About 45 minutes down the road southwest from Jianchuan, along the busy Lijiang-Dali road is a town where most travelers fail to stop. No one pays too much attention to Shaxi these days. Its heyday is long gone.
Once it stood on the busy Tea Horse Road—a less famous trading route than the Silk Road, it still played an essential role sharing not only goods, but philosophies and ideas between Tibet and Yunnan Province. The Tibetans sent their strong horses down into China, and China sent bricks of Pu ‘er tea up into the high elevations of the Tibetan Plateau. There, the Tibetans enjoyed the black tea through the long, cold winters and the Chinese, in the lowlands, put the much needed horses to use.
Today all is quiet on Shaxi’s main square, or cobbled Sifang. A few infrequently visited cafés line the fringes. Guesthouses are tucked away into historic homes, featuring beautiful courtyards. The tourists and travelers are noticeable, but few and far between. The historic center, filled with mud-brick houses and cobbled lanes, seems like a ghost town.
It’s best to visit on a Friday, when seemingly the entire surrounding village population is in Shaxi buying and selling goods and produce. You’ll see Yi and Bai people in traditional dress, live animals for sale, and may even catch a brief glace at some sidewalk dentistry.
As far as sights, you’ll want to check out the Xingjiao Temple, founded in 1415, located in the main square. From there, you’ll see the theater located directly across the square. Down on the east side of town, an old stone bridge arches gracefully over the river and farms stretch to the mountains. It’s a quiet town, save for Fridays, and a walk through the centuries old streets will give you the essence of Shaxi.
There is plenty of accommodation in the old town, but I stayed at Horse Pen 46, which is a hostel affiliated with Hostelling International, and located right on the main square. Like many of the other accommodation options, Horse Pen 46 is located inside an authentic Bai minority courtyard. The hostel has maintained the traditional look and feel of the local architecture and it’s a great experience staying there.
Stephen Bugno spent three months traveling through China in 2012. He edits the GoMad Nomad Travel Mag and blogs at BohemianTraveler.com