Final Exam: Yunnan, Part 6: A Step Back in Time – Shaxi

This is part 6 of a 7 part series on our recent travels in the Yunnan province of China:

  1. Introduction
  2. Good Night, Vietnam – Hanoi to Nanning to Lijiang
  3. Biking Around Lijiang
  4. Tiger Leaping Gorge
  5. Relaxing in Dali
  6. A Step Back in Time – Shaxi
  7. Seven Legs of Transit – Lijiang to Shenzhen to Hong Kong
Shaxi market square

Shaxi market square

We last left off at a bus station in Dali. Dali was a big city compared to our next destination, Shaxi, a small town even by Chinese standards. To get there, we first had to take a bus to Jinshuan, and then at the bus station, ask around for a small mini-bus to Shaxi, which goes once it fills up. We asked our hostel to write down the names of all of these places and luckily were able to get both buses quickly. We knew we were really stepping off the beaten path when we heard a box rustling in the back of the van to Shaxi, and when we looked inside there was a live chicken!

Shaxi is a historic market town on the Tea Horse Caravan Trail (think Marco Polo strolling through and trading for tea), and was listed as one of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in 2001 as the Chinese government sought to build a new city there. Luckily UNESCO stepped in and has been meticulously restoring everything. It really feels like a step back in time going there – there are no modern buildings, no gaudy tourists shops – you really could be on a movie set.We stayed at a great hostel that was built out of a horse stable, but was pretty nice – automatic locks, 24/7 hot water, wifi – except for the toilet that was directly across from the bed. Being such a small town, they don’t see a lot of tourists, so the employees were super nice and helpful. They also had a massive Tibetan Mountain Dog and a St. Bernard that were fun to pet and play with.

Beautiful surroundings of Shaxi

Beautiful surroundings of Shaxi

What was there to actually do in Shaxi? In the town, not much. You could walk around to a few shops and restaurants, but the highlights are the hiking around the town, and the weekly market. We loved the laid-back atmosphere in Shaxi so much we stayed another day so we could experience it just a while longer. The first day we rented bikes from the hostel and set out to visit a small lake that would take us through several rural, minority villages. It was very clear that tourists (even Chinese tourists) were a rarity in this part of China as we got plenty of odd looks. We rode up and down mountains and, after getting lost a few times (nothing here was on Google Maps), we had a nice picnic lunch around the lake.

Sara's bike locked up TIGHT

Sara’s bike locked up TIGHT

We walked back down from the lake to the farmer’s yard where our bikes were locked to some trees. Kyle unlocked his, but Sara’s lock would not open. After trying it for a while, we broke out Google Translate on our phone and approached the farmer for help. He tried some oil, but it was clear the lock was not going to open no matter how hard we tried. This was quickly shaping up to be one of our most challenging experiences yet!

No money on our phone, and way too far away to ride back into the town for help, we walked down to a local store and “asked” to use their phone, again using Google Translate. They gave us funny looks, but fortunately we met a Chinese army officer that graciously let us use his phone. We called our hostel, explained the situation, and they told us to break the lock. We passed the phone to our army officer friend, the hostel explained the situation to him, and the three of us walked over to the bikes. The army officer spoke with the farmer, who then came down with an assortment of tools. They proceeded to try to saw, cut, and hack the lock before finally taking a sledge hammer to it, finally freeing our bike. We tried to offer money, food, beer, etc. for their time but they just shook their heads and went back to their work. It was really a great exchange, and I’m sure something both of us will talk about for a long time. We are both still very thankful for their generosity in helping two lost Americans they could not understand.

Delicious noodle extras

Delicious noodle extras

A bit exhausted after nearly being stranded in a rural village, we biked back into town and stopped at a local noodle restaurant recommended by our hostel. Although they spoke no English, and had no menu, we figured out how to order and ended up with some delicious noodles where you could add a variety of spices and herbs to your broth. We had a great time trying all of the different items and trying to identify everything with the language barrier.

We rode around town to get some food and money for our travels to Hong Kong the following day, but were disappointed when the only ATM in town, and, presumably, for hundreds of miles, did not take Visa ATM cards (unfortunately we were not members of the Yunnan Rural Credit Union). Our hostel was nice enough to change USD for us, but for future travelers, make sure to bring plenty of RMB with you!

Hauling chickens home from the market

Hauling chickens home from the market

The next day was Friday, which is market day for Shaxi. During the week, the main street is largely quiet, but on Friday, the town hosts the regional market, which was amazing. People from all the neighboring villages come in and set up stands with the wares. There is the usual cheap clothing, pile of tools, vegetables, etc, but also some unique items such as clumps of hair and a live chicken market! It was cool – people would show up with a basket, pick out a few chickens, and throw them in the basket and head back to their village. There were no tourists (except us) and it was a really fantastic experience.

We would absolutely recommend visiting Shaxi if you want to get a feel for rural China and escape the throngs of tourists that are now ubiquitous with most every Chinese city. It is definitely off the path and was a great place to have our final exam. There was little English, few maps, and no one directing you to the right bus. We felt really accomplished when we left and finally felt like “true” travelers. It was a great end to our time in China, and a fantastic conclusion to our time in Asia.

A few more pictures:

This entry was posted in China. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Final Exam: Yunnan, Part 6: A Step Back in Time – Shaxi

  1. Pingback: Final Exam: Yunnan, Part 1: Introduction | Short and Tall Tales

  2. Pingback: Top 5 Places We Visited in Asia | Short and Tall Tales