the women walk in silence, briskly, with their heads slightly bowed from the weight on their backs. the rattan baskets strapped to their waists and heads are filled to the brim with forest harvests, vegetables from their home gardens, chinese medicinal herbs and homemade specialty items. these ladies are from the bai ethnic group, the second largest minority in yunnan. in shaxi, they inhabit the mountainous areas and maintain a matriarchal way of life in which children take on their mothers’ family names. they make their way towards the valley town of sideng every friday where a street market bustles from the crack of dawn. there, they lay their offerings on tarpaulin sheets on the ground and join local vendors in plying their goods.
from the familiar and expected (breakfast on fluffy mantou steamed freshly on the spot, the ubiquitous soup noodles topped with dollops of chilli and coriander) to the exotic (dried rattlesnakes and tortoise carapace at the herb medicine stall) and downright absurd (coils of human hair for wig-making and cushion stuffing, apparently), nothing is off limits here.
the best spot to hang around is the poultry section, where young chicks and ducklings chirp and quack noisily inside wire or rattan containers while sellers cradle fat hens under their arms, parading their prized produce to lure customers. the buying and selling of chickens is a truly lively affair as fierce haggling ensues between vendor and customer while the bird in question is closely scrutinised before a decision is made. the chook is then weighed and then the final price is named.
by late afternoon, the market comes to a close and the bai ladies retrace their steps home. their rattan baskets, emptied of the produce they had brought to sell, are full once again with raw ingredients and household items they pick up at the market. it’s a routine they carry out dutifully, chatting cheerfully along even though it’s a journey of at least several hours each way. they hike past verdant fields of rice and wheat, and 16 sleepy villages that spread out across the himalayan foothills in north-west yunnan. it’s worth renting a bicycle from the shops in sideng to explore this scenic countryside on two wheels.
the market is not only a weekly highlight for the villagers, but is also significant of shaxi’s place in history: it was an important stop on the ancient tea and horse caravan trail that stretched from tibet to myanmar, and predates the silk road by 300 years. in those days, horses and animal furs were valuable currencies that merchants traded with for tea, salt and medicine.
the friday bazaar is held along the main street of sideng, whereas the original shaxi market site is now known as sideng square and remains the focal point of the town. the square is encircled by a complex of buildings that served the needs of those ancient merchants, and included guest houses, horse stables, a temple and a theatre stage where performances were held for their entertainment.
the shaxi market is considered the most complete surviving example of a trading town along the trail and for that reason, in 2002, the world monuments fund placed it on their watch list of 100 most endangered sites. the acknowledgement saved shaxi market from crumbling into oblivion, and the funding that came with it (usd1.3 million) has been put to good use. led by swiss conservationist jacques feiner, the shaxi rehabilitation project set about restoring the buildings as well as the defence gates that protected the village.
feiner’s approach focuses on fortifying the existing structures, returning them to their former glory while retaining their original forms. the revived sideng square thus has all the authenticity of a centuries-old market town, complete with ancient architecture, cobblestone walkways and a towering tree that’s believed to be three centuries old.
the idyllic old world vibe permeates across town, seen not only in the buildings and willow tree-lined roads but also in the people. it is also not uncommon to see a man walking his goat or horse around town, or bai ladies out and about clad in their elaborate traditional ensembles. surrounding and within the vicinity of the square, what used to be shelters and resting posts now house a mix of eateries, specialty shops and artisans’ studios where goods are still painstakingly made by hand the old-fashioned way.
at the old town shoe shop, an elderly mr lee sits patiently in front of a vintage sewing machine facing the open window that looks out to the square. he has since passed the business on to his daughter, he says, but steps in to help out when she’s away. inside the tiny shop, racks display traditional embroidered shoes embellished with chinoiserie. the shoes come in several combinations of bold colours and styles that include sandals, mary janes, wedges and boots, and you can customise a pair to your liking.
next door, a family of young silversmiths are hard at work, melting, welding and knocking late into the night as they rush to build up a stockpile of designs. the approaching golden week holidays promise to bring a deluge of travellers to shaxi, and they want to ensure they have enough goods to cash in on the rush.
diagonally opposite, old street is a laidback bar with tatami-style seating upstairs and a picnic table outside if you prefer to people watch over ice cold beer or their homemade fruit wines. next door, you can buy a variety of mushrooms – a yunnan specialty – including the very aromatic, truffle-like song rong (pine mushrooms, or matsutake tricholoma) that’s highly prized by the japanese.
further up from old street, the tiny wood fish cafe seats only six and everything is made fresh upon order. on the small menu are easy favourites like burgers, sandwiches, fried rice and homemade breads. more substantial offerings can be had at karma cafe, where local and western dishes can be enjoyed with a selection of bai and tibetan delights, served fine dining style within a casual atmosphere. the food is of excellent quality, featuring the freshest locally sourced ingredients, as is the service. the cafe is actually part of the laomadian guesthouse, a heritage boutique accommodation in a 150-year-old courtyard building that was originally a caravanserai. rooms are tastefully dressed in a mix of modern amenities and traditional furnishings. owner a fang, a taiwanese who speaks fluent english, welcomes guests warmly and will sit down for a chat if she’s not busy running around. she splits her time between shaxi and lijiang, where she operates a second outlet of karma cafe and laomadian.
on the same row as karma towards the east gate end is hungry buddha cafe, owned by italian chef maurino anzideo and his chinese wife ai xin, and specialising in organic vegetarian fare. everything is made from scratch with ingredients from the friday market – including cheese, made using local milk. their specialty is thin crust pizza, delightfully crispy with well-balanced flavours. hungry has limited bar stool seating, so it’s best to grab your pizza and pasta to go. walk through the east gate and you will arrive at the heihui riverside promenade which, on a balmy evening and looking out towards the huazhong mountain range, makes for the perfect picnic cum vantage spot.
most of shaxi’s eateries close early, with old tree cafe among the few exceptions. the first western-style cafe to open here, in 2005, it is run by an elderly couple who relocated from shandong in search of a restful retirement. the warm and homey interiors are as inviting as the food, a mix of chinese favourites and western classics. espresso-based coffee drinks are served along with beer, juices and fresh homemade yogurt.
you can sip your choice of night cap at the outdoor seating area, which looks out to the centuries-old scholar tree that inspired the cafe’s name. it’s just the place to be to wind down while soaking in the serenity of the old market square before retiring for the night.
a few doors away is one of sideng’s most popular accommodations, the hostel-style horse pen 46, which occupies a traditional bai courtyard home built in the ‘sanfang yizhaobi’ architectural style that translates into ‘three houses, one front wall’. its name and room types – named foal, pony or mustang stalls – are a nod to shaxi’s market town era.
those days may be long gone, but on-going preservation efforts ensure that shaxi’s legacy continues, its bucolic charm further protected by the languid pace and ‘time stands still’ spirit that envelops life here. still largely hidden from the typical yunnan tourist trail – most travellers bypass shaxi for dali and lijiang – those who do find their way here could well find themselves drawn to visit again and again, not unlike the tea-trading merchants who once journeyed here by horse caravans.
this article first appeared in the malay mail online and crave, sunday mail