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Shaxi Ancient Town

Shaxi—an old Horse and Tea Trade Route outpost that was more or less unknown to tourists years before backpackers fleeing the tourist boomtowns of Dali and Lijiang stumbled across it—is now the beneficiary of big-time development funds and the attentions of a Swiss-led team of historical restoration specialists. The result: Shaxi is gaining in popularity, but the hordes that flock to Dali and Lijiang have yet to descend—no doubt in large measure because of the lack of five-star resorts and all of the trappings of a destination ready to accommodate busloads of tourists looking for tidily packaged "authentic" experiences of local ethnic minority culture. Instead, a handful of lovingly restored old structures house small-scale guesthouses—the most intriguing being the old town opera house, complete with courtyard stage.
Shaxi is, then, emblematic of the conundrum at the heart of tourism: It's the place we feel bad about writing about because it's on the verge of widespread discovery, but it's our job to write about it, and, well, we feel obliged to say that you should go sooner than later in order to experience it at its best... before the roads are improved, the resorts are built, and the tourist buses start dumping their payloads.
The town sits at the end of a wide, beautiful valley lined with Bai minority homes and tiny tucked-away villages. The heart of the town is a beautiful marketplace, Sideng Market, which features an authentic classic Chinese theater and one of the most peaceful temples in the region, Xingjiao Temple. Officially Buddhist, Xinjiao Temple is actually more syncretic, incorporating icons and symbols representing all major Asian faiths. This is a phenomenon that is very special to this part of Yunnan, where many different traders and travelers have passed over the centuries, bringing their beliefs with them and fostering a deep tolerance for difference among the local residents.
You can see this philosophy on grand display at the nearby Shi Bao Shan temple complex. Set in a rolling valley at the far end of Shaxi, Shi Bao Shan is a scattering of spiritual sites, shrines and temples that has served as a place of worship and spirited, spiritual discussion for centuries. The buildings are in good shape and the complex is large enough to easily take up an entire day. Notable sites include statues of Indian sages along the climb up to the temple complex and a Yoni Shrine, a cleft in the cliffside that bears a striking resemblence to the holiest of holies and enjoys a constant flow of cool mountain water.
Also back in the hills is the village of Maping Guan (Mǎpíng Guān, 马坪关), an extraordinary holdover from the old Horse and Trade period. This staunchly Bai village boasts a Confucian Temple, a shrine to the Guanyin Buddha as well as a traditional theater. This cultural trifecta used to be a standard requirement for any self-respecting Chinese village, but now places that hold on the old ways like Maping Guan are rare indeed.
Horse and Tea Trade Route caravans heading north from the tea plantations of Jinghong and Pu'er (Pǔ'ěr Shì, 普洱市 ) or south from the highlands western Sichuan found themselves entering the Shaxi Valley just before dark. The outpost that emerged at the crossroads was a vital link and a welcome resting spot for traders of all sorts of goods. Salt and silver were produced locally—in Misha and nearby He Qing—while tea and horses came from abroad.
Sideng Market in the center of Shaxi Town became famous throughout the valleys and mountains of southwestern China as traders from a dazzling array of cultures gathered there, chasing wealth. Naxi from Lijiang brought timber, Muslim Hui and Tibetans brought furs and horses, the local Bai made salt and dealt in silver, Han brought jade, tea and silk, Hani from southern Yunnan brought tea and cloth.
There were Burmese traders and Indian monks. It was a beautiful situation, and it lasted for centuries, from the late Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) to the very end of the Qing Dynasty (1614-1911). (Check our tidy summary of China's dynasties for the historical framework.)
Today, the market features a fully restored theater stage in the old traditional style that stands opposite a very unique temple that combines cultural elements from throughout China, Tibet, India and Southeast Asia, reflecting Shaxi's fascinating past as a trade crossroads.
After the heyday of the Horse and Tea Trade Route, stagnation hit the once-flourishing town, stagnation that was only relieved by the oncoming People's Liberation Army, which was more interested in destroying anti-Revolutionary elements then reviving an old trading town.
Over the first 50 years of the PRC's existence, Shaxi descended into backwardness, obscurity and poverty, while much of the local population left for work in the bigger cities. This trend was reversed in 2001 when the World Monument Fund listed Shaxi, Sideng Market and many of the old wooden temples, theaters and homes of the region as "endangered."
Soon after a 1.3 million U.S. dollar project was launched in collaboration between the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich (ETH) and the People's Government of Jianchuan County, part of which went into developing Shaxi.
Now the valley and the town rely almost solely on tourism for income, and, so far, it has proven a success: much of the area's old heritage is still alive in some form or another, and the tourists keep pouring in.
Shaxi is at a high elevation and is set in a forested valley near Dali in central Yunnan. The summers are sunny with a bit of rain, autumn is divine, winter is cold and crisp but not uncomfotably so and spring is wet and very, very green. There really is no bad time to go to Shaxi.