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Finding a hidden valley in northern Yunnan

Snowflakes swirl above the Bai minority village of Ma Ping Guan in northern Yunnan Province, carried by fickle mountain winds and deposited lightly into the open alcove of chief Ren Da’s kitchen. His wife steams breakfast buns for us, cleaning and re-cleaning her giant wok. The phone rings, Beethoven’s Fur Elise drifting in from the guest rooms, and the chief runs in to field another call, this one from the government officials down in Shaxi Valley, a five hour hike away.

They want a status report on the snow. Will the villagers send horses to pick them up? How long will the snowfall last? The chief asks them to wait a couple hours. He returns to the fire, a look of consternation on his face. Our guide Wu Yun Xin explains the gravity of the situation to us:

“It is very unlucky if the officials do not come to bless the bridge,” he said. “The villagers believe people could start getting sick and crops might fail.”

Today is a very important day for the village. They have completed the renovation of their 1000 year-old bridge that linked the salt wells of Misha and the markets of Shaxi Valley, back when this part of the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture was a bustling hub on the Horse and Tea Trade route. Ma Ping Guan, literally “Horse Pasture Pass” collected taxes from the salt traders that crossed their bridge for hundreds of years before modern times and modern salt wells made the Misha trade route obsolete. The bridge is still a vital link, but now caravans of backpackers from Kunming, Dali and Jianchuan make the trek to Misha’s wells and hot springs instead of salt-laden donkeys.

Ma Ping Guan is a very traditional village. They still maintain their ancestral temple, a devout mixture of Guanyin the provider of sons and Confucius the guardian of filial piety and social order. The village also boasts a temple to the God of Culture and Learning and a splendid theater. In ancient times, almost every village in China had one or all of these important social buildings, but today only very few have survived and fewer still are venerated as they are in Ma Ping Guan.

There is a tense atmosphere in chief Ren Da’s house as they discuss the cosmic implications of no government representation at today’s festival. They murmur in low tones until Fur Elise drifts into the kitchen again. After a few minutes the chief returns: the officials are coming; the party is on. His wife begins chattering and his sons jump and run down the path to the bridge. The chief smiles and hands out cigarettes.

A few hours later, the officials joined us as the village’s women chanted in the temple, letting off firecrackers and lighting incense to ward off ghosts. Two young men carried smoking cedar boughs across the bridge three times as the eldest member of the village shouted out blessings, flanked by two minders and followed by a raucous band. As the procession passed each gate, two guardians dressed in costumes kept in the theater for special occasions portrayed the old tax collectors of yore. Each villager pressed some change into the tax collectors pouch.

The toll-collecting days may be over, but Ren Da and his village hope their dogged adherence to tradition may pay off as more and more tourists look for something more authentic than the commercialized lanes of Dali and Lijiang.

Caravans heading north from the tea plantations of Jinhong and Pu’er or south from the highlands western Sichuan found themselves entering the Shaxi Valley just before dark. The outpost that emerged at the crossroads was a vital link and a welcome resting spot for traders of all sorts of goods. Salt and silver were produced locally – in Misha and nearby He Qing—while tea and horses came from abroad. The local villagers made a healthy living renting rooms and selling supplies to the caravans and the government got fat taxing all.

The Sideng Market became famous in the valleys and mountains of southwestern China as traders from a dazzling array of cultures gathered here and chased wealth. Naxi from Lijiang brought timber, Muslim Hui and Tibetans brought furs and horses, the local Bai made salt and silver, Han brought jade, tea and silk, Hanni from southern Yunnan brought tea and cloth. It was a beautiful situation and it lasted for centuries, from the late Tang Dynasty to the very end of the Qing Dynasty.

Like all such good things, they must someday end. For most of the 20th century, Shaxi and its markets were forgotten and merchant families looked to turnips and potatoes to make a living. Theater troupes that once entertained guests from far and wide packed away their costumes and moved to larger towns looking for gainful employment. The younger generation left for Kunming, Chengdu and as far away as Shenzhen.

Shaxi has yet to gather the tourist crowds that have inundated its neighbors to the north and south — the cloying hawkers and peddlers and the cookie-cutter shops selling mass produced junk are nowhere to be seen. For now, the old salt route from Shaxi to Misha is plied by foreigners, locals heading to and from the market and a small number of Chinese trekkers. Whereas Dali and Lijiang see from 3 – 4 million visitors each year, Shaxi has hovered around just 10,000 visitors for the past three years.

Wu Yin Xin, an ethnic Bai from Jianchuan, is hoping these numbers will grow enough to keep his small guesthouse and trekking business running. When he graduated from Teacher’s College out side of Dali, he came to Shaxi Valley to teach English and Chinese to the local children. Many of Ma Ping Guan’s young people, now 18 – 20, remember “Wu Laoshi” with a special fondness.

“He was very kind and encouraged us to be proud of our heritage,” said Duan Yun, a Ma Ping Guan native back from Shenzhen for the Spring Festival. “I learned a lot from him and he gave me confidence to travel around China.”

Mr. Wu married a local Shaxi girl and opened his small guesthouse in Duan Jia Deng village about 3km away from the Sideng Market, the guesthouse is centered on a recently renovated 200-year-old theater and pagoda. Most of his guests are long-time China expats interested in trekking and history or novelists looking for a quiet place to get away. Slowly, travelers turned-off by the hustle and bustle of Lijiang and Dali are coming to visit and word is spreading along the ancient Horse and Tea Trade route that Shaxi is alive again.

Very few old towns in China are as lovingly maintained and as meticulously restored as Shaxi Old Town and Sideng Market. After the World Monument Fund placed the market on their list of 101 Most Endangered Sites, a team of researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the local Jianchuan County Government launched a USD1.3 million Shaxi Valley Rehabilitation Project. The project consisted of five part, marketplace restoration, village preservation, sustainable valley development, ecological sanitation and poverty alleviation. Their work ended in December 2006 and the town looks as it may have during the heyday of the Horse and Tea Trade Route.

The wealth of past generations is clearly evident in the solid, elegant dwellings with their ornate wooden gates and spacious courtyards. There are few if any run-down shacks in the old town and the Qing Dynasty Theatre in the middle of the market plaza stands stately and proud across from the restored Flourishing Schools Temple – a 400-year old temple dedicated, as merchants would have it, to all of the important faiths: Confucianism, Taoism and Confucianism. The temple grounds are empty, clean and peaceful with the buildings retaining much of the original woodwork.
We met one of these trekkers while returning from the ceremony commemorating the completion of the new bridge. Xiao Jie, from Jianchuan, was leading a small tour group from Kunming up the old path to through Ma Ping Guan to Misha – parts of it still paved in ancient stones – with a shotgun slung across his back: a gift for Chief Ren Da.

“I love this place,” he said. “I am stopping to drop the gun off, then I am headed to the wells and the hot springs … you should come with us.”

When we returned to Shaxi, we followed the Hei Hui River from Mr. Wu’s guesthouse in Duan Jia Deng village and came into Shaxi Town through the East Gate, crossing the 400-year old bridge that linked the town with the villages higher on the slopes. The path from the gate to the Sideng Market was tastefully laid in stone, houses on either side were built of solid bricks or earth and clay pots held demure fichus plants.

It seemed a perfect entrance for a well-to-do merchant resting his horses and visiting old clients, or for a discerning traveler seeking respite from the beaten path.

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