Traveling in China can be challenging, and not just because of the language. With the domestic travel market growing, visiting a popular destination such as Lijiang's Dayan Old Town (丽江大研古镇) can be quite an overwhelming experience: crowded roads, shops selling the same, cheap souvenirs, and tourists rushing around from one picture spot to the other.
However, the town's fascinating scenery of wooden buildings, canals and narrow cobblestone lanes — which garnered Lijiang UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1997 — is still worth a visit. To avoid the crowds, on our last trip we decided to get up early and wander around while everybody else was still asleep. At dawn, the only other people we met were a few Naxi minority grandmas heading to the local market. We followed them, and grabbed a tasty baba (粑粑) — a type of fried or steamed flatbread served with sugar or a spicy dip — for breakfast.
A couple of hours later, as the old town was getting busy, we felt it was time to explore the surrounding countryside. We rented bicycles and headed north towards Baisha (白沙古镇) and Yufeng Temple (玉峰寺), enjoying stunning views of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (玉龙雪山) along the way.
After twenty minutes of biking the city disappeared, giving way to green fields and small, quiet hamlets. Farmers were feeding their animals, chopping wood and carrying baskets full of groceries to nearby local markets. Red chillies and yellow corncobs hung outside many houses to dry in the sun. Many locals were also involved in construction work, and we couldn't help but notice how Lijiang's tourist boom is slowly impacting the surrounding countryside too. We felt happy to have the chance to explore the area, probably just in time.
Baisha and the Naxi Kingdom
Baisha literally means 'white sands'. The town was the first settlement of the Naxi people (纳西族) after they migrated south from the Tibetan plateau. It was once the political, commercial and cultural center of the the powerful, yet mysterious, Naxi Kingdom (纳西古王国). The region became part of the Yuan Empire in late thirteenth century. The Mu family (木氏家族), which administrated Lijiang from the late fourteenth to the early eighteenth century, had its birthplace in Baisha. The area also played a large part in the strategic commercial network known as the Tea Horse Road (茶马古道).
The Naxi created a unique handwriting system based on pictograms, which survive until today. These hieroglyphics are often referred to as 'Dongba' (东巴), a term which actually more broadly includes the traditional culture, religion and scripts of the Naxi, all of which are heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhism.
Baisha is composed of many smaller towns. The main one, where the market square is situated, is called Sanyuan Vilage (三元村), but is nowadays more often referred to simply as Baisha Old Town (白沙古镇). It remained mostly unchanged for many centuries until about a decade ago, when tourists started visiting as a day-trip from Lijiang. Cafés and guesthouses now line the main road and old buildings have been renovated. Luckily, original features such as brick and wooden walls, tile roofs and small irrigation canals have in many cases been preserved. The place still has a quiet and relaxed atmosphere, as well as remarkable views of nearby mountain peaks. Starting from the main market square, it can be easily explored on foot.
For those visiting, a first stop could be Dabaoji Palace (大宝积宫) and its impressive collection of large mural paintings (白沙壁画), some of which date back to the Ming dynasty. The frescos display a large variety of human and divine figures in different styles and patterns, and combine elements borrowed from Tibetan, Bai, Naxi and Han artistic traditions. Most scenes refer to religious tales and practices from both Taoism and Tibetan Buddhism.
An adjacent courtyard hosts various objects, artifacts and pictures, which illustrate the history of the area through the nineteenth century. One section is dedicated to Joseph Rock, an Austro-American explorer and botanist who spent several years in Yunnan and was based in the village of Yuhu (玉湖村), about ten kilometers north of Baisha.
Another interesting stop on our bike ride was the Naxi Embroidery Institute (白沙纳西传统手工刺绣院), situated only a few steps north of the main market square. The institute was established to preserve local embroidery traditions, but is also an attempt to provide employment opportunities for young people. Ancient pieces of hand-made clothes adorned with jewels — long ago imported from Tibet and other nearby regions — are displayed in the exhibition. Most pieces were donated to the institute in recent years, after former owners had been hiding them for decades to save them from the political turmoil of the past century. More recent artwork, made by the institute's current employees, are also on display, and visitors can observe women practicing embroidery and teaching it to younger employees. Entrance is free and the staff speak English.
Not far from the market square is the clinic of a local celebrity, He Shixiu (和士秀) also known as Dr He. The owner is a 90-something-year old expert in Chinese medicine, whose extensive knowledge of mountain herbs and roots has made him famous, and not just in China. The doctor speaks English, and has been featured in the international press multiple times after Bruce Chatwin first wrote about him after a 1985 trip to Yunnan. At the time of our visit, Dr He was busy treating patients in his clinic, and a few customers were waiting in line outside his shop.
