Falling in Love with Shaxi

A hunter’s home, I’ve known it since Mali, can be a sign of good luck.

When we roll into Shaxi valley I realise that I was right. This is the China of my childhood imagination, even though according to most guidebooks and to the 134-word stub from Wikipedia, this pace is not even sure to exist.
We stop for a minute in the central market of Sideng, the main village. The magic of the place is tangible. Swiftly swept off our feet, we immediately decide that we’re going to stay in the region for a couple of days.

Shaxi is the only surviving station along the old Tea and Horse caravan trail which used to link Southern China through the Himalayas to Nepal and India. At the time of our visit it is very difficult to get to without your own vehicle. There is no rail line or highway to connect it to Da Li or another major city (I hear that the situation has recently changed). The most certain information about the public buses that could eventually pass though Shaxi is that they break down regularly and that you can carry on board anything from chickens in cardboard boxes to your grandpa’s fridge. A difficult access means less tourists and more time for the local culture to adapt itself to whatever is happening to the outside world. For now, most of Shaxi is holding on to its heritage. The core of the area consists of a handful of small villages fringed by rice paddies. The fields have already turned from green to gold and everyone is out to harvest. The Bai are the largest and most prosperous minority group in China. It’s believed that they have cultivated this fertile area since the Neolithic Era, hence their unique forms of architecture, art, and handicrafts.

The Bai people turn even the most mundane task into a thing of beauty: the drying tobacco or the strings of chilies hung outside windows, the stacks of firewood that take up much of the courtyards, and the golden corn arranged on porches to dry.

As days pass, leaving Shaxi becomes increasingly difficult. We’ve grown extremely fond of the calm resilience of the peasants and of the unique beauty that stems from everywhere. The houses have gray tiled roofs gently curved towards the sky and outer walls are often beautifully decorated with blue. We enjoy passing from village to village, to discover more intricate details and to try to imagine what a mural may say about the history of a family, or what some bit of calligraphy could mean.

Even political propaganda can be charming.

The cobbled alleys, the shaded porches, the gushing streams with symbolic bridges curved over – these are just some of the things that make Shaxi so sensual and mysterious.

Shaxi, the place where time stood still. Though Bai communities across the region have access to all modern conveniences, residents of Shaxi prefer to go about their daily business on foot or by bicycle. Produce is mostly transported on donkeys and women shlep everything, from freshly harvested corn to boxes of groceries, in traditional rattan baskets that hang on their backs, with the load supported by a strap stretched over their foreheads.

Our favourite place to linger is downtown Sideng, where the old theatre sits opposite the quiet temple. The Buddhist practice of the Bai people is rich with a pantheon of deities and legends. Inside, an exhibition titled ‘The Shaxi Rehabilitation Project’ explains how this little area of Yunnan has managed to develop without losing its cultural identity, unlike places like Lijiang.

Many of the beautifully preserved Bai farmhouses have been transformed into restaurants or hostels. In traditional fashion, our guesthouse has rooms on four sides surrounding a courtyard. The main living quarters occupy two stories of the sturdiest section of the house and on the ground floor there’s a big kitchen opening into the garden.

For food, we admit to becoming addicted to a small eatery serving vegetarian dishes based on noodles and soup.

A girl shows us how to go hunting for temples and hermit caves built into the mountains just above the Shaxi valley.

The 9th Century Buddhist temples scattered across the top of Shibao Mountain are some of the oldest authentic temples in China.

They have been equally overlooked during the destruction of the Cultural Revolution and more recently by the countrywide restoration in the spirit of mass tourism, so we better see them while we can. The official entrance to the complex is a 15 minute drive from Sideng, but as we are crazy and eager to explore the mountains, the decision is made to attempt cycling up from the valley. We are rewarded with wild vistas and critters. We also discover that it’s impossible to cycle. These trails are barely good for goats.

Jon’s stubbornness and my resilience withstanding, we resort to carrying our bikes under the blistering sun. We eventually arrive at the rockier upper section and decide that we deserve to splurge on an amazing lunch.

For the next few days we keep wandering the valley, meandering down one tiny village after the next. We watch the rice ripen and be harvested. We climb at the head of Diantou Village to the Pear Orchard temple (at the time in a very poor state of repair) to enjoy the company of the two old guards. Unable to remember the last time we’ve felt so relaxed, we simply stay with them in the shade of the enormous broadleafs, sip tea and listen to their chatters, that we understand none of.

By the time we realise there’s still a seizable chunk of China to travel through before this visa expires, there’s really not much to Shaxi than we haven’t already seen. And that suits us perfectly fine. We’ve found our corner of China to yearn after. We’ve fallen in love.