When the bus driver drops us off on the main street in Shaxi it looks like a run of the mill rural Chinese town; albeit one in a beautiful natural position – a green valley surrounded on four sides by high, pine forest covered hills. We shrug on our packs and ask directions to the hostel. Locals point us down a side street and when we turn it is like stepping back in time.
We’re on a tree lined cobbled street with a stream bubbling along on the left hand side of the road. Small stone bridges cross the stream to the houses on that side. All the homes have intricately carved wood panel front walls, with detailed carved screens covering the windows. Further down the street mud brick mixes with wood and everywhere the dark roof tiles curve upward to meet the blue sky.
Walking up the street, looking like extras in a Ming Dynasty epic, are ancient women with crinkled skin like over ripe apples, tiny children in navy blue school uniforms and young mothers, their babies tied to their backs with colourful scarves. We stand open mouthed. It would be rude were it not for the fact that every other person is staring, similarly open mouthed at us. (At one stage three young women walk past eating plums. One is so surprised to see us her mouth falls open and the plum she’s eating drops to the street.)
We smile at the grannies and say ni hoa (hello) in our best Chinese. Their shock deepens; I don’t think they could be more surprised if the goats that some were herding along had spoken. After a startled second they dissolve into giggles, their eyes disappearing into crinkles and then they say ni hoa in return and still giggling give us the thumbs up.
Tiny children are less easy to win over. Most run behind their mothers; others start to cry; all stare at us suspiciously.
I’m travelling with Tamara, a 26 year old from Bristol in England who is doing the exact journey that I am, only the other way round. She’s just come from the Trans Siberian and is heading down into SE Asia. It’s great to have a travelling companion though when a jewellery seller in Dali, the town we’ve just left, tries to sell us a hair clip and calls me Mama (assuming I’m Tamara’s mother!) I make a new resolution: never travel with someone under 30!
Here we’ve booked a room in a guest house called Horse Pen 46. It turns out to be one of the ancient houses on the town’s main square, beautifully renovated and with amazing views (the picture on the left was taken from our balcony). We’re paying £2 a night for a dorm bed; meals in the town are around £2 for three main dishes and rice. Add in the view and the people and the beautiful village and I’m all for staying in Shaxi for a long long time.
Shaxi is an ancient trading town. Caravans stopped here on the way to and from Tibet, trading horses and stocking up with supplies. Today the town still hosts and animal market each Friday and, alongside it, a large regional produce market. Market day dawns sunny and bright. We walk up and lose ourselves in a timeless experience.
At the animal market pigs, horses, cows, goats, ducks and chickens change hands. Along the streets of the town vendors sell everything from medicine to toilet paper. One stand is a dentist; some local villagers make the trip especially to see the dentist, their mouths open in the dust of the street.
Another stall buys hair. We watch a woman divide her waist length hair into two pony tails, before the buyer cuts it off, roughly, just below the ears.
At the vegetable market organised chaos reigns. Young women dressed in tribal finery barter and buy; old men and women stand and chat, catching up on the news and buying their week’s groceries. Around us the mountains stand green sentinel in the sunshine, watching over this market as they’ve done for hundreds of years.