Shaxi is an ancient town of the old Tea Horse Road, a collection of old houses and cobblestone streets. Shaxi has retained much of its historic charm and character compared to Yunnan’s other ancient towns. The Tea Horse Road refers to an ancient network of paths connecting Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet to South Asia. It was an important trading route for tea, and for the spread of Buddhism across the region. It is sometimes referred to as the Southern Silk Road.
Many young Chinese people have moved to Shaxi to start coffee shops and boutique stores selling handmade tie-dye cloth and handicrafts. The old town is centered around an old town square with many cafes and restaurants facing toward the square. I sat for hours on a public bench sketching a row of shops and watching the world go by. Small streets extend from the square, with many restaurants, cafes, bars and stores to discover. We would highly recommend visiting Shaxi, it was one of the highlights of our time in China so far.
Hiking the Shibaoshan temples
We spent a full day hiking between the temples in the mountains near Shaxi. Our hostel, Horse Pen 46, provided us with information about this, and suggested that we do the route backwards to avoid paying an entry fee (we ended up paying the fee anyway as we wanted to see the ancient grottoes, which required a ticket).
This involved us walking out to and through a nearby village, until you find a cobblestone path that leads towards the mountains. In the distance, you will see a red temple built into the side of one of the mountains – walk towards this.
At the start of the path you will find a booth, where you are required to register with your details but not pay a fee. The ascent to the red temple is short and steep. From the temple you get a nice view of Shaxi and the surrounding villages and farms.
From here, you continue along the path through pine forests and over the mountain until you reach a large temple complex, Shizhong Temple, which takes about an hour.
You can enter the temple for free, but to see the ancient statues in the grottoes in the upper part of the temple, you are required to purchase a ticket for 45 yuan. This was worth it for us, as we were able to see carvings from about the year 800 from the Nanzhao Kingdom, showing much about the history and culture of that time.
Notable is the Yoni Shrine, which is a carving of the female genitalia. Scholars suggest this may be related to Bai matriarchal traditions.
At the top of the mountain past Shizhong Temple, we wanted to take the bus back to Shaxi. This ended up being more expensive than we expected, but allowed us to hop on and off buses at different temples.
We attempted to walk up the hill to Monkey Temple, but we were blocked by a very aggressive Macaque monkey who threatened to scratch us. Rather than challenge the alpha male, we turned around and took the next shuttle bus to the lesser visited Haiyun Temple.
The temple is comprised of many buildings, rooms and shrines. In the back building we stumbled across Hai Yun Ju nunnery and garden. This Chan Buddhist temple complex dates to the 17th century, and is important for the local Bai minority.
In the nunnery, an old Buddhist nun approached us, and gestured for us to sit at the table. We obliged, and soon after she brought us out a tea set and hot water. Other nuns emerged, grinning at us. One walked past with a large pot of what looked like white rice, and asked if we would like to “chi fan” (eat). We replied that we would eat a little, and soon we were served small bowls of rice in liquid. With one taste, we realised this was heavily fermented rice in alcohol – not the most pleasant tasting meal for unaccustomed taste buds. We swallowed as much as we could to be polite.
One of the nuns then showed us around their beautiful garden and the orchards out the back. During our time at the nunnery we saw no other tourists or visitors, a nice break from the popularity of Shizhong Temple and Monkey Temple.
From the entrance to Shibaoshan (which was the exit for us), we walked 2km downhill to the main road. We waited for a public bus heading to Shaxi, which never came. By this point it was almost dinner time, so we decided to hitch hike. We were picked up within 10 minutes by a friendly woman from Chongqing on vacation with her parents. With a mix of broken English and Chinese, we were able to exchange basic information and have a few laughs. They dropped us off near Shaxi old town.
Bouldering near Shaxi
We heard that there was sport climbing and bouldering near Shaxi. We went to Corvus Corax Cafe to speak to the local climbing guide, Zhe, who offered to take us bouldering with him in two days time. We rented bikes this time and headed out along the same path as the hike, towards the first temple on the hill. We spotted Zhe and two others beside a boulder under a bridge. After a few months off climbing we were a bit out of practice, and managed to finish the traversing boulder problems and one slightly overhung problem.
We then moved to another boulder on the hill that is famously shaped like a cob of corn. This one was quite overhung, and we managed to do half of a few routes. If you’re interested in climbing, we suggest dropping by Corvus Corax Cafe for a very good coffee, and to chat to Zhe.
Where to stay and eat
Horse Pen 46 Guesthouse
We stayed at Horse Pen 46 Guesthouse, a cosy home away from home run by a few young, friendly Chinese people. It is an old wooden house set around a Bai courtyard. We highly recommend staying here, and having the “family dinner” with the staff, which is about 27 yuan. They made several vegetable and a few meat dishes, which we shared in the communal area. If you’re hanging about in the afternoon, they’re likely to make you a few types of Chinese tea to try, including the famous Pu’er tea.
Longfeng Muslim Restaurant
This restaurant is mentioned in Lonely Planet and is well known locally, and lives up to the hype. We usually try and eat vegetarian, however if you want to try Chinese Muslim food, almost all dishes are centered around beef. We were hesitating what to order as the entire menu is in Chinese, and pointed to a few vegetables in the fridge. The friendly woman who runs the restaurant took charge, and pulled us into the kitchen, pointing to a huge simmering pot of beef. We nodded meekly and sat down outside to avoid the numerous chain-smokers inside the restaurant. We were rewarded with an amazing beef stew, and asked for stir fried mixed vegetables.
There are many street stalls selling cheap, tasty food. Our favourite were the buckwheat pancakes for 3 yuan, which are made fresh in the mornings. You can also buy fresh, deep-fried bread from the same stalls. We also like the cold noodles, which are served with chilli oil, shallots and sometimes bits of beef, a local specialty.
We took a private car directly from Dali to Shaxi through Landscape Hotel, which is in Dali Old Town. This cost us 65 yuan per person and took about 3 hours. It was cheaper to organise this directly at the Landscape Hotel than our hostel in Lijiang, who were asking for 80 yuan for the same journey. They dropped us at the Landscape Hotel in Shaxi, and from there it was only a few minutes walk to the main square in Shaxi and our hostel, Horse Pen 46.
The other option is taking the public bus from Dali to Jianchuan. You can either catch this from New Dali or flag it down on the highway as it goes past. From Jianchuan, you can take a minibus to Shaxi. More information is provided here.