Yunnan has been on pretty much every China traveler’s bucket list for decades, and with very good reason. Epic mountain scenery, engrossing local culture and fabulous food – it really does have a bit of everything.
And, as successful as the province has been at attracting visitors from across the world, it is also home to some quieter corners that make perfect getaways for those with a sense of adventure.
Take the tiny town of Shaxi, for example. Tucked in between the tourist powerhouses of Lijiang and Dali, it remains just far enough off the main highway to ensure that it sees few of the tour groups that flock to those hotspots.
Surrounded by green mountains and often overlooked by sunny blue skies, the Shaxi valley floor is peppered with small farms and villages; the kind of bucolic scenery that those of us more familiar with eastern China’s megacities can only dream of.
As remote as the area may feel, there is some real history to get to grips with here. This was a crucial stop on the Tea Horse Road, a historic network of trading routes along which Yunnan’s famed Pu’er tea was transported toward Tibet, and on to Myanmar and India.
Other important commodities also gained value including salt, with which Shaxi became closely associated, thanks to nearby mines.
It’s easy to spend a few days relaxing and exploring here. The heart of old Shaxi is known as Sideng, and much of its architectural heritage remains wonderfully intact, largely thanks to a series of impressive preservation and restoration projects over the last couple of decades.
In the town center lies the picturesque public square, framing ancient scholar trees and a Qing-era theater stage, once used for traditional local opera.
Even if you’re not lucky enough to catch one of the occasional performances, it makes for a handsome backdrop to an evening meal or drink in one of the al fresco eateries or bars that surround it.
Set aside at least a few hours to walk the vehicle-free cobbled streets that twist around the area; they’re packed with local life, as well as a mix of small businesses that highlight some of the town’s craftspeople: blacksmiths, cobblers, ceramicists and more.
With a good number of boutique inns, many in renovated historic buildings, this is also the best part of town in which to stay. Sunyata Hotel is a great option, with a spacious lounge to hang out in and an old-courtyard-meets-contemporary-chic vibe.
When it comes to eating and drinking, Shaxi punches well above its weight, with plenty of hidden gems half-hidden in old alleyways that foodies will enjoy seeking out.
For a proper introduction to local flavors, start your culinary journey at Chujian Shaxi (初见沙溪私房菜), just around the corner from the square. This family-run eatery serves delicious tasting platters of locally cured ham and perfectly spiced home-cooked dishes, making it a popular spot with visitors and locals alike. Book ahead or face a lengthy wait.
This is also the perfect place to get up close and personal with Yunnan’s famed fungi, and the mushrooms from this area are prized all around China, especially the delicate songrong, better known by their Japanese name matsutake.
Coming into season in the late summer, they’re often thinly sliced and served raw, then dipped in wasabi-spiked soy sauce. A myriad of other tasty mushroom species are offered, often in bubbling hotpots, but some rarer varietals can come with hefty price tags, so check before you order.
And whilst Shaxi generally excels in old-world vibes, its laid-back lifestyle has enticed plenty of young creative folk from the across the country and beyond, who bring a certain cosmopolitan air to the town.
Strolling the backstreets, you might encounter a hip burger restaurant that takes just a handful of orders each day (芗12西餐厅), enjoy a top-notch espresso at a coffee roastery (渡鸦咖啡烘焙) or even indulge in a vegan Italian meal (Happy Buddha).
To learn a bit about what make this place such a foodie haven, head to Peter’s Kitchen, a cozy courtyard restaurant named after the Canadian chef that founded it. He has been cooking in China for more than seven years.
A real champion of fresh, seasonal produce, you’ll find an ever-changing menu there that might include, for example, just-picked morel mushrooms in spring, or deserts made with fresh berries and local honey in summer.
Peter is always onsite and happy to talk about the suppliers he works with, such as farmers in the valley who provide top cuts of beef for burgers and steaks, and even some who make various types of cheese.
Once you’ve had your fill in the Old Town, consider a day trip to nearby Shibaoshan, which lies just 10 kilometers away – just about hikeable for those that enjoy a good country walk (others might prefer to save their energy for the mountain itself and hop into a local taxi for a short drive).
This scenic area is home to excellent walking trails, charming temples and even roaming wild monkeys. But the highlight is perhaps the numerous Buddhist grottoes found here, some of which are well over a thousand years old and show influences from India and Tibet, a reminder of northern Yunnan’s connection to those regions through the Tea Horse Road.
If you prefer exploring on wheels rather than on foot, biking through the valley is also a great way to spend a day. Set out in pretty much any direction and you’ll be zipping past fields of quinoa and dodging herds of goats before you know it.
The valley boasts a few hidden gems too, like the Librarie Avant-Garde (先锋书店) bookstore, part of a China-wide chain that is known for its unique use of heritage buildings, mostly set in rural locations.
And for a perfect final afternoon, bike a bit further along the valley to Mountain Café (半山咖啡), perched partway up a steep hillside. The hand-poured Yunnan coffee served here is excellent, though the real star of the show is the fabulous rooftop terrace that offers a panoramic view over the sun-soaked farms, villages and landscapes that all seem to slot perfectly into this very special little corner of China.
How to Get There
The easiest way to reach Shaxi is via Dali, which has a train station and airport providing connections all over China. Using public transport from Dali, take a bus to the county town of Jianchuan, then a local bus or taxi onwards to Shaxi Old Town. More conveniently, most guesthouses can arrange a private driver to pick you up in Dali or Lijiang.
For helpful travel information on Shaxi and other destinations throughout Yunnan, take a look at www.visityunnanchina.com by scanning the QR below: