Shaxi Yunnan - the last Tea Horse Road market town
Just 90 minutes from Dali to Shaxi or Lijiang
Despite its proximity to the two of the busiest tourist locations in the country, Shaxi remains a quiet, sleepy region that attracts environmentally aware visitors, rather than coach loads of hungry souvenir shoppers. Here the attractions are the unspoiled countryside, millennia of history and the rich, local culture.
In the late nineteenth century, Victorian botanists and flower hunters were drawn to this amazing center of biodiversity, in order to collect specimens to populate the vast numbers of ornamental gardens, that were becoming so popular in Europe and America. Parks and estates in the West are now filled with many hundreds of plants and flowers that originally came from this part of the world, including orchids, roses, rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias, magnolias and primulas, to name but a few.
The coming of the new Republic bought in many policies that were to devastate this unique ecology. For many centuries, this area had been luxuriant monsoon rain forest, but the Great Leap Forward and the 'three great cuttings' that followed, decreed that forests should be cleared and the land made fruitful. Some tens of thousands of urban youngsters were forcibly relocated to clear the trees, and transform the land into farm fields. Ruts in the ground are all that is left of their failed efforts, and today the high altitude meadows can only support a scattering on herders. Continued clear cutting has led to rampant erosion and a major change to the landscape. Ancient forests have been replaced by a mono culture of Yunnan pines, and it was only the catastrophic floods of 1997 that bought home the enormous dangers of clearing the mountain forests. In 1998 the Chinese government issued a national ban on logging, (which quickly moved to Burma, Laos and Thailand) and in Shaxi, work is now underway to re-establish the remaining oak groves and ancient forests.
Other research suggests that in addition to the deliberate deforestation that occured throughout China under the disasterous agricultural policies of the 1960's, Shaxi and much of the fertile valleys of Yunnan have been populated for millenia, and have slowly harvested away most of the old growth forests. Photos from the 1920's reveal the Shaxi valley much as it is today. For a more academic perspective on Yunnan biodiversity and the dangers it faces, please read this insightful article from the World Wildlife Fund.
Few people realize that Shaxi receives more sunshine per year than California, and that the overall climate is one of the best in the world. Locals boast of how there are four distinct seasons every single day. There is certainly no need for air conditioning; the bright rays of day are contrasted by quiet, mild nights, just cold enough to make you want to pull up the duvet and get really cosy. Winter temperatures rarely drop below zero, and the all year round sunshine means that even in January, it is still warm enough for shorts and T-shirts during the daytime.
The Bai people
Occupying the region for at least 3,000 to 4,000 years, the Bai are the second-largest minority group in Yunnan, as well as being one of the oldest. The 2000 census identified just over 1,800,000 individuals as Bai and speaking the Bai language, 80% of whom live in the Dali Bai Nationality Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province. In Guizhou, the Bai can also be found in Bijie, and in Sichuan they live near Xichang. Throughout their history, the Bai have dominated by controlling the richest agricultural lands, either administering the region for others or ruling outright through a number of prominent families. Scattered throughout the Shaxi valley are sixteen Bai minority villages. The population of these villages ranges from a couple hundred to a few thousand in the main village of Sideng, with about 22,500 for the entire valley。
Shaxi retains the vestiges of a matriarchal society, but in the twenty first century, this now extends only as far as children taking the family name of their mother. The Bai—the "white"—revere the color, which they regard as noble and is the main color of their traditional dress. An unmarried girl always combs her hair into one pigtail, tied with a red string at its end, and then coils it over her head. In general, girls enjoy dressing up like beautiful camellia flowers on special occasions, and so it is hardly surprising that they are referred to not as 'miss' or 'young lady' but as 'jin hua' or 'golden flower'.