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On the Trail of the Tea Horse

Gateway to the ancient Tea Horse Trail, the town of Shaxi with its old town square and bustling markets is a charming stop away from Yunnan’s busier tourist attractions

By Yajing Zhang Updated Nov.1

An overview of Shaxi, an ancient town located in the southwest of Jianchuan County, Yunnan Province

The two-tier South Gate of the Shaxi town wall, and part of the ancient Tea Horse Trail used by traders

As once-sleepy Dali and Lijiang in Southwest China’s Yunnan Province have increasingly been swamped by megacity escapees in recent years, turning into yet another hub full of trendy cafes, restaurants and bars, some are already looking for the next sleepy getaway. Shaxi, an ancient Bai town only a few hours’ drive from Dali is quickly growing to be the next hotspot – head there now while its charm remains. 

Shaxi is located in the southwest of Jianchuan County. Once you step through the town gate, you’re greeted by peaceful, treelined cobble-stone streets of yellow mud bricks and Bai-style houses that have been turned into inns, shops and restaurants. The original lifestyle of the town – rise with the sun, rest after sunset – hasn’t been interrupted too much by the arrival of tourism. It is an ideal retreat for people who want to get away from hustle and bustle. 

The town emerged as an important trading hub about 1,200 years ago during the Tang Dynasty as part of the Yunnan-Tibet Tea Horse Road, which was a branch of the Silk Road. It is believed that Shaxi is the only surviving example of an ancient town on the Tea Horse Road. While tea has long been a staple of Tibetan cuisine, in part as it’s believed to offset the effects of meaty and oily cuisine, the harsh Tibet Plateau is far from an ideal tea-growing environment. Yunnan is one of the first tea-producing regions in the world. So, a trade was established, in which Tibetans traded their famous horses for tea, with the animals being used to wage war with the nomads who perennially troubled China’s northern borders. Shaxi emerged as one of the nexuses of this network, with locals also selling handicrafts and accommodation to the caravans.

Marks of History
The streets still bear the marks of this history, with deep ruts in some smooth stone slabs carved by centuries of horses passing through. The town is ringed by a defensive wall with two major gates. The two-tier South Gate in the pillbox has been well preserved, while the East Gate was rebuilt many times in the last 80 years because of being attacked and ruined by the bandits, who grew to be a particular problem during the chaos of the 19th century. 

Not far from the East Gate, the Heihui River runs by the east side of the town from north to south. Crossing the river is the crescent-shaped Yujin Bridge, built 400 years ago in the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). In the past, Yujin Bridge was the only way for townspeople to go to work in the fields. The stones are polished by years of heavy footfalls from people and horses. These days, you may well find an old shepherd with his herd of goats grazing at one end of the bridge. If the shepherd and the goats are in a good mood, he might teach you to milk the ruminants. With a little elbow grease and 10 yuan (US$1.5) you can earn yourself a bottle of fresh milk and a brush with nature. It is not surprising that a shepherd who grew up in a trading town can come up with canny business ideas. 

Shaxi centers on a plaza shaded by huge 200-year-old scholar trees. Edging the square, there are handicraft shops, temples, a caravansary, and an ancient theater stage topped by gorgeous cornices and 14 flyingeave corners. Vendors gather in the square, selling flower wine and handmade cakes, and people sit in front of shops drinking tea and watching children running around. You might also see a local Charlie Chaplin impersonator posing for photos, in one of the town’s more puzzling features. 

The most interesting temple here is not the glorious one that sits on the square, with its delicate paintings, but Benzhu Temple, or the “local god” temple near the East Gate. It’s not an impressive sight on first impression. There are cracks on many shrines and statues. The paint has faded and incense ash mixed with dust coats many surfaces. However, as the local village temple, it is managed by the villagers and used as a gathering place for elders, unlike the ticketed main temple run by the local government. It is like a shelter from the wind or heat in which people play mahjong and the erhu (two-stringed violin). There are a core group of elderly women who maintain the altars, and a designated “uncle” opens and closes the temple each day and lights incense. If there are not many visitors, the old uncle will show you around, unlocks every room and explains which god they will carry it onto the street at different festivals of the year for villagers to worship and celebrate. As the name indicates, this temple is closer to locals’ daily life. After the tour in which the uncle will explain what each vivid statue represents (my favorite is the bearded man, nearly naked apart from leaves, who represents crops), it is an unspoken rule to give him a small amount of “incense money,” which he may use for temple maintenance, or slip into his own pocket.

Stone Treasure
While in Shaxi Town it’s worth taking the chance to visit the nearby Shibao mountain, or “Stone Treasure” mountain, which lies about 10 kilometers north of Shaxi and takes only half an hour drive. It can offer an eyeopening religious experience. Shuttle buses take about 20 minutes to the main site from the mountain entrance, or you can hike up about three hours through forests where monkeys often drop from the trees and request snacks. 

The mountain contains 16 Buddhist grottoes, 140 carvings and temples over 1,300 years old, sitting in the red stone of the mountain. The grottoes and carvings have a very unique meaning and strong local features, and depict the representation of foreign emissaries from India and Persia who visited the Bai kingdoms which prospered in this region well over 1,000 years ago. The most special grotto is the Yoni Shrine, a meter black stone cleft into half that resembles female genitalia, surrounded by other Buddhist carvings. While scholars debate the reason for the shrine’s placement in a Buddhist grotto, it’s believed to be related to the Bai’s matriarchal and fertility cult tradition, and now people still come here to pray for fertility and smooth childbirth. Regardless of your need for smooth childbirth, it’s well worth the trek to see a Buddhist site unlike any other worldwide. 

Many visitors aim to be in Shaxi for the Friday market, which sprawls around the streets of the new town, with vendors pouring in from villages to sell their wares. This makes it a particularly good day to eat and drink in the town, as restaurants buy the freshest ingredients, including Yunnan mushrooms, ham and mountain herbs. Round out the day by grabbing a drink at one of the bars in the old town.