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Getting Away: A return to Shaxi

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A trip to the Yunnan countryside is often seen by tourists as a chance to see China as it once was. But rural villages attempting to bill themselves as rustic travel destinations often run up against a common problem: how can a place preserve its cultural roots and often fragile ancient architecture while at the same time accommodating an influx of camera-toting visitors?

One place where this question is playing itself out is the town of Shaxi in Jianchuan County. The village is cultivating a still-growing reputation as a bastion of well-preserved Bai minority culture situated in a picturesque valley. Shaxi's allure derives from its proximity to some of Yunnan's more stunning historical relics and also from its well-preserved old town.

The old town is bordered by a rapidly expanding cluster of under construction guesthouses and shops as locals frantically attempt to cash in on the town's swelling tourist economy. Despite all of the building, inside the old town, locally referred to as Sideng (寺登), history is still a palpable entity.

Facing each other across the village square are Shaxi's iconic Sideng Xitai (寺登戏台) theater and the 600-year old Xingjiao Temple (兴教寺). The square was lovingly restored with grant money provided by the governments of Jianchuan and Switzerland, a project that began in 2001. The two old buildings bordering the plaza, along with a nearby bridge over the Heihui River (黑惠江), are a common gathering point for photographers hoping to capture a perfect snapshot of Shaxi.

The town is much more than these three sights, however. The mud brick walls of the homes, guesthouses and cafes in Shaxi attest to a vibrant past when it was a thriving and important outpost on the Tea Horse Road (茶马古道). Although we have visited the town a few times before and spoken in depth with a man who once guided caravans on the Tea Horse Road, this time we decided to delve a bit more into the local history of this bucolic hamlet.

We found that in its heyday, Shaxi grew relatively wealthy from all of the trade and commerce passing through the valley. Once modest families rose to prominence and constructed stately homes, the arts flourished and centuries-old traditions were kept alive and expanded.

The Ouyang House

Shaxi is a warren of small cobblestone lanes, many of which lead to the main square. Old walls throw shadows over the alleyways and many are topped by eaves overgrown with vines and grasses. Down one of these walkways, and seemingly at a dead end, stands the Ouyang House (欧阳大院), home for the past one hundred years to muleteers who became the town's leading innkeepers at the turn of the twentieth century.

In the 1880s, the Ouyangs lived off an alley referred to as sanfang jie (三家巷), meaning they shared the lane with two other households. In the early 1900s, they opened their house to passing caravans, offering food, lodging and entertainment. The business became so popular and profitable the family was able to renovate and enlarge their house.

A wing was added adjacent to the house's main courtyard specifically to accommodate traveling traders as well as their pack animals. The Ouyangs also closed off the old alleyway and built a separate entrance to their home in order not to inconvenience neighbors. They named lane remains unnamed even today.

The house still stands today, its main gate to the left as one walks away from the larger road. A second door, marking the end of the alley, is the entrance to the family stables, where passing traders once housed their mules and ponies. Above the stable entrance is a faded painting of the Monkey King, who in Chinese lore was charged with guarding the horses of the Jade Emperor (玉皇大帝).

Through the main gate of the house is a large courtyard surrounded on three sides by connected buildings. It is a traditional Bai-style sanfang yizhaobi (三房一照壁) home, many of which still stand in Shaxi and nearby Jianchuan. Each of the three, two-story wings have three rooms on each floor, making for an auspicious total of nine. Common sitting rooms are generally flanked by bedrooms on the first floor while the upper story is used for storage with a special room set aside for an ancestral shrine.

The Ouyang house is meticulously kept. Potted plants add color to the main courtyard, corn and spicy peppers hang drying from the rafters and birds occasionally squawk from their perches inside bamboo cages. People visiting the house are charged a modest five yuan fee and are allowed to take photos of most of the common areas. When we visited, the family matriarch, who prefers to go by the sobriquet 'Auntie', showed us around.

Just off the main entrance to the house is a door leading to the guest quarters. This was once where weary Tea Horse Road traders could stop and rest in comfort. Rooms are arranged around a small garden and have largely fallen into disuse. Here the building shows its age. Moss covers many of the flagstones and intricately carved wooden doors are worn smooth by time and the touch of countless travelers.

We had heard a rumor that the dormitories and stables were connected by a small spy hole that enabled traders to monitor their livestock and keep an eye out for thieves in the night. But when we asked Auntie about it she burst into laughter and shook her hands dismissively in front of her face.

Next came a tour of the kitchen, where the walls are black from decades of use. Barley visible on a large wall above a well the family motto is painted. It reads 'liyue chuanjia (礼乐传家), meaning 'good manners and music are the family heritage'. A steep set of wooden stairs leads up out of the kitchen and into dim and largely empty room.

Against the back wall, hidden in shadow, is the family shrine. At the time it was installed in the Ouyang home the memorial was said to be the most splendid in Shaxi. It's fame was owed to the intricate woodworking detail and also to glass paned doors, which were extremely rare and expensive in Yunnan at the time.

