Preserving Shaxi's cultural heritage
The Ginkgo Society was founded in 2012 by American Chris Barclay with the intention of creating a sustainable tourism model for Shaxi Valley. We are one of the very few private organizations in China who are dedicated to creating a sustainable destination through empowerment of local people and extensive architectural restoration. Through our three-year project of rebuilding an important nunnery, (慈荫庵 - the Sheltered Mercy Nunnery), also known as the Pear Orchard Temple, we have created a strategy that promotes local ownership of tourism development and supports native cultural continuity. Located in Diantou Village at the head of the Shaxi Valley, the temple also now serves as the Shaxi Visitor’s Centre, with dedicated space to educate visitors on sustainable tourism activities and Bai culture.
Fewer and fewer of the Bai people who inhabit Shaxi Valley are occupying the old town as Han Chinese from outside are displacing them through renting out their shops and homes, and turning them into coffee shops and hotels. Our approach is for local Bai people to participate directly in the tourism economy through our promotion of their villages, family-owned B&Bs, restaurants and to employ more locals as guides and hosts.
We are protecting and promoting both tangible and intangible culture of Shaxi. It is not enough for us to simply restore historic buildings. We believe that without a continuing community centre, the important Bai folk traditions at the Pear Orchard Temple would not have a reason to take place there and the building itself would lose its significance to the community and to visitors. We believe that the temple and by association, the Shaxi Visitor’s Centre, serve as a window through which we develop cultural tourism and promote those sustainable activities that we believe bring tangible benefits for the local community while protecting their traditions.
You can follow the progress of the Pear Orchard Temple (Ci Yin An) restoration on our blog.
Creating a model for Shaxi sustainable tourism
With support of local government and villagers, we have rebuilt the Sheltered Mercy Nunnery (慈荫庵) in Shaxi, Yunnan China. Also known as the Pear Orchard Temple, it is the largest and most important folk temple in the Shaxi Valley surviving today. We engaged Mr. Yang Liu Yi, one of the most experienced and knowledgeable master carpenters working with Bai vernacular building in Northwest Yunnan. The project has taken over three years of meticulous restoration work covering every aspect of the temple complex.
Sheltered Mercy Nunnery project is a comprehensive cultural building restoration as well as a means to promote Shaxi culture by serving as a model for cultural heritage conservation in the promotion of sustainable development. The project includes:
- Complete professional restoration that exceeds county and prefecture cultural bureau requirements
- Long-term protection of all religious relics and areas
- Continuity of religious festivals and village use of the temple for cultural fairs and traditional ceremonies
- Promotion of sustainable tourism and local heritage through the temple’s Visitor’s Centre
- Promotion of local artisan work and photography in rotating exhibition space
- Providing at least 4 jobs for staff from Diantou Village, which includes ongoing professional training
- Available classroom space for visiting groups and free weekly English classes for middle school aged children from the village
- Enhanced visitor experience by offering vegetarian dining, educational resources, tours, reading areas & meditation space.
The Township Government has designated the temple as the official Shaxi Visitor’s Centre through which we promote sustainable activities, such as village tours, horse trekking, cooking classes, traditional arts performances and other specific low-carbon options that encourage local participation and direct benefits to local villagers from our responsible tourism development initiatives.
You can see our restoration project before, during and after photos on DropBox here.
By offering parking, maps and bicycle rental, as well as hiking and horse trekking, we encourage all visitors to leave their cars and see Shaxi via low-impact means. By directing visitors to traditional family homes in the village, we encourage local owners to preserve their lifestyle. While reducing tourism vehicle traffic on the main road, we also diversity offerings in villages and create a network of small group service providers, vs. catering to large tour buses. With the addition of horse trekking in July 2015, the Shaxi visitor's centre is building the foundations for Shaxi sustainable tourism to benefit current and future generations.
"One Village, One Host"
Our “One Village, One Host” initiative encourages villagers to open family-owned B&Bs, restaurants and offer tours in their own villages, all of which will strengthen the relevance of the temple community, as it will encourage young people to return to the village to support this organic development, and participate in traditional temple-sponsored activities. Further, it will provide jobs for older villagers who can remain in their village to accommodate guests. This prevents the Old Town of Shaxi from being the only draw for tourists by offering diverse, authentic and personal experiences with local hosts.
