Shaxi Old Town
The Shaxi old town was placed on the watch list of the world's 101 most endangered sites released by the World Monuments Fund (WMF). Not long after, Switzerland Technological University began working to recover the prosperity of the ancient bazaar as part of the Shaxi rehabilitation project in 2002, hoping to restore the decaying but beautiful Bai houses in a traditional way. So far they have completed the open air theater (with a small museum currently housed in the north and south wings), the old Sideng Market Square, and the Ming Dynasty Xingjiao temple, the only Azhali Buddhism Temple built by the Bai people. Be sure to check out the ceiling of the theater and Kuixing, the god of culture housed on the top floor, so that you can do a comparison with the modern version at Duanjia temple homestay. The regular Friday market now takes place on the main street, rather than the tiny market place. The temple, theater, and surrounding buildings are especially calm first thing in the morning and so if you plan to practice a little tai chi in China, this might well be the best place to try. Tickets for all the above attractions are an all inclusive ¥20.
Shaxi lies just below the forest covered hills of Shibaoshan, famous for its Indian-influenced rock hewn sculptures and its Buddhist temples dating from the Nanzhao and Dali kingdoms (649-1053). Actually, there are many small temples in this area but for me it is the unrestricted views of the pine forests, the crop fields, and the villages in the big valley below that make this area so wonderful. This ideal hiking territory, on the far side of the Cang Shan Mountains, is my preferred choice over other more famous locations such as Tiger Leaping Gorge and the Meili Snow Mountains. At the Shizhong Temple, 139 artfully carved statues of Buddha reside in a total of 16 grottoes. Further along the valley is the Baoxiang Temple (Bao Xiang Si), a hanging temple spectacularly but precariously located on the cliff face. Be warned, the stone steps that ascend to the site are almost as formidable as they appear. In addition, watch out for the colony of 300 or so wild monkeys that live here and make the steep inclines look like child's play. You might even want to take some fruit with you -- they really seem to enjoy bananas.
An alternative, less strenuous day trip is out to the small Bai mountain village Mapingguan where a recently restored wind and rain bridge was a popular crossing point on the Tea Horse Road. Further afield is the village of Xiangtu in the Misha Valley. Simply pottering around the rice fields here is a rewarding experience. Few domestic tourists enjoy Shaxi and that means that for the time being there are no tour buses and megaphone-equipped tour leaders to spoil the timeless nature of this area.