This is the first of several entries about one of the most interesting off-the-beaten path places I visited in China – the old Tea and Horse Caravan Trail town of Shaxi.
Everyone knows about the old Silk Road(s) which passed between China and (eventually) Rome and the markets of Europe. This was the Silk Road of camel caravans, Arab and Persian middlemen and Marco Polo (maybe). But while the Silk Road from Xi’an through Samarkind and Istanbul gets all the attention, another Silk Road, this one transporting tea and horses for sale in China, Burma, Tibet, and India operated all the way down to the 20th century.
Western Yunnan province has long been a wild country, sandwiched as it is between China proper, the Tibetan Plateau, Burma and India. Powerful breakaway kingdoms including Dali and Nanzhao ruled the region and even portions of neighboring provinces like Guizhou at various times in history. Today, evidence of the once mighty kingdoms – and their trade route which enriched them – can still be seem, seemingly untouched by modernity in a quiet valley about halfway between Lijiang and Dali.
It is interesting that both Lijiang and Dali are major tourist destinations yet Shaxi and its historic valley receive few visitors. During my stay I saw no other foreigners and only a handful of Chinese tourists. The area has since become somewhat better known as a result of major restoration and preservation efforts. Nonetheless it still clearly qualifies as “off the beaten path.”
To reach Shaxi in 2005 required a bit of an adventurous spirit. One would board the bus from Xiaguan (new Dali City) bound for Jianchuan. Before reaching Jianchuan, at a fork in the road in a hamlet called Diannan, one would get off the bus and negotiate a ride into Shaxi (about 25-30 minutes) with one of the drivers there.
Today one can easily catch a mini-bus from Jianchuan’s bus stateion to Shaxi although it is still possible to get off at Diannan and try to negotiate or hitch a ride.
When I visited, Shaxi had two guest houses. Today it has (according to Wikipedia) 10, many in beautiful restored courtyard homes. There is even a foreigner-run cafe (Allen’s Cafe) for getting some insights into the area. I remember my night in Shaxi as being extremely dark. I did not have a flashlight and could not find my lighter – not a good situation when you are trying to find your way to the outhouse. I stayed with a family in their home/guesthouse. We shared dinner together and relaxed before calling it an early evening. In the countryside, things get quiet early.
If you make it to Shaxi, get up early and walk down to the river to get views of the valley and town as the sun rises. It is worth it – just be sure your camera has enough batteries.