and flourishing. Guesthouses and foreigner-friendly cafes with menus in English have sprung up in the old streets. Shaxi is becoming another of these cosmopolitan travel destinations in rural China where tourists can forget about the local beer and local dishes. You can now sip a mojito and wait for your pizza while gazing at the Sideng theatre.
A large part of the old town is now being transformed into a hotel / commercial area. After visiting Shaxi, its many guesthouses (it seemed to me that most of them are owned by non-local people : I successively went to one owned by a Cantonese man, another owned by a Taiwanese woman and two others managed by people from Beijing) and coffee shops where employees sit idle waiting for a daily surge of tourists, I felt there was already a saturation. Even though many guesthouses are foreign-owned, most of them employ local people.
So, will tourism do any good to the locals?
Shaxi is tiny. The bulk of the tourists come in groups. They come by bus from Lijiang, spend one hour running through the ancient streets. They want to get a perfect shot of the theater and eventually sit down in one of the multiple cafes before going back to their base. Many tourists do stay overnight in Shaxi to enjoy the quietness of this old trade post on the ancient Tea and Horse road once the tour groups are gone.
Yes, locals welcome change and tourism. It will allow them to gradually move away from farming and hopefully make more money becoming entrepreneur in the tourism industry. Obviously, tourism cannot be bad for the locals and their quest to improve their way of life. Locals are facing a learning curve if they want this shift from farming land to entrepreneur in the tourism industry to be successful.
How to get there
There are no direct buses to Shaxi. Everyone has to change to a mini-van in Jianchuan (剑川). [If it’s your first time riding the bus in China and you are clueless, read my guide to buying bus tickets and what to expect in China rural buses
From Xiaguan north bus station (北站), there are regular buses (every 15 min until 6:30 PM) to Jianchuan. The journey lasts around 3 hours. All buses from Xiaguan take the ‘Dali-Lijiang First Class Road’ that passes by Dali Ancient town West Gate so you don’t have to go to Xiaguan to take the bus if you are already in Dali. Expect to pay around 30 RMB.
In Jianchuan, there are green mini-vans which sit up to 8 people and leave once they are full. The trip from Jianchuan to Shaxi lasts 45 minutes and costs 10 RMB. You also have the possibility to rent one of these mini-van for 80 to 100 RMB.
From Jianchuan to Dali Ancient Town / Xiaguan : there is bus every 15 min between 6:30 AM and 6:30 PM. If you stop in Dali ancient town, tell the driver. Once you see the Erhai lake on your left hand-side and the Three Pagoda Temple on your right, you’re almost there.
From Shaxi / Jianchuan to Lijiang. I have seen several guesthouses that offer a mini-bus service for travelers heading to Lijiang. Look for the sign 丽江拼车. From Jianchuan, there are buses to Lijiang at 8:00, 9:30, 11:30 AM and 1:30, 3:30 PM. There are also two buses to Zhongdian (中甸 aka Shangrila) at 8:00 and 9:00 AM.