Shaxi is certainly one of the prettiest towns we’ve ever visited. It’s as though you’re walking through a movie set of Olde China. And in fact, it is apparently a common location for filming Chinese movies and TV shows.
This is a little town with a big history: starting from about a thousand years ago it was an important site on the old Tea-Horse Road that linked China through Tibet into India. India wanted China’s tea, China wanted Tibet’s horses, and thus a major trade route was born. Trade, you see, contrary to the current administration’s biases, can make both sides better off. The route was important into the 20th century, when it was used to carry supplies from India to the allies fighting the Japanese in China.
At any rate, while most of the way stations of the ancient Tea-Horse Road have been wiped away, Shaxi is considered the best preserved of the few remaining locations. And it is, indeed, just a pretty town where you can hang out, drink tea, have more great Chinese food, chill out … and drink vodka.Vodka, you ask, in China? On our first night we were walking home after dinner and passed a tiny little bar that had a couple bottles of Absolut on display. We stopped in and saw there were three flavors available, Ruby Red, Pears, and Vanilla; we chose the Ruby Red. The girl serving had to open the bottle as none of them had been opened yet. Then she poured the biggest shots ever. Huge. More than I would ever pour for myself. All for about $5 each. Typically we complain that if you ask for a shot of something they measure it so carefully and ensure that they give you a little less than a full shot to they don’t ever, ever spill anything. Not so here, just a very large free-hand pour. We went back the next night and same thing. In fact, after paying for two shots each, the bottle was over half gone. Best bargain ever.
And to make things just a little stranger, after our first night we walked past the now-closed bar on our way to breakfast … and saw an empty Absolut Pears bottle on a table in the bar. Was that possible? There were a couple guys sitting at a table while we were there; had they drunk an entire bottle of vodka after we left? It appears so. When we went back that night the unopened bottle we’d seen was gone. That is some heavy drinking.
OK, that’s more about vodka than I probably needed to write. The big activity for us, besides just hanging around, was a climb out of town up to the Stone Bell Temple, some of which dates from the 9th century and includes a, well, unusual sculpture of what the plaque said in translation was a “female reproductive organ.” As the plaque puts it, “To find the worship of the female organ in a shrine so sacred to Buddhism is a unique feature in the Buddhist cave art not only of China, but of the whole world.” And you’ll only see it outside of Shaxi, after a pretty brutal, steep two-hour climb.
And finally, the Friday market. We were supposed to leave Friday morning for Lijiang but saw that there’s a famous weekly market in Shaxi on Friday morning, the kind of market that dates back to the town’s role on the Tea-Horse Road, so we decided to make a later-than-usual departure. At first it seemed like a pretty run-of-the-mill market, the only oddity that it was starting relatively late. We’re used to local markets getting going early, but by 9:00 it still wasn’t in full swing; my guess is that’s because at 7:00 or 8:00 AM the temperature is still in the 30s here. At any rate, once it was going it was actually pretty impressive; it just went on and on and on, a really huge market. And clearly meant for the local economy as opposed to some tourist thing.
And that was it for Shaxi, a quick two-day stop. Next we have three-night stay (or possibly four nights; we have one spare night before we fly from Yunnan) in Lijiang, perhaps the biggest of the tourist towns in the region.