In much if not all of the Ouyang House the painstaking care with which everything was originally built is obvious. Wooden window shutters still open and close smoothly despite a century of use. Carving details throughout the residence remain intact and lovely despite their sometimes faded lacquer. It is a testament to a time when Shaxi attained notable stature among the far-flung stops on the ancient trade route.

Friday Market

The day after our tour of the Ouyang House we visited Shaxi's thriving outdoor bazaar. The market, said to have been held on Fridays since 1415, has grown into a massive affair flowing up and down almost every street in town. Originally the market was a modest one held in the square outside of Xingjiao Temple. Locals gathered to peddle homemade items to passing merchants who in turn traded goods from distant cities along the Tea Horse Road.

The market also became a place for those living outside the city to catch up on news and hear the latest gossip. It is much the same today, except it has swelled to monstrous proportions and now attracts flocks of tourists. It seems there is nothing that isn't for sale on Fridays in Shaxi.

The local government built a marketplace away from the city in 1989 to lessen foot traffic in the old town. It didn't work, and today that area is only large enough for the food vendors. Stalls selling every manner of meat line one end as dogs alertly patrol this section for fallen scraps. The meat market bleeds into a conglomeration of cages, baskets and containers full of live rabbits, songbirds, puppies, kittens and even a hawk. Livestock is also for sale.

Further on, vegetable and fruit sellers congregate, offering a selection rivaling any wet market in Kunming. Vendors are friendly and generous in offering free samples of whatever they are selling. In less than ten minutes of wading through the crowd, our pockets had grown fat with tiny oranges and fat walnuts handed out by different hawkers.

For those making their first trip to Shaxi, the winding streets and alleyways can be a bit confusing. Getting lost or walking in a circle is almost mandatory during market day because of all the vendors and shoppers. Stores lining the streets in Shaxi are open on market day but many are difficult to reach because touts selling all manner of merchandise have set out their wares on the ground outside.

It isn't terribly difficult to find odd sights interspersed among the mountains of used clothing and ancient looking electronics. Wigmakers buy hair by the kilogram, strange mushrooms, fungus and lichen abound and intimidating men in pressed white coats offer dental work by displaying flat-nosed pliers.

The market is a dizzying experience not meant for the claustrophobic. Crowds surge from 10am until 5pm when vendors break up their stalls and head to dinner. While other, larger cities in Yunnan have similar markets, Shaxi's Friday version is perhaps one of the more colorful, expansive and animated to be found anywhere in the province.

Kui Xing Pavilion

West of Shaxi Old Town is Changle Village (长乐村) and a curious building that towers above the whitewashed concrete houses surrounding it. The wooden structure is stained a dark brown and topped with majestically sweeping eaves. Built in 1880, the pavilion is a shrine to the Daoist deity Kui Xing (魁星).

A legend has grown up around the building, one centered around the imperial examination system. It is said in Shaxi and elsewhere in the valley that only families with sons who passed the examinations were allowed to build pavilions dedicated to Kui Xing. They were a symbol of success, stature and ultimately of guanxi with the imperial court in far away Beijing.

But the actual history of the pavilion in Changle Village is much more prosaic than this story suggests. In fact, the edifice was constructed using money donated by local townspeople. Instead of being a celebration of someone from the village achieving scholarly success, the Kui Xing Pavilion was built in hopes it would encourage young men growing up in Shaxi to aspire to that status.

There are several myths associated with Kui Xing, but all of them agree he was a particularly ugly child who grew into an equally unattractive man. Despite his appearance, Kui Xing would eventually ascend to the Daoist pantheon and become venerated as a patron saint of the arts.

Kui Xing is often portrayed as a precocious youth with a pockmarked face, tusk-like teeth, a pronounced limp and red hair. Because of his incredible intelligence and creativity, he was encouraged to take the imperial examinations. Ultimately, his dreams were dashed when the exam proctor capriciously rejected Kui Xing's work only on the basis of his appearance.

Devastated and despondent, the young scholar threw himself into a river in an attempt to commit suicide. He was rescued by a giant dragon fish dispatched by the Jade Emperor, who recognized Kui Xing's enormous talents. Following an audience with his rescuer, Kui Xing was elevated to a position in heaven where he oversaw painting, calligraphy, poetry and other creative arts.

His story has become a standard parable in Chinese culture, one that aspiring artists and scholars can look to when searching for inspiration in the face of long odds. It was in this spirit that the people of Changle Village commissioned their own Kui Xing Pavilion more than a century ago.

The building is little used today and its statue of a pig-like Kui Xing sits largely unvisited on the third floor. The pavilion is however attached to a local elementary school. Students use the first floor stage to put on plays during the school year. Hopefully, they can take inspiration for their performances from the history all around them. If not, they can always head upstairs for a moment with the master.

Getting there

There are direct buses from Kunming to Jianchuan and tickets range between 130 and 157 yuan. Buses leave from the West Bus Station and the trip should take no longer than ten hours. Alternately you can first travel to Xiaguan (下关) by bus, car, plane or train.

