Shaxi is a historic market town located halfway between Dali and Lijiang. Not yet developed as a tourist destination, this town retains its standing as a true "old town", not one which has been rebuilt and manufactured. With the new highway being built not far away, access will be easier in the future, more tourists are likely to make the journey. For now it is still a hidden gem.
Shaxi started life as a trading point for tea and horses during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The town reached the height of its prosperity during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368–1912). Today, it is probably the most intact horse caravan town on the Ancient Tea Horse Road leading from Yunnan in to Burma and Tibet, and is now being preserved through a cooperation between the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich and the People’s Government of Jianchuan County. Nearby Shibao mountain is home to 1,300-year-old Buddhist rock carvings and temples.
The two main ethnic groups of Shaxi are the Bai and Yi people. The village of Shaxi is mainly a pedestrian old town, with some new parts which have been built on the outside. It is nice that no cars or electric bikes make their way into the cobblestone streets. You can pleasantly walk down the street without watching your back, and if you have children you don't have to hold their hand constantly. The old town is not huge, such as in Lijiang, it is just one main street and square.
It is also possible to visit the many other villages in Shaxi on foot, however, renting a bicycle is a quicker and better option. Some of the guesthouses in Shaxi, such as Horse Pen 46 Guesthouse, the Dragonfly, and 58 Yard, offer bicycle rental. Hiking and horseback riding are the main options for a visit into the mountains around Shaxi.
The shops have a nice assortment of ethnic wares and you can bargain easily. A number of cafes offer coffee, snacks and meals. Lots of opportunities for photographers to get great landscape and people photographs. Generally a nice place to unwind and take in the scenery.
As the last remaining market town on the ancient Tea & Horse Caravan trail, Shaxi still hosts the local market every Friday. If you are coming to Shaxi, try to be here for it. The Bai people from all the villages in Shaxi Valley and the Yi people from the surrounding mountains all come together to trade cattle, horses and other farm animals. Minority women will be dressed in their colorful traditional costumes, and men will often lead pack mules to carry supplies back to their mountain villages, much like in the days of the Tea & Horse Caravan Trail hundreds of years ago.
Shaxi's market square was added to the World Monuments Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites in 2001.
The biggest religious holiday in Shaxi, it is held every year on the 8th day of the second month on the lunar calendar. If you are looking for an off the beaten track, non-touristy experience, this is it. The Gregorian calendar dates for Taizihui Holiday from year 2014 to 2015 are: March 8 (2014), and March 27 (2015).
A major festival for the Bai and the Yi minorities around Shaxi, it is held every year on the 25th day (24th for the Yi people) of the 8th month on the lunar calendar. The local villagers will light torches and big barn fires everywhere, and dance and sing around the fires. The Gregorian calendar dates for the Torch festival from year 2013 to 2015 are: September 29 (2013), September 18 (2014), October 7 (2015)
The Torch Festival is rooted in the local agrarian culture. As soon as the rice begins to ripen, villagers and farmers alike, took torches into the fields to scare away birds and insects that might eat the valuable crops. In the villages large torches up to 20 meters high, made of stalks and pine branches are adorned with fruits, fireworks and flags printed with auspicious Chinese characters. Dancing and drinking go on late in to the night.