We are in the process of identifying and training hosts in all of Shaxi’s 11 main villages in the basics of hospitality management. Our first family, the Li’s in Xia Ke Village, have already hosted numerous international school groups, providing rooms, meals and activities. The Ginkgo Society pays the Li’s a small rental every year for occasional use of their home, at the same time sponsoring the upgrade of their toilet and shower facilities. As this is our model family, we intend to use their positive example to demonstrate to other villages how to host visitors and gradually bring in hosts in other villages. While we will not renovate all the other homes, we provide a standard for hygiene, safety and service that can be replicated.
We believe that this family homestay model of village accommodation better distributes tourism across the valley, instead of concentrating it in the old town centre where non-local Han Chinese dominate the market. It also gives local hosts the means to own their own businesses without moving out of their homes. As the Bai people of Shaxi are deeply connected to their farms and are not yet as sophisticated in hospitality and commerce as the Han or Bai from Yunnan cities, the One Village, One Host growth model will keep families close to their farms and gives younger people an opportunity to help their families earn income locally by using English, accounting and other skills trained by Ginkgo in our free workshops for hosts at the temple.
We are in the early stages of this project, but have already demonstrated through the Li Family that hosts do not to give up their homes or direct participation in the tourism economy.
Our goal is to have at least one host in each village by 2020 who will operate some kind of hospitality, guiding or handicraft business. This could include Air B&B arrangements, a small restaurant, or retail. We will use the visitor’s centre to promote these families and encourage guests to stay, eat or travel with them. We expect that by the time village host families are established throughout the Shaxi Valley, there will be a saturation of tourism facilities in the Old Town, which will naturally encourage visitors to seek out village experiences on their own. Our model will give an advantage to early adopters of One Village, One Host and allow it to become a self-sustaining system, where more village hosts see the benefits and develop new business on their own.
We are already in need of more families like the Li’s to host international school and corporate groups and our goal for 2015 is to develop at least one family in Diantou Village, where proximity to the Pear Orchard Temple and visitor’s centre will support guest traffic. While most local families would rather have the money up front from renting out their home and building a new one, our model allows them continued connection to their home, extended family and an ownership of their business with long-term economic benefits as Shaxi tourism continues to grow.
Our sustainable practices at the Shaxi temple
No-Single Use Items
We voluntarily reject the use of disposable items in our daily business, including paper napkins, single-use chopsticks, water bottles and plastic bags, having replaced plastic with biodegradable fabric bags in all our trash bins. These double as laundry bags and gift bags.
No Plastic Water Bottles
We branded stainless steel thermoses which we buy from an outside supplier, and offer them for sale to visitors at the temple and guests at the Li Family, who can fill up with free drinking water in both venues. We also use glass bottles in the temple restaurant which we refill from recyclable water coolers. If guests want to take a water bottle out for a day trip, they can buy the stainless thermos.
Contain All Waste Water
We have re-built toilets in the Li Family and at the temple with a natural greywater evaporation pond and covered septic pits, which can be used as fertilizer as it dries. No waste water or solid waste reaches the Hei Hui River.
LED Lighting and Solar Hot water
We use low-wattage LED bulbs throughout the properties, and rely on local hydro-powered electric for all our energy needs, except for bottled LPG for the kitchen stoves. We also installed our own passive solar for hot water supply at the Li Family courtyard. We also bought a 3000w parabolic solar cooker that can boil a kettle of hot water on a clear day in 10 minutes.
Recycle All Food Waste
Because we’re in a rural area, it is easy for us to recycle 100% of our food waste by giving it to local farmers for animal feed. We also sell our bottles, cans and paper waste back to local recyclers.
Bike, Ride & Hike
We rent bicycles and provide parking so that tourists can get on a bike, horse or hike through Shaxi without their cars.
Our staff are all from the village in which we operate and we do not hire non-Shaxi people. We source most of our food from farms owned by people in the village. We encourage local crafts people to use the temple as a workshop to make items that we can help them sell to visitors. This is an ongoing effort.
Shaxi is mostly agricultural and there’s always something needed to do in the fields. If guests want to help with planting, maintenance or harvest, we direct them to families who could use the extra labor and offer free meals in return.