Shaxi Friday Market in Jianchuan County, Dali

The tea horse road Yunnan ancient crossroads
In this age of long haul flights and high speed trains, it is hard to believe that a properly sealed road first linked the Shaxi Valley to the outside world as recently as 2009. The cobbles of the original thoroughfare are still clearly visible in many places, but the new road has taken a great deal of pressure away from the ancient Sideng Village. What remains is a fascinating window onto a China that has long disappeared in the rest of the country.

The Old Town is still criss-crossed with narrow alleys that once rang out to the clang of heavily shod pack horses, but now form a fascinating maze for intrepid, curious travelers. While the main square is the perfect antidote to the endless package groups of Lijiang, the very best time to view this sanctuary of calm is first thing in the morning or very late at night. This is the perfect spot for Tai Chi exercises in the early dawn light, or literary inspiration in the ebbing rays of late afternoon. Ornate compound gates and entrance passages lead to courtyard microcosms of Bai home-life that have sometimes barely changed in the last forty centuries. Many of what were once tack shops, blacksmiths and caravanserais have already been converted into guest houses and souvenir stores, while others maintain their original function as homes to people and animals alike. Rammed earth and gravity defying eaves guide visitors down narrow alleys, where prickly pear cacti are a natural precursor to tall barbed wire fences, and sinuous bougainvillea splash the earthen tones with explosions of purple blooms.

Shaxi Friday Market traditions
Market day is the highlight of the week in Shaxi valley, when everybody congregates in the old town to stock up on produce and exchange gossip. Rows of traditionally dressed Bai matriarchs squeeze together along the kerbside to offer a wide range of local fruit and vegetables, grown with their very own green thumbs. Yi womenfolk in bright scarlet and bold turquoise, trek for hours down from their mountain villages to trade with the lowlanders, making for one of the most colorful and photogenic market days in Yunnan. To the left of the main street is the meat market, where you can find freshly made goats cheese, cow bells and craftsman made horse tackle. In the wet market, on the right hand side, visitors can find a whole range of unusual local fruit and veg, from skirret and lotus bulbs, to quince and custard apples. Traveling vendors fill the main street, hawking everything from farm tools to fruit trees. Look out for wig makers that buy hair by the kilo (cut and weighed in situ), pavement dentists, and itinerant Han Chinese cheapjacks trying desperately to flog the latest in labor saving devices. Up beyond the minibuses, do not forget to check out the livestock market where piglets, nanny goats and even water buffalo are all available for inspection and purchase. Do not forget to stock up with apples and carrots, as this will ensure that you will quickly be able to make fast friends with any goats, donkeys and ponies that you encounter while out hiking.

At one time the small square was home to a bustling market nearly every day of the week, but this has now been relocated to the new part of town, and the ancient flag stones that surround the central pagoda tree are encouraging a new community of hikers, history buffs and eco-tourists. In the last century, Shaxi’s Sideng market went from thriving economic center to a remote and inaccessible ghost town, but this national landmark is now undergoing a twenty-first century renaissance, and promises to become one of the most impressive attractions in all of Yunnan.

Out beyond the East Gate is the ancient Yujin Bridge, a long time favorite of visiting artists and a vital crossing point in this complex network of ancient trade routes. Its classic humpback construction makes it an ever popular photo opportunity with visitors.

For more information, contact Sam at Old Theatre Inn.

Insiders Experience tours of Shaxi Friday Market
For those coming from Baisha, Lijiang or Shuhe, we recommend Insiders Experience to bring you down to Shaxi by vintage vehicle and see the area in a totally unique way. From Insider’s website:

Your Insider will meet you at your hotel before you hop into one of our vintage jeeps and start cruising local roads crossing the outskirts of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Pause for panoramic views of the Yangtze River and the surrounding mountain ranges from the Temple of the Clouds. Further down the road to Shaxi traffic has come to a standstill near Jiuhe village as locals have set up a roadside market providing great photo opportunities (weekends only).

Nowadays it remains rather peaceful on the cobbled streets of Shaxi but during the heydays of the Old Tea Horse Road the place was teeming with life. If today coincides with a Friday, you are in for a treat. On this day the town awakes from hibernation as neighboring Yi and Bai minorities come to sell and buy their produce: women still dress in their colorful traditional outfits and men will often lead pack mules carrying supplies back to their villages in the mountains, just as in the heydays of the old tea horse road. Visit Shibaoshan with its multi- religious shrines prior to taking the newly built highway back to Baisha; your Insider will drop you off at your hotel in Baisha, Shuhe or Lijiang after.

For more information on Insiders tours of Shaxi Friday Market, please contact them directly here.