Shaxi (Shāxī, 沙溪)—an old Horse and Tea Trade Route outpost that was more or less unknown to tourists years before backpackers fleeing the tourist boomtowns of Dali and Lijiang stumbled across it—is now the beneficiary of big-time development funds and the attentions of a Swiss-led team of historical restoration specialists. The result: Shaxi is gaining in popularity, but the hordes that flock to Dali and Lijiang have yet to descend—no doubt in large measure because of the lack of five-star resorts and all of the trappings of a destination ready to accommodate busloads of tourists looking for tidily packaged "authentic" experiences of local ethnic minority culture. Instead, a handful of lovingly restored old structures house small-scale guesthouses—the most intriguing being the old town opera house, complete with courtyard stage.
Shaxi is, then, emblematic of the conundrum at the heart of tourism: It's the place we feel bad about writing about because it's on the verge of widespread discovery, but it's our job to write about it, and, well, we feel obliged to say that you should go sooner than later in order to experience it at its best... before the roads are improved, the resorts are built, and the tourist buses start dumping their payloads.
The town sits at the end of a wide, beautiful valley lined with Bai minority homes and tiny tucked-away villages. The heart of the town is a beautiful marketplace, Sideng Market, which features an authentic classic Chinese theater and one of the most peaceful temples in the region, Xingjiao Temple. Officially Buddhist, Xinjiao Temple is actually more syncretic, incorporating icons and symbols representing all major Asian faiths. This is a phenomenon that is very special to this part of Yunnan, where many different traders and travelers have passed over the centuries, bringing their beliefs with them and fostering a deep tolerance for difference among the local residents.
You can see this philosophy on grand display at the nearby Shi Bao Shan temple complex. Set in a rolling valley at the far end of Shaxi, Shi Bao Shan is a scattering of spiritual sites, shrines and temples that has served as a place of worship and spirited, spiritual discussion for centuries. The buildings are in good shape and the complex is large enough to easily take up an entire day. Notable sites include statues of Indian sages along the climb up to the temple complex and a Yoni Shrine, a cleft in the cliffside that bears a striking resemblence to the holiest of holies and enjoys a constant flow of cool mountain water.
Also back in the hills is the village of Maping Guan (Mǎpíng Guān, 马坪关), an extraordinary holdover from the old Horse and Trade period. This staunchly Bai village boasts a Confucian Temple, a shrine to the Guanyin Buddha as well as a traditional theater. This cultural trifecta used to be a standard requirement for any self-respecting Chinese village, but now places that hold on the old ways like Maping Guan are rare indeed.