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Getting Away: Shaxi

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Editor's note: GoKunming was recently invited by WildChina to visit stops along the Ancient Tea and Horse Caravan trade route with tea expert and explorer Jeff Fuchs, who has traveled the route's entirety. This article from the WildChina blog is reposted with permission.

Yunnan is brimming with countless lesser-known destinations that are well worth a visit. One of our favorites is the former trading outpost of Shaxi (沙溪) in Yunnan's northwest.

Blessed with blue skies, sunshine and cool breezes year-round and located in a verdant mountain valley with no airport, tall buildings, car traffic or noticeable pollution, Shaxi is the perfect antidote to the chaos of city life.

For centuries Shaxi was a busy trade hub linking the Yunnan and Tibet portions of the Ancient Tea and Horse Caravan route. Traders coming up from the south on the route would bring tea, cloth, alkali and daily necessities, while Tibetans would bring yak furs and traditional medicines.

In addition to being a convenient halfway point for Yunnanese and Tibetan traders, Shaxi also had an important commodity of its own: salt from the nearby Misha salt wells.

The majority of Shaxi's residents belong to the Bai ethnic group, who are known for their hospitality and their green thumbs. When the caravans were passing through town, it was not uncommon to see the different faces and costumes of the Yi, Lisu, Han, Naxi, Hui and Tibetan ethnic groups, especially in Shaxi's main square, where goods were sold.

The caravans could have as many as 40 or 50 animals, mostly mules with some horses. Just as important were the muleteers, who were usually responsible for 10 animals.

The caravan routes died out around 60 years ago, eliminating the main source of revenue for the economy that had thrived in Shaxi. The town reverted to reliance upon agrarianism and has passed the decades quietly, missing out on benefits – and drawbacks – that other Chinese cities have experienced since the late 1970s.
Now, just as quietly, Shaxi is experiencing a renaissance of sorts through tourism. The local government has spent quite a bit of funds on cleaning up the old town for visitors and has done a surprisingly good job of it.

Near the center of town is the courtyard home of Ouyang Shengxian, a 70-year-old Bai man whose father and grandfather were some of the last of the muleteers.

Ouyang Shengxian
Ouyang Shengxian

We spoke with Ouyang on a recent sunny Shaxi morning in his 100-year-old home, where he recalled the days of visiting caravans for us. As he told us stories of the old days, with visitors from afar and banditry, we felt extremely fortunate to be able to sit down with a man who is a living link to a bygone era.

The history and people of Shaxi alone make a visit worthwhile, but there are also plenty of natural attractions.

The crystal-clear Heihui River (黑惠江) flows just outside the old town, with paths on both sides that are ideal for strolls in the sunshine. There are several photogenic bridges along the river and several small towns dotting the valley.

Up in the hills surrounding the valley, there are plentiful hiking options. If you have the time, we highly recommend any of the two- or three-day treks in the hills, which will take you through several Yi villages.

If you're shorter on time, Shibao Mountain (石宝山) is a great place to spend a morning or afternoon before hiking back downhill to Shaxi. The mountain is home to Buddhist grottoes that miraculously survived the destruction of the Cultural Revolution and are some of the most important artifacts connected to the spread of Buddhism into China from India via Tibet. These grottoes are highly treasured - visitors are not allowed to take any photos of them.

Interestingly, there is also a large indentation in the stone near the grottoes that locals say resembles a human vagina. It is a tradition for pregnant women from around the valley to pray to it with the hope that they have a smooth delivery.

After checking out the grottoes on Shibao Mountain, we hit one of the trails that leads back down to Shaxi and the surrounding valley. We scanned from one end of the valley to the other and were unable to see a crane or any other construction – this is nearly impossible in today's China.

Work is underway on a new highway that will make Shaxi more accessible to the outside world – all the reason to visit Shaxi sooner rather than later. The local government has declared its dedication to sustainable development and is working with international NGOs to that end. Hopefully they can manage to preserve Shaxi's pristine beauty for generations to come.

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Thank you for this lovely tip!

Id love to have these travel tips accompanied with a link to e.g. google earth.


the local hiking guide and guesthouse connected with www.teahorse.net is my suggestion for anyone planning a trip to shaxi. they have an amazing guesthouse with some of the best local food around. the 2 day hike to maping guan and on to misha is still one of my favorite hikes in yunnan. i've done it 4 times. that trail is just asking for mountain bikes.

I have spent five months in Shaxi and have loved every minute. And I'd say that Chris's review is pretty spot-on. Shaxi is still a quiet haven, where people are friendly and seem genuinely pleased to see you. There's some kind of local Bai festival almost every week, and the Friday market is not to be missed: the Yi women in their wonderful traditional clothes; the old Bai women selling a few seeds or herbs, or the younger ones selling their hair...

Hiking and biking around is fabulous, with almost endless opportunities - I did the hike to Maping just last week and the autumn colours were fabulous. There are no roads to this mountain village so everything is transported by horse or mule.

Shaxi's worth a visit at any time of year, although it obviously gets busier during the holiday season. But you're right in the countryside - and if you're not a city person, will find the rural activities endlessly fascinating.

There is a sustainability plan for the area. If you're interested in how the redevelopment project came about, check out: www.nsl.ethz.ch/irl/shaxi/frameset/frameOverview.htm It gives reasonably accurate information on getting to Shaxi, but the guest house information is not up-to-date. There are now about 25 guest houses in the 'new' and old town, and more will be opening up as its reputation grows.

I have been staying at Horse Pen 46 (www.horsepen46.com) which opened in February 2010, and it's been a great "home from home".

Shaxi is definately worth a visit! So quiet and peaceful compared to Lijiang or Dali.

There is a guest house on the main street of the "old town" which served me one of the best cups of coffee I've ever had, and not just in China. I don't recall the name of the place, but it is run by a nice, young taiwanese couple.


Any chance on adding a "how to get there" section? Looks like this is a trek from Kunming.

It took me forever to locate Shaxi on Google Earth. I've made a kmz file, but I cannot upload it on here. Any idea how to do it? Cheers


So typing "Shaxi, Yunnan" into the Google Earth search box took you forever?


Typing "Shaxi, Yunnan" in Google Maps yields no results. You'll have better luck if you add the county name: "Shaxi, Jianchuan, Yunnan". Or, better yet, search the Chinese name: 云南剑川县沙溪乡

I just got back from a bike ride to Shaxi. Biked 100 km from Dali, up the Erhai (洱海)plain, and over the Cangshan Mountains (苍山)from Niujie (牛街). Then rode 110 km down the Heihui River (黑惠江)Valley to Yangbi (漾濞)


check out teahorse.net to check out more on Shaxi

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