Shaking Off The Beaten Track in Shaxi (by Nathan)
The idea of finding a place that is beautiful, historic and free of crowds in China sounds like a myth. Few places have been untouched by tourism in China. If a town has the slightest bit of charm then the Chinese have already torn down most of it and added a few hundred shops with an entrance ticket to visit the town. I am afraid that my writing this post may influence and change a truly wonderful town forever. A special thanks to our friends Adam and Yun for recommending this place. We loved the tiny town of Shaxi; there was charm, and a rustic simplicity to it that made it easy to explore, relax and enjoy being in China.
The town originated from one of the original tea and horse caravan villages of two thousand years ago. Horses were constantly being traded from Tibet to Southeast Asia for tea and the subtle valley surrounding Shaxi was the ideal place for a stopover. Fortunately it takes a little hoop jumping to get to Shaxi. We rode a regional bus to Jianchuan from Dali, then a tiny minivan to Shaxi, this two-step process is usually enough to shed off ninety-nine percent of the tourists. A highway is planned for completion near the town in the next year, so I imagine this little village in the Himilayan foothills will soon be changed and made into another Chinese shopping mall.
There is just one paved road with a handful of tiny restaurants, shops and craftspeople. A historic cobble-stoned path, Sideng Road, leads down to the historic center with an original theater from the Qing dynasty four hundred years ago. It is easy and fun to get lost in the winding rock pathways. The rustic wood-framed buildings with tile roofs appear unchanged for thousands of years.
Carmen and I immediately set out to exploring the town. It did not take long, because soon we had passed by everything there was to see a couple times. Down in the valley the Heihui River cuts through the terrain. There is a traditional Chinese bridge near the town and supposedly an even older one downstream connecting another village. We did not get that far as our bigger exploration of the area was spent hiking into the mountains.
We grabbed a hearty breakfast of beef noodles, we glanced at crude map and we set out to wonder through the mountains and villages of Shaxi. Our original destination was the “White Dragon Pool,” but after hiking for six hours on trails that we thought was the correct one I can say that we did not find the pool. We did find stunning views, several rock carvings and tombstones tucked into the mountainside.
We passed through delicately terraced farmland green with sprouting vegetables, corn, rice and even a few cherry trees with blossoms already encouraging spring. Our path varied from a groomed dirt road, to a passable foot trail to bush whacking up a few creeks. The temperatures were brisk, but warm and enjoyable for a winter day.
On our return hike we found a family of donkeys traversing the path in the opposite direction. We approached a little wearily being careful to see how they’d react to us. Then the foal stepped towards us and affectionately nudged its head against our outstretched hands. The adults did the same, leaning their bodies towards us, eager as dogs for a little petting. We said our goodbyes and continued down the mountainside. The farm huts and terraces enhanced the landscape all around us.
Our stop in Shaxi was peaceful; China without the negative aspects of Chinese tourism. The town and surrounds are very timeless. The old and beautiful type of place travelers dream of. I am excited that we had the opportunity to explore and enjoy it while it still exists.