Living in a city devoid of almost any architectural history, historical landmarks bulldozed long a go to make way for shiny high rises and the ubiquitous (and hideous) white tiled and blue-glassed apartment blocks that are so inexplicably favoured here, it’s safe to say that I am used to China’s seeming lack of regard for architectural preservation.
However, in recent years the authorities seem to have switched on to the fact that tourists – both Chinese and foreigner alike – actually like to escape the concrete jungles and catch sight of a bit of ‘Old China’. Hitting the tourist trail in Yunnan at the start of the year, we had a welcome break from the dual carriageways and skyscrapers and visited places that fit neatly into the China I had imagined before we arrived – pagodas and timber, mudbricks and narrow alleys.
As beautiful as many of the towns and villages that we visited were, what’s hard to escape in many of these ‘Ancient Towns’ is the fact that really, they are not very ancient at all. Instead they are replicas, restored and, in some cases, entirely rebuilt in recent years to satisfy tourists’ demands. Whilst in some cases restoration efforts have been fantastic, a peaceful town tastefully restored, in others it’s like stepping into some kind of Disney version of China. Having visited the ‘Epcot World Showcase’ at Disneyworld many years a go, this same artificial, plastic version of a caravan town with not a timber beam or brick out of place is readily available in much of China. In fact, Chengdu has its very own red-lanterned, perfectly cobbled ‘Ancient Jinli Street’ which is significantly younger than I am!
Nowhere is the divide between tasteful and terrible more clear than between Shaxi and Lijiang, two towns which, whilst only a couple of hours from one to the other by bus, could be worlds a part. We visited both on our trip – Shaxi we loved, Lijiang we loathed.
Our dislike of Lijiang came as no great surprise. In the lead up to our visit, reactions to Lijiang fell into two distinct camps – Westerners who hated it and locals who loved it. Having hoped to buck the Westerner trend, on arriving we quickly joined their ranks. Whilst it’s an undeniably beautiful place, filled with endless picturesque options for the selfie-stick toting majority, it lacked any authenticity. Wandering around the alleys, finding somewhere that wasn’t a gift shop selling identical over-priced souvenirs seemed nigh on impossible.
As night fell, the reason it’s a particularly popular place with Chinese teenagers and early-twenty-somethings became apparent – anywhere that wasn’t a gift shop or food stand became a techno-blasting, pink lit, balloon filled nightclub with an endless stream of podium dancers and live performers massacring Western ballads. Whilst undoubtedly amusing, it was also just fairly hideous…and weird. The propensity for neon lights and balloons in clubs here is something I just can’t get my head around.
Having been on my own teenage holidays where all I was interested in was karaoke, wearing minimal clothing and long vodkas I completely understand why a weekend away to Lijiang must be such an exciting prospect for young people here. And perhaps it’s just a sign of my getting-old-and-boring that I disliked it so much. However, it’s hard to escape the thought that Lijiang is an opportunity wasted. With a rich minority population, the chance to show a underrepresented piece of China’s cultural history has been foregone, replaced instead by buckets of alcohol and vomiting youths. If a cookie cutter town where you can shop for beads and embroidered fabric before partying until dawn is what you’re after then Lijiang is your place. Otherwise, I’d recommend avoiding.
In complete contrast to Lijiang is Shaxi. A tiny hamlet that’s off the beaten track between Dali and Lijiang, it’s incredibly easy to overlook it as a destination. In fact, with only a page dedicated to it in my trusty Lonely Planet, we would have bypassed it ourselves had it not been for the recommendation of our friends who had been the previous year.
Once a crucial node on the old Tea-Horse Caravan Trails that stretched from Yunnan to India, stepping into Shaxi feels like you are going back in time – the fact that it’s a popular location for period Chinese movies is no surprise at all. Our first reaction when we arrived was that it was almost impossibly picturesque and having not really known what to expect we were pretty much blown away. Shaxi is a prime example of restoration done well with its cobbled streets, ancient square and mudbrick lined alleys lovingly patched up. Thanks to a joint project between the local government and, oddly enough, Switzerland, the jewel in Shaxi’s crown – its large public square and theatre – underwent an expert facelift in 2001, becoming a magnet for anyone in town with a camera.
Admittedly, with no highway to bus tourists in directly, it’s easy to see why its significantly quieter than Lijiang. However, given just how lovely it is, we were very (and pleasantly) shocked at how peaceful it was. The occasional group of Chinese tourists would flock in en-masse, presumably taxied in en route to Dali or Lijiang, and then disappear just as quickly. Finding anywhere so quiet and relaxing in China is no mean feat and we loved our 3 leisurely days there, walking through the surrounding countryside, drinking coffee, eating incredible deserts and retiring to bed ridiculously early after a couple of glasses of the local plum wine.
Having bumped in to a couple of other Westerners who’d visited Shaxi later on on our travels, the overarching consensus was always the same – everyone should go! Although, actually, given that one of the best things about it was how few tourists there were maybe I should shout about it a little less loudly!
Photos below are, unsurprisingly, only of Shaxi.