Our spirits rose as soon as we reached Yunnan Province in the south west of China to find – for the first time since Beijing – clear blue skies, sunshine and good visibility: such a joy after four weeks of smog, haze and cloud. And even with a 50 hour journey to get here, involving a train and seven buses, each one a little more crowded and slower than the last, we’re so glad we came to this part of China.
We spent several days exploring the area around Shaxi, a once important town on the Tea Horse Caravan Trail. The Trail, which stretched from Burma to Northern India, was used to carry tea, sugar and salt from the lowlands to trade for horses and other goods from Tibet, Nepal and India for well over a thousand years, from the Seventh Century until 1949, although it went into decline from the mid-Nineteenth Century. As well products, people, ideas and beliefs also travelled along the Trail, contributing to the enormous ethnic diversity in Yunnan – China’s most diverse province – and bringing Buddhism to Burma. Now however little of the trail remains, most having disappeared under concrete or jungle, or been washed away in the rains.
With the collapse of the caravan route, Shaxi was left isolated by a combination of mountainous terrain and poor roads and it wasn’t until 2002 when it was identified as the best preserved caravan town of the entire trail that foreign investment and tourists started to arrive, and with Swiss money and expertise the town’s old buildings were beautifully restored. We stayed in one of the restored buildings – a caravan inn on the town’s tiny main square, where our bedroom was one of the original horse pens – definitely one of the more beautiful and interesting places we’ve stayed.
The architecture in and around Shaxi was also amongst the most interesting and beautiful we’ve seen in China, in stark contrast to the (partially) tiled concrete and breeze block that dominates most Chinese cities. Almost all the buildings, including our hostel, were built of mud bricks that glow honey colour in the sunshine. The majority are two storeys high, and built around an internal courtyard so that, like traditional Arab houses, they face inwards, with rooms opening out onto the courtyard rather than onto the street. The alleyways between the houses are narrow, and the external walls of the houses are blank, interrupted only by the doorways. The lower floor rooms tend to be used for animals and storage, with corn, chilis and grain laid out to dry on the floor of the courtyard, and the upper floor rooms used for living quarters.
The key social and economic event in the life of the normally sleepy town is the Friday market, when villagers from the surrounding countryside come to buy, sell and trade. Most of the shoppers – the majority of whom were women – seemed to be wearing their smartest clothes, with two distinct styles dominant: either brightly coloured embroidered blouses and head-dresses, worn above multi coloured skirts and leggings tucked in to thick socks, or the more androgynous and sombre coloured outfit of flat Mao cap, waistcoat worn over a (sometimes floral) shirt and neatly pressed suit trousers.
We spent an interesting few hours browsing at the market and then joined four Yi women who – shopping done – were walking back to their village in the mountains and had offered to guide us into the hills. Although between the six of us we knew only a handful of words in each others’ languages we walked together very amiably and managed to communicate quite well with a combination of mime and our pointing at words in our phrasebook. They clearly found the idea that we wanted to walk all the way into the mountains, camp, and walk all the way back down the next day absolutely hilarious, but were happy to help.
The path was steep and rocky, and we were glad that our guides – all carrying bulging wicker baskets on their backs – were as keen on taking regular rests as we were. A short way outside Shaxi the youngest of the women who looked about 17 dived into a bush by the side of the path and emerged with a pair of battered canvas shoes – clearly her country shoes – which she put on in place of her smart fake converse (town) shoes which were added to her wicker basket, presumably to be kept clean for her next visit to town. A little while later we were joined by the two sons of one of our guides who were on their way home from school in Shaxi. As it’s a 3-4 hour walk between the mountain villages and Shaxi, most children from the hills board at the school during the week and only go home at weekends.
It was dark by the time our guides indicated that we should leave them and find somewhere to camp, but luckily after the Maclehose Trail we were used to putting our tent up in the dark. The stars that night were stunning – some of the brightest and clearest we’ve ever seen – and we lingered outside looking up at them for as long as we could bear the cold. Amazingly, despite the cold, we slept well in our sleeping bags and woke just as it was getting light to find the world outside had turned white under a thick layer of frost and even the inside of the tent was coated in ice where the condensation from our breath had frozen. We walked for a couple of hours around the plateau at the top of the mountain, marvelling at the views of snow capped mountains twinkling in the sunshine – our first Himalayan peaks of this journey - and amazed at how many small villages there were up there. Then we turned around and started the long walk back down to Shaxi.
Our last full day in Shaxi we set out to walk one of the few remaining sections of the Tea Horse Trail to a village, Ma Ping Guan, near the old (now flooded) salt mine that brought Shaxi its wealth and status. This time our guide was the primary school teacher at Ma Ping Guan, who explained that there were 14 families and 120 inhabitants in the village, and that he taught the ten children under the age of 11, after which age they transferred to the school in Shaxi.
As on every other day the weather was flawless, and the views out over the wooded hills, the deep gorges and back to the wide flat valley behind us were stunningly beautiful. In the sunshine it must have been 20 degrees, but the sun wasn’t strong enough to warm the air or the ground so that in the shade the ground stayed frosty and the air cold. It took us almost 9 hours to walk to Ma Ping Guan and back. On the way back, after our guide had left us, we passed only a handful of people, all local villagers felling wood or carrying it back to their village, and we realised that these walks around Shaxi have been the only times in 7 weeks in China we’ve been alone. And as we walked the sometimes steep, uneven and heavily worn earthen trail we struggled to imagine what it must have been like for the tea porters who used to walk it, carrying more than their body weight in tea.
From Shaxi we travelled further north to the beautiful if very touristy old town Lijiang, which we used as a springboard to access Tiger Leaping Gorge. The Gorge is apparently one of the deepest in the world, with an almost sheer drop of over 3900m from the summits of Yulong Xueshan to the east and Haba Shan to the west down to the river below, and the two day hike through it is reportedly China’s finest. The trail climbed steeply at first and then clung to the edge of the gorge over a kilometre above the water, with stunning views all the way of eight of the rocky, snow capped peaks of Yulong Xueshan, which looked almost within touching distance the gorge is so narrow in places. After the first hour or so we even escaped the noise of the construction coming from the road building in the valley bottom, so that the only sounds were the river far below, the wind blowing through the bamboo, and the ringing of goat and horse bells in the distance.