From Xiaguan, tickets to Jianchuan are 35 yuan and buses depart every 15 minutes between 6:30am and 6pm. Curiously, return travel along these same lines is significantly cheaper. From Jianchuan, the 45-minute minibus ride to Shaxi should cost ten yuan per person.

Images: Yereth Jansen

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On its way to becoming overly touristified, like many other places that have already gone too far in that direction - but still very much a great place. Thing is, the town of Sideng is only one point in the Shaxi Valley, & with a bicycle you can ride up & down the valley for a very long way.
The Shaxi Cultural Center & Guest House in Sideng is a very nice place to stay in an old courtyard house - very comfortable & friendly but not over commercialized.

I'm looking forward to having a look here in the summer. Anyone know of any minority (or less visited) villages worth a visit on a day trip?

... I mean, using Shaxi as a base...

Most of the villages in the valley are Bai, an official minority. There are also supposedly Lisu in the hills to the east - I haven't gone up there, but they shouldn't be more than a few hours' hike at most.

Thanks alien (...and I haven't said that since I was abducted).

thanks for the update! beautifully illustrated as always... I follow every account of Shaxi, Jianchuan and the rest of Yunnan with great interest as I did my field work in Shaxi 2 years ago and love to hear about and am very interested in the changes. I believe the changes are happening so fast there, there was a whole lot of building going on at the time, all new guest houses, cafes etc. please keep it going, great work! great reading! I wish I had known about GoKunming before I went on field work! it's my fave site to keep in contact with what's happening in Yunnan, which I miss very much...

The highway is finished now, so from Dali to Jianchuan it only takes 1.5 hrs instead of the 3.5-hr ride through the local road. Jianchuan to Lijiang is only 40 minutes by highway, instead of 2.5 hours.
So, Kunming to Jianchuan should only take about 6 hours now, if the bus driver is willing to stay on the highway. Last I checked (Jan 25), there was no new bus ticket price for the highway, so the bus drivers wanted to take the local road through Dali—Jianchuan in order to pick up more passengers along the way to make money. If you wanted to take the highway, everyone on the bus had to agree to pay more money (like Y5-10 more per person), direct to the bus driver. But it is believed that once a 'gao kuai' ticket price is set, you can get on a bus that will definitely take the highway all the way from Jianchuan to Kunming or Jianchuan to Dali. Happy travels!!

Was there last week. Nice place, though 24 hours is enough to see the main sights. I recommend the "Shaxi Hotel" - traditional house with well-kept rooms. Has wifi.120RMB a double. Very smiley owner, though with no English. On the high street, just as it makes a bend.

Is the Shaxi Hotel owned by Shaxi people? My impression is that most of the places to stay there are run & owned by out-of-towners.

Couldn't say for sure but he seemed local to me from his features, lack of any English in the hotel and the fact that his family lived in the same house.

Actually there are a few local owners of guesthouses.

Ouyang family is for example the first local guesthouse born in Shaxi, they are very very friendly.
Choice of a nice accommodation in Shaxi is not a problem.
Ehi, did you miss Hungry Buddha?

In Shaxi Friday Market now you can find meat dog. The seller is the "pig man", a quite crazy man, paid by local officers, to beat and kill local dogs (to keep the place safe), and selling their meat then. Before was used going around the Old Town with his big pork, selling the dead dogs in Jianchuan, now has arrived in Shaxi, too.
Be careful when you come to Shaxi and eat local food!! My suggestion for local food in Shaxi is to go to Xilu's place.

Not sure what you men by 'local food', please explain.

I mean local chinese food. She (Xilu, the chef) doesn't use any dog; plus not oily cuisine and she's considered the best local chef in Shaxi.

Do you mean Shaxi-area Yunnan Chinese food, perhaps Bai food? Last time I was there was 2&1/2 years ago, and except for 'Alan's' pizzas at his bar on the square, all restaurants were, unsurprisingly, Chinese, though several places were run by people from outside of Yunnan. Is Xilu Bai?
I don't understand why this guy was beating dogs, or how that might keep the place safe, but I guess he is nuts, huh?

I understand that the place has become more touristified in the last 2&1/2 years - an American student-semester-abroad program has moved out of Xideng for that reason.

Sorry: Sideng. In a sense the tourism started with the Swiss project, but they did a really good job at preservation of buildings etc., and from the photos Sideng still is beautiful.

Yep, Xilu is Bai. Her most popular dish is the sweet sour cabbage. She also cooks many different kind of local seasonal flowers.
"pig man"..well behind him there are the officials, id' prefer to don't go deeper on good/bad sides of Shaxi and what is going on..
mine was just an input ;)
But of course the care about preserving the authentic architecture is a good point to be mentioned.

Pinyin is wrong, "sanfang yijiaobi" (三房一照壁) should be "sanfang yizhaobi". Also, "Dai-style" should be "Bai-style".

@walter, both mistakes fixed. Thanks for the heads up.

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