Quaint old town a secret gem between Yunnan and Tibet

It is only accessible after an hour's drive up a tortuous mountain road, but is the best preserved market town along the Tea-Horse Road, which has connected Yunnan with the Tibet autonomous region since the late sixth century.

Everything turned into a blur in the dim yellow light from the thinly-scattered street lamps after night drew a veil over the Shaxi township.

I had to carry my suitcase all the way to the hotel to keep it from coming apart if I dragged it over the rough stone-paved lanes.

Shop-owners sat behind the counters of their small wooden stores with their backs practically touching the walls. The shelves held beverages, cigarettes and a few daily necessities.

Photo: China Daily

It was like walking into the 1980s or a period before that.

The township sits approximately 2.2 kilometers above sea level in Jianchuan county, in southwestern China's Yunnan province.

Currently, only accessible after an hour's drive spiraling up a tortuous mountain road that would test you physically, the township is allegedly the best preserved market town along the Tea-Horse Road, which has connected Yunnan with the Tibet autonomous region since the late sixth century.

It used to serve as a rest and supply point for those who trekked all the way from Yunnan to Tibet for trade, mostly from Pu'er, a major tea production area in the province.

Photo: China Daily

More than 90 per cent of the 22,000 local residents are ethnic Bai people.

Most of them still live off the land where agriculture remains a primary source of livelihood.

The local government is now hoping to use Shaxi's aboriginal environment and folk customs to develop tourism and help locals get out of poverty.

The township's Sideng Street has a lot of cultural heritage, including the Xingjiao Temple and an ancient stage.

The town reflects the role of Shaxi in ancient times when horse caravans carrying tea or other products would stop here on their way to Tibet. They would replenish their supplies by bartering their goods with the locals.

Then, visitors would pass their time by watching performances on the central stage or visit the temple to pray for a safe journey to Tibet, says Pu Ligui, executive deputy director of the Jianchuan tourism authority.

The Xingjiao Temple has stood for nearly six hundred years and has murals from the Ming Dynasty.

The temple's wood structure has withstood earthquakes and has been even copied by the Japanese, says Dong Zengxu, an expert in ethnic Bai culture.

The ancient stage in the centre of the township was built in the reign of Chinese emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and the Bai people would perform ethnic dances and sing there during major holidays, such as the Benzhu celebrations and the Spring Festival. Benzhu is a god worshipped by the Bai people.

In 2002, the World Monuments Heritage Foundation put Sideng Street at 101 on the world's endangered building list.

Photo: China Daily

Since then, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich has pitched in and worked on the restoration of ancient local buildings.

The efforts have paid off as the restoration now makes the township look like a living museum, reflecting life along the ancient Tea-Horse Road.

The structures featuring red wooden doors and walls and roofs paved with grey tiles from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) are spread in Shaxi.

"The restored buildings are all public property and for the benefit of the public who visit and savour their ancient characteristics," says Pu.

During my one-day stay at Shaxi, the only modern element I saw in the township were some neat-looking boutique hotels and bars with English-Chinese logos and menus, similar to those in Beijing's Nanluoguxiang area.

But unlike the Beijing spot, the inns are thin on the ground.

Pu says that people from across the country, mainly Shanghai, Beijing and Sichuan, have come to set up shop there, mainly small hotels and bars.

But they are mostly found in villages surrounding Shaxi, especially along Sideng Street, so local folk elements and culture are not interfered with, says Pu.

To date, there are roughly 200 such private inns.

Zhou Xiaofen from Taiwan was the first to open a small private inn - 58 Yard - in 2008. Her inn is one of the very few that sit on Sideng Street.

Zhou was drawn to Shaxi by the locals' unsophistication and friendliness.

"People in my hometown say hello as a matter of politeness, while villagers here say it and mean it," she says.

Photo: China Daily

She is very satisfied with her simple life. "I usually spend my day reading, writing, walking, doing yoga, and watching movies," says Zhou.

Zhou says she has seen a significant increase in the number of tourists over the past two years. "They spend up to a month here, drinking coffee, enjoying the sun and chatting," she says.

The involvement of international organisations in restoring local buildings, the ethnic Bai culture, the environment and historical significance of the township draws lots of tourists from home and abroad.

Nearly 950,000 tourists visited Shaxi last year, a 12 per cent jump over the previous year, according to the local tourism authority. Roughly 80,000 foreign tourists, mostly from the UK, Switzerland and Finland made trips, up 40 per cent on the previous year.

Photo: China Daily

"Most tourists are coming to savour the local peoples' life", says Pu, adding that they usually stay for slightly more than a week.

The numbers of tourists usually peaks between March and November, when the weather is the most pleasant.

Foreign students have also taken quite a shine to Shaxi. "They carry their drawing kits, sit in front of the Xingjiao Temple and draw it," says Pu.

Meanwhile, the local government sees the potential of the ancient township and is working hard to attract more visitors.

Infrastructure is expected to be improved in the near future to make it easier for visitors.

Photo: China Daily

A highway is expected to be built within three years to replace the tortuous mountain path leading up to Shaxi, shortening the dizzying trip from one hour to 20 minutes.

The trip to the ancient township from Dali airport will take just two hours then, says Pu.

The authorities have earmarked a total of 60 million yuan (S$12.9 million) over 2014-2016 to improve the township's sewerage and for building restoration.

Major folk celebrations by Bai people will also be promoted as tourist attractions.

Photo: Facebook

Photo: China Daily

Among the celebrations is the Prince Fair on the eighth day of the second month of the lunar calendar, which this year falls on March 16, when locals dress their children and follow the Prince's Parade featuring dragon or lion dancing troupes.

Another spectacular event is the annual singing fair from the 27th to the 29th days of the seventh month of the lunar calendar (Aug 29-31) at the Shibao Mountain nearby. Then, nearly 100,000 people, mostly from the Bai group, show off their vocal skills.

In ancient times, this event used to be a matchmaking event.

The mountain is also home to hundreds of monkeys and about a dozen ancient grottoes.

Currently, Lijiang with its natural landscape is the big tourist draw in Yunnan, but the township, which is just a 90-minute drive away offers a touch of ancient folk customs.

So, if you are looking for something different and want to sample a slice of ancient Chinese folk culture, try Shaxi.