MAY 22, 2018 — Over Spring Break with my family to Yunnan (China), I experienced the yin and yang of travel when, in the space of a few days, we relaxed in the serenity of authentic Shaxi (pronounced Sha-shee) and then endured the jarring fakery of Old Dali. It was an ugly transition from chilling out in easygoing Shaxi, a village that doesn’t try hard to be what it is—an ancient and beautiful hamlet steeped in history—to the hectic, least common denominator tourist ethos of Old Dali, a place determined that you will take it seriously and by-God be impressed.
Here are my real-time notes, which chronicle the sheer delights of Shaxi and then the crushing bore that is Old Dali:
We are in old Shaxi, an long-time oasis on the Tea Horse Trail that for millennia saw caravans of tea from southern Yunnan being transported by yak, oxen, and horse to Tibet and India. I can’t imagine the drama and adventures Shaxi has seen. It’s thrilling to contemplate.
The Old Town here yet has but the slightest whiff of tourism; unlike Lijiang Old Town, Shaxi has more than a patina of authenticity about it. That’s due, no doubt, to the thousands of years of travelers who passed through on the old trade route, stopping here for rest, sustenance, and resupply. You can almost feel the ghosts of traders from the distant past.
Above pic is of our hostel, Horsepen46, which is itself old and converted from a livery. It sits immediately adjacent to the relatively new (a mere 600 years old) theater (below picture) and is utterly charming. The handsome dog is the resident Tibetan Mastiff, as lazy a mutt as I’ve ever seen. Can’t pronounce his Chinese name, so I just call him “Hey, dog!” He responds with a wagging tail every time, so I assume he’s learned some English.
And Horsepen46 is quiet, too. We slept soundly with no noise! The cool weather (45° F.) and heavy blankets helped.
Last night we enjoyed an all-veggie communal meal with the two Chinese women who run the place, plus a young Chinese couple from Xi’an and Hong Kong, and an American man teaching English near Chiang Mai, Thailand. All washed down with strong Shangri-La beer and Loation lager. We laughed until late (everybody spoke English).
Our room (above) sleeps 3 and has a private toilet, shower, and wash basin. Free use of the electric washing machine and ample room to air-dry clothes from the rafters. And did I mention, quiet? All for $20.50 per night. I could hang here for a week just relaxing, exploring, and sampling the wonderful cuisine.
Breakfast this morning on the street at another nondescript place was a huge bowl of steaming hot noodles with pork and all kinds of spices and vegetables. Every meal is a great treat, each unlike the last one, an adventure for the palate. Three big bowls of noodles cost $3. Hard to beat a buck for a hearty breakfast.
Above is the ancient bridge over which all those tea caravans once passed.
Below is of the Old Town main street leading to the old square where the theater and a much older Buddhist Temple are located.
Street life in China always fascinates me. In the next photo, note the men enjoying each other’s company over green tea and with their caged birds singing gloriously above them.
Appeals to me! Wish I could meet friends in such a morning setting instead of in Raleigh’s Cameron Village Shopping Center.
Above baby on the back is pure China.
And below, two Shaxi women enjoy breakfast together in the frosty morning air.
Water channels engineered eons ago through streets in many small Chinese towns still flow through Shaxi. The rushing water, diverted from streams and rivers, is a constant source for cleaning pots and pans, for washing clothes, and to boil for noodles and tea. Everyone has buckets and are constantly dipping water from the open channels.
There are endless opportunities for bikers and hikers around Shaxi in the countryside. Below pix is of rice fields being prepped for planting later in the season. Note the steep drop-off and lack of guardrails. Care is taken by all driving past.
Mustard grows in profusion in the Shaxi countryside.
The below picture demonstrates the growing affluence here (The Benz) juxtaposed with the elderly Chinese fellow walking by. That’s a school behind the wall where the M-B is parked. Perhaps the Mercedes belongs to the headmaster.
Bicycles rent for $3/day. All are sturdy 6-speed bikes which pedaled, shifted, and braked well, but featured truly murderous seats. Electric motorcycles were also for rent, but we didn’t check the price for those.
The below photo is another perspective of the old Tea Horse Trail bridge into Shaxi. Lucked out with the light for a postcard-worthy shot.
In the square opposite the old theater sits a centuries-old Buddhist temple with carvings of fierce Bai gods (the Bai are the predominant Jianshuan regional ethnic group; Yunnan has a myriad of ethnic groups, more than any other Chinese province). The temple and the 1415 theater both sit on the ancient square here in Shaxi. Horsepen46 hostel, our residence, is also directly on the square, its entrance just to the right of the theater.
We spotted a drone hovering directly over the square early this morning. Someone is always watching in China, I thought.
The old square’s careful restoration is detailed in this great New York Times piece from 2016 called “An Ancient Caravan Town in China Is Reborn.”
Today was gorgeous, with sun and temps in the mid-70s. Tonight it’s cooling off fast. Tomorrow we brave another bus ride, this one Shaxi to Old Dali, said to be another beautiful and very old Chinese town.
Here below is another look at the 600 year old theater in the Shaxi town square as lit at night. The New York Times article I referenced above mentions that this square is the most beautiful ancient town square in all China.
