After the relatively developed and ‘touristy’ Lijiang, I wanted to get a bit further out into rural China. So I squeezed in a side-trip to the old tea-route (like silk-route, just tea) town of Shaxi on the way back towards Kunming.
Taking the local buses, everything suddenly felt like India again as packed minivans and auto-rickshaws made a re-appearance in some of the villages along the way. Similarly, more and more beautifully adorned women appeared roadside, as did the mud brick houses and incredible patchwork of tiny fields growing rice and other vegetables.
As we got closer to Shaxi, I was surprised at being on a brand new road where the Lonely Planet guide suggested ‘stones would shred the tyres of bicycles’. But I shouldn’t have been surprised, it is just another example of the unbelievably rapid pace of change here. It is also an example of how the juxtaposition of the old with the new, the basic with the high tech seems to be half the reason China is developing at the rate it is. For example, along the road to Shaxi I saw two sets of real contrasts, immediately adjacent to each other:
A village of stonemasons, chipping away at huge blocks of granite with chisels to create Buddhist statues, and 500m along the road past the end of their village a huge, modern cement factory which is likely to be contributing to the undermining of the stonemasons market for their work.
A village of brick-making people using small ovens, an blind-folded, muscular oxen tramping around in shallow pits to mix the clay, Then, again 500m down the road an industrial-scale brick factory belching smoke and tractors ploughing the dirt.
Even within Shaxi, there were at least 5 guesthouses and three cafes (including the very progressive and responsible Shaxi Cultural Centre) where guidebook said there were only two. The town feels like it will open to busloads of tourists tomorrow, if not the day after.
After arriving after dark in a town that still goes to bed at sunset, I woke at 5.45 to meditate. It was freezing, and dark even at 6.45 so I practiced Mandarin for a bit and re-read the history of China I had in pdfs on my computer.
Shaxi was the perfect place to re-read the history, and I simply cannot comprehend what some of the people I see walking around have been through. In the UK or Australia, I am often blown away that the progress technology has made in the last couple of decades. But, within the lifetime of some of these old Naxi ladies, parts of SW china have gone from separate nation, to controlled by the French, warlords, the Japanes, CCP, TPK, back to a separate nation, invaded by the red army, had every piece of its culture and artefacts systematically demolished, dissidents sent to serve time here, capitalism coming through, and now a wave of guidebook-toting, wi-fi seeking western tourists paying them the equivalent of a peasants monthly earnings to walk through some of the few surviving temples or homes.
And you can see reminders of all of this history it all at one, one one street, in one bus, and probably in one household. The grandpa wearing a mao suit, the grandma in traditional Dai or Naxi clothing doing the shopping with a basket and knitting shoes while she waits, the parents in pin-striped suits while working the fields, to sell the surplus at the markets, and the young children sporting jeans and internet-enabled mobile phones. Absolutely crazy, and probably moving at a pace that is unimaginable in our countries.
With that thought in mind, and wondering about whether tourism is the best/only way to support biological/cultural/agricultural diversity, I went for a walk and criss-crossed the whole town and surrounding fields, setting off a few dogs barking in the process.
I returned to my accomodation at 9am where I was treated to a delicious home-cooked bowl of hot noodles with chilli, greens and a boiled egg. Then jumped back in a shared taxi to get to the very under-rated Jinchuan.