Shuhe Ancient Town offers a relaxing diversion from bustling Lijiang, writes Winnie Chung
Our horse carriage driver is looking a little worried. "Take my number, go on. Just in case you get lost or need someone to take you back, just give me a call," he urges me, as we insist that we would be fine wandering around on our own. We had already paid his full fee for the day; anyone else would have been out of there in a nano-second.
The locals in Lijiang exude plenty of warmth and concern - from the staff at the wonderfully picturesque Banyan Tree Lijiang to the taxi drivers and the carriage driver. This has been our biggest and most pleasurable surprise, given how much we had heard about the highly commercial tourism efforts of the county.
However, it could also be because we were not at the main Old Town of Lijiang, where it felt like busloads of tourists were just being shoved through the narrow cobbled lanes at top speed to make way for new busloads arriving, with shop after shop selling cured yak meat. It's not unlike struggling through Causeway Bay on a Sunday.
Instead, we had found our way to Shuhe Ancient Town, a smaller and definitely less commercial heritage town about 20 minutes from town. From our base at the Banyan Tree Lijiang, it was just a leisurely 10-minute stroll away.
One of the first things we notice on entering Shuhe are the signs. The Naxi are among the last-known tribes to use hieroglyphs as a language. Some of the signs, such as a woman giving birth or a family in a house, are quite obvious, but we have fun coming up with outrageous guesses for others.
I am not a morning person and Shuhe isn't really a morning town. When we clip-clop our way in the carriage, the rustic village is just starting to shake away the slumbers of the night; hardly a soul can be seen on the outer fringes. We peer in deserted courtyards and walk down lonely lanes before we suddenly find ourselves staring at a sign that says: "Ancient Tea Horse Route Museum".
The forlorn structure is dimly lit and dusty, exhibiting nothing more than some old photos, explanations and cakes of tea. At the point, when we are about to give up, the museum guide, Hai Feng, appears, chatting enthusiastically about the tea and the ancient route that helped the trade of horses and tea between China and Tibet during the Tang dynasty.
Hai Feng quickly persuades us to try some of the museum's top-grade teas, including an expensive golden pu-erh, in the inner chambers. The offer was to let us try three teas for 100 yuan (HK$123), but if we ended up buying any, she would waive the cost.
She goes through her animated explanation of the different grades of tea and oxidation processes, but it is her introduction of the golden pu-erh that intrigues us since we had only ever known the tea to be as dark as coffee. It was a deal we couldn't resist, especially as we were still waiting for Shuhe to wake up and my companion was a tea lover anyway.
The golden pu-erh was a surprise to the palate. Pu-erh had never been my choice of tea, especially the type served in Hong Kong restaurants, which gets blacker and more bitter with each infusion. This was a golden yellow, gentle tea that seemed to get sweeter with each brew.
One hour and about 20 infusions later, we skip out of the museum with our golden pu-erh cakes and Hai Feng's business card tucked in our bags, in case we needed to order more.
It's no coincidence that the museum is tucked away in Shuhe. The township was one of the earliest settlements for the Naxi minority and was an important stop for the traders plying the tea-horse route, with the Tibetans bringing horses to the Chinese and the Chinese taking tea to Tibet.
Shuhe is also known as the "Town of Springs", which originate from the Jiuding Dragon Pool north of the town square.
Water wells populate the village at convenient locations, always in threes: the first for drinking, the second for washing food and the third for other washing.
Two rivers pass by the whole village and channels were dug to ensure water would flow past every house. The absence of factories and industrial activity in the area has meant that the water remains as remarkably crystal clear as distilled water.
The town's history with horses also naturally made it a chief producer of quality leathercraft, and the Longquan Temple next to the Jiuding Dragon Pool offers a tribute to this craft. Besides the tea and leathercraft, Naxi women are also well-known for their exquisite hand embroidery, which, unfortunately, is now a dying art as the elderly artisans die off and younger generations lack the patience to master the craft.
Poking around inside one of the many embroidery shops can often unearth some exquisite handiwork, and shopkeepers are often honest enough to tell you if the embroidery was done by machine.
As a tourist venue, there is definitely more on offer in the Old Town of Lijiang, especially when dusk falls and hawkers roast suckling pigs or lamb on an open fire and musicians, albeit some bad ones, jamming in public bars.
Nevertheless, Shuhe is definitely a more relaxing and picturesque detour for those who want to avoid big crowds.
Even in the old heritage towns, one would find it hard to encounter the ethnic minorities of Yunnan in their true cultural settings.
For a quick run-through of the culture of the Naxi, the Yi and the Bai people – not to mention a truly awe-inspiring view of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain – nothing quite does it like director Zhang Yimou’s Yunnan homage Impressions Lijiang.
Impressions Lijiang is the second of five such cultural shows from Zhang and his Olympics opening cohorts Fan Yue and Wang Chaoge, following Impressions Sanjie Liu in
Yangshuo and subsequent shows in Hangzhou, Hainan Island and Wuyi Mountain.
The Lijiang show was inspired by the two years the director spent filming Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles in the colourful region.
Strategically staged at a 360-degree openair amphitheatre, 3,500 metres above sea level that offers the best view of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, or Yulong Xueshan, the show features a cast of about 500 actors – and a number of horses.
The show has no main plot but, instead, features vignettes of the more colourful cultural aspects of Yunnan, be it a drunken bar brawl, picking tea in the hills or even a Naxi wedding.
The venue is not easy to get to. It is an hour or so out of town and performance times depend on the weather and season. Your best bet is to get your ticket from the Old Town Centre and catch a bus with the rest of the tourists or, as we did, get your hotel to reserve the tickets for you and splurge on a two-way taxi ride for about 400 yuan (HK$492).