Also a nighttime shot of the Buddhist temple, highlighting the angry Bai gods guarding the entrance. The NYT article described the temple as an example of “esoteric Buddhism” worshipped by the Bai people.
Can’t go a day without bragging on the food! Below is of our scrumptious light meal tonight at the tiny Bai restaurant preferred by the staff of Horsepen46 hostel as most authentic Bai cuisine in Shaxi. The greens were reportedly peony stems stir-fried with mushrooms and possibly other ingredients. The flavors were unique and delicious.
The other dish above was described as “heart of potatoes.” Thin potato slices stir-fried in oil with spring onions and hot red peppers and salt. Spuds are almost always good, but these babies were outstanding. I’m going to try to replicate them at home.
Note the plates rest upon one of the distinctive Indigo batik tablecloths famously made in this region of Yunnan by the Bai people.
The red three-wheel motorcycle pictured beneath the wisteria is typical of the most utilitarian vehicle in China. They are common everywhere and take hundreds of adaptive forms, from garbage scow to taxi. They are the pickup trucks of China. So far we haven’t seen any electric versions.
ON THE ELECTRIC MINIBUS SHAXI TO OLD DALI
It was 38° F. on this, our last morning in Shaxi, but so dry that it didn’t feel cold. Before going to the bus, we sat outside like all good Chinese to have breakfast noodles. Each big bowl of noodles was one dollar. Not even McDonald’s can beat that price.
As we ate, a funeral procession filed past, with fireworks in the Chinese tradition. Many mourners wore white caps, as white represents death in China. They moved fast, too, unlike the slow funeral marches to a graveyard typical in America.
At the moment we are en route by all-electric minibus that carries 16 plus the driver. Increasingly, the Chinese are ahead of us in EVs. 99.99% of the motorbikes in China are now electric, so quiet that drivers have to beep at you to avoid pedestrian collisions.
This electric minibus is dead quiet except for wind noise. I could clearly overhear a young French traveler behind me on his phone trying to make a hotel or hostel reservation for tonight in Dali, where we are all headed. He was speaking in heavily-accented English, not his native language, and struggling to make himself understood to the Chinese person on the other end of the line, also not a native English speaker, of course.
The tortured conversation between two people speaking in a language not their own was comedic. The man repeated each letter of his name many times trying to make himself understood, and then had to say again and again that he needed a room. It sounded like a Bob Newhart telephone sketch. Finally he hung up, mumbling, “Merde, merde, merde!”
The mountains surrounding us in this northwest quadrant of Yunnan from Lijiang to Shaxi to Dali are Himalayan foothills. Many of the tall hills are dotted with electric windmills. We are told that China is moving fast to lessen its reliance on hydrocarbon energy.
Conversations in the quiet electric minibus are easily understood even from the back seat to the front. It’s a joy not to endure normal internal combustion engine noise.
PHONY OLD DALI
Earlier this trip I disparaged Old Town in Lijiang as Disney-fakery of the first order. Expertly antiquified, I grudgingly admitted, but inauthentic as hell. It gave me heartburn to learn that eight million tourists visit Lijiang Old Town annually, most of them the rising affluent Chinese middle class. How could the brilliant Chinese fall for something so obviously unreal? Surely, I thought, no place in China could be more a memorial to the genius of P. T. Barnum than Lijiang Old Town. I was disgusted by its obvious deceptions.
Today, however, in Dali Old Town I discovered a place in China more foul and disturbing in dissimulation and appealing to a lower order of humanity in the bargain. If Lijiang Old Town’s unabashedly manufactured charm calls to China’s ever-growing white collar middle class, then Dali Old Town’s target market must be the blue collar workers of China grasping for the bottom rung of the middle class ladder. This place is the Myrtle Beach of China, its redneck, state fair vibe so vile that I literally ran from it this afternoon.
I will give it this, though: Dali Old Town makes no pretenses that it’s all about kitsch and a lowbrow experience for the masses. Walking through its endless streets, all manner of junk is on offer to take home or to consume on the spot. McDonald’s is there, which should tell you everything you need to know, and every snake charmer, bottle throw hawker, and cotton candy purveyor you’ve ever seen at a carnival.
If you’re still not convinced, below is depicted an Old Dali food stand from among the hundreds of such vendors, this one proudly selling “Sizzling Duck Intestines.” Note the varieties of sizzling duck intestines on offer.
Hmmm, hmmm, decisions, decisions! Thinking back to Lijiang Old Town, I cannot recall an analog food seller quite as unappealing. Yet I saw a number of folks gobbling these morsels from a stick. Yum!
Accentuating the horror of Old Dali is its prime location sandwiched between the stunning and notable 50 km long Cangshan Mountain and the beautiful Erhai Lake, the seventh largest in China. Suckers flock to this place because they’ve heard of its extraordinary natural environmental wonders, and what they get is a jumble of very ugly buildings, congested streets, and fraud. Yet it is enough of a draw for millions in a land of billions, proving once again that Barnum was right.
It’s tough to stomach Old Dali’s cheap shills after experiencing modest and genuine Shaxi, where the annual per capita income is reportedly $120.
Despite my disgust, I did find in Old Dali a fine example of tasteless junk not available for sale in Shaxi: a solar-powered Tibetan prayer wheel designed to be dashboard-mounted. And then I shamelessly negotiated hard to buy three for twenty dollars.