China is a country of over 1.3 billion and, with domestic tourism booming, getting away from the crowds when travelling in China can be a real challenge. A good start is to move over from the highly populated megacities of the east coast and head out west. Yunnan province, in the southwest corner of China, is one of the country’s best travel destinations, offering one of China’s most pleasant provincial capitals, Kunming, some beautiful old towns and a wealth of incredible natural scenery.
Yunnan’s Old Towns
The most popular ‘old town’ destinations in Yunnan are Dali and Lijiang and, while very beautiful, get incredibly crowded and can begin to feel a bit like theme parks: with their entrance fees and every building set up as a restaurant, guesthouse or shop selling Chinese tourist knickknacks. During my time traveling in China, I found it much more rewarding when I slipped slightly off the beaten track and visited the town of Shaxi, in Yunnan province, southwest China, about halfway between tourism hotspots Dali and Lijiang.
Shaxi Old Town
When I arrived in Shaxi, after a rather long and cramped five-hour journey from Shangri-La, northern Yunnan, it felt instantly worth it; the quiet streets and picturesque houses of the old town were something I’d been looking for in the other old towns I’d visited on my 6-week China travels but hadn’t found. An afternoon exploring the village only proved this further. The old town of Shaxi is small but has been tastefully restored: cobbled lanes, crumbling adobe houses, old wooden interiors. There’s a peaceful riverside: children jumping in from a bridge, rice and corn fields, cows by the side of road, chili and tobacco plants growing. Artists paint in the town square and hardly anyone is around. It’s quiet, which is very rare for China; you can hear the sound of trickling water and your feet on the stone pathways. Little cafes in the old houses play relaxing, pleasant music and sell reasonably priced beer – including Beer Lao, one of Asia’s finest.
Just out of town
There are a number of hikes that can be done around Shaxi, through nearby rice fields and up into the surrounding hills. There’s information at the guesthouses in town about the routes. Be sure to take plenty of water on hot days because there really isn’t much development outside of town. I did a walk up Shibao Shan. There are stone carvings along the way, a temple at the top, and great views out over the villages and surrounding countryside.
Another highlight of Shaxi Yunnan is the weekly market, which takes place on a Friday. People from the surrounding villages descend on the small town and the streets are lined with stalls selling everything from fruit and veg to hair and teeth, as well as clothes, meat, pigs heads, household items and pretty much anything else you could ever imagine needing. Then, just over the river is the livestock market, where local farmers barter over piglets, mules, horses, cattle and all other manner of farmyard animals. Four years in Asia and it was one of the most fantastic markets I’ve ever seen. Once again, it didn’t feel staged and wasn’t full of tourist trinkets; it was something very different and clearly just a part of the everyday life of the area.
As I was on a tight schedule, I only had a couple of days in Shaxi but would have loved to stay in Shaxi Valley longer. It was very different to anywhere else I’ve been in China. It seems like a place where a small amount of tourism has been naturally and effectively assimilated into the daily life of the town without its charm being lost or overwhelmed by a massive influx of tourists. So, my advice, stick a couple of decent books in a bag, along with a camera or some art equipment, get yourself to Shaxi and stay for a while. It was a major highlight of my six weeks travelling in China and has stuck with me since.