We decided to stop for a break at the nearby Shali Bar (沙蠡吧), run by a friendly Naxi man, Mr He (何先生), who told us about his family history. He — who is not related to Dr He — named the café after his older brother, a writer who went under the pen name 'Shali' (沙蠡). "He was the second most famous person from Baisha, after Dr He," he explained. Mr He served us a glass of homemade crabapple juice (海棠果汁), and a tasty lunch of stir-fried vegetables, pork and more baba bread.
"A few years ago, there used to be more foreigners coming to Baisha, but now they prefer to go to even quieter spots, such as Yuhu," Mr He told us, referring to Yuhu Village. We asked him about the other destinations that were on our list for the day. "I remember Fuguo Temple [福国寺] well", he said. "I used to go up there a lot when I was young. Beautiful celebrations were held there, and the whole village would gather together. But it was badly damaged during the Cultural Revolution, and now I don't go there anymore," he added. Following his advice, we decided to check out Yufeng Temple (玉峰寺) instead.
Biking further north
Back on our bikes, we headed north, and reached the village of Xiao Yulong (小玉龙). While we were taking a few pictures, an old woman approached us speaking her local dialect. We couldn't work much of it out, apart from the fact that she belonged to the Naxi minority and couldn't speak much Mandarin. After a little while, she started gesturing as if she wanted us to follow her, pointing at a courtyard house on the other side of the road and repeating, "Hua, hua".
We walked with her into a nice courtyard, wondering if we were about to discover some hidden secrets. After a while, we finally figured out she simply wanted to show us her garden. She proudly sat next to two cactus plants, which had recently blossomed. We sat down with her for a while, sipping tea and trying to talk to her more, without unfortunately making much sense.
After that pleasant encounter, we rode past the Dongba Kingdom (东巴王国), a museum dedicated to Naxi traditional culture. Despite its historical purpose, the site appeared to be a rather new construction, and we quickly moved on as soon as we saw a couple of tourist buses approaching the parking lot.
More and more people are indeed visiting this area, but, as it is often the case in China, they usually hop on and off from one scenic spot to the other on bus tours, without exploring the surroundings at all. This leaves self-organized travelers plenty of opportunities to find beautiful, unspoiled places and to interact – or at least try! — with friendly locals.
Soon after that, the road started to get steep, and the mountain peaks felt closer and closer. After a few bends, we were greeted by a group of four young boys sitting by the roadside. We happily realized we had reached the entrance to the temple. We parked our bikes and followed them up the steep stairs leading to the lamasery. They could speak a little English, and told us they were all 12 years-old. We realized they were actually novice monks living in the temple, enjoying an afternoon break from school. A few other younger boys were running around the courtyards.
It was about time for our four young friends to start studying again, and we watched full of curiosity as they entered the classroom. Unfortunately, after realizing that the students were more interested in the three foreigners sitting outside than in the Tibetan verses on the blackboard, the teacher greeted us with a big smile and quickly shut the door.
We then moved on to visit the northwestern part of the temple and its beautiful 'ten thousand camellia blossoms' (万朵山茶). The tree is believed to be more than 500 years old and miraculously survived the Cultural Revolution. A monk was sitting next to it, and pictures of him and the camellia lined up along the walls. There was at least one picture for every year of the monk initially standing, and later sitting, next to the camellia tree for the past three decades.
It was about time for us to head back. We followed more or less the same road in reverse, arriving back in Lijiang before sunset, happy to have discovered more authentic places and looking forward to future explorations in the surrounding valleys.
City bus number six passes through Baisha and runs every half an hour from Lijiang Old Town. The journey takes around 20 minutes and costs two yuan. To visit the frescoes, get off at the stop next to Baisha's main government building (白沙乡人民政府站). The admission fee to Dabaoji Palace is 30 yuan, or half price for students. After visiting the frescos, it is an easy walk west to Baisha's market square and other main sites. From the square, walk north to find Dr He's clinic and the embroidery institute.
From Lijiang's city center, it is an easy 12-kilometers bike ride to Baisha. Mountain bikes can be rented in guesthouses, at hotels or from local shops for 20-40 yuan per day. More experienced cyclists could continue along the road to Yufeng Temple — roughly five kilometers further up north — or even to Yuhu Village further up the road. Yufeng Temple has a 15 yuan entrance fee. A visit to Shuhe Old Town can be included in the trip with a short detour on the road between Baisha and Lijiang.
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