Thursday 24 September

The rice harvest was well underway when I left Dali last Sunday, heading north once more to the historic town of Sideng in the Shaxi Valley which I had visited just 10 days prior.

The Shaxi Valley was part of the “southern silk-road” which was active up until just after the 2nd World War. The route was important for bringing tea, horses and other items of value from Tibet down into southern Asia, along with cultural and religious influences between the many different ethnic groups along the way.

The township of Sideng was an important staging post along this Tea and Horse Caravan Trail, and many of the traditional wooden houses used as shops and inns still exist around the central market area. However, with the decline in trade through this route, these had deteriorated so badly that a unique historical record of a lifestyle which had existed since the beginning in the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907), and flourished over five centuries throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368 – 1911), was in danger of being lost.

Shaxi - Sideng Village Historic Map

Shaxi – Sideng Village Historic Map

In 2001 this was officially recognised, the Market Square at Sideng placed on the list of the World’s 100 Most Endangered Heritage Sites and the Shaxi Valley Rehabilitation Project established. The Project is an international collaboration between the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the People’s Government of Jianchuan County where Shaxi is based. Sustainable development lies at the heart of the project – renovations have been done sensitively, retaining the character of the village; improvements have been made in terms of sanitation and lighting, and a framework for economic development incorporating traditional income streams as well as new tourism opportunities has been established.

Market Square 4621 Market Square

Market Square detail 4622 Market Square detail

Side street restoration 4668 Side street restoration

East Gate 4647 East Gate

The rural community of the Shaxi valley is predominantly from the Bai ethnic minority, with a population of approximately 22,000. It is a poor community, and in 2004 the annual per-capita income was approx 1170 CNY. There have, of course, been exchange rate fluctuations since then, but at today’s rate that’s the equivalent of 104 GBP, 171 USD, or 0.47 USD a day. In 2005 the World Bank established a reference line for poverty based on an income of 1.25 USD a day.

The main income source is through agriculture – the valley is predominantly under rice production, maize is also grown, there is some live-stock breeding and an important source of seasonal income comes from the collection of mushrooms in the surrounding mountains. There is also a small trade in medicinal plants.

It is the trade in mushrooms and medicinal plants that finds me in Shaxi for the second time – not for personal consumption, although I love wild mushrooms, but through one of those amazing coincidences that I am learning to accept as a normal part of life.

It was just over a month ago – in my diary entry of 21 August – that I met the Swiss Family Huber at the Kunming Institute of Botany, both Franz and Caroline studying ethnobotany in China. They had told me about their field trips in September to a rural village in the mountains between Dali and Lijiang and I had thought maybe I might meet up with them as I headed into northern Yunnan but I hadn’t marked the village on my map and had  forgotten its name.

Using Dali as a base I had already ventured beyond Lijiang for the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek, so when Nicole from Holland was enthusing about a small traditional village she had heard about, not more than 3-4 hours drive north, it seemed worth exploring. Eric was also keen to visit, so we hired a car – being told that it was difficult to get to by bus – and spent two wonderful days exploring the village and walking up to the temples and “grottoes” in the surrounding hills.

The time was far too short and I vowed to return. It was only when I contacted Franz to find out where they were headed that I discovered that their research was based in Shaxi. They had been here for a few days already when I returned, checking into the Laomadian Guest House, one of the main historical inns on the edge of the market square that had been extensively renovated, yet which retained all its old character. There are a number of small courtyards within the complex, with a range of accommodation from double-bed en suites – with all mod cons – to simple 3-bed dorms with one shared shower and a mix of western-style and squat toilets. The restaurant can seat up to 30 people, there is a café which borders the square, and an additional eating area upstairs overlooking the courtyards.

Laomadian Guest House 5672 Laomadian Guest House

Laomadian Guest House dorm 6380 Laomadian Guest House dorm

The building has a traditional base layer of stone upon which rammed earth and mud brick walls rise, the eaves extending outwards protecting them from rain. Internal walls are wood panelled and the lower floor of stone or tile. Some of the outer walls retain their traditional mud and straw plaster, painted white with predominantly black decoration. The lattice-shuttered windows are small, making the rooms dark, but these have been glazed to protect against wind and there is electricity throughout. There is also WiFi, which is how I have been able to send and receive e-mails, and do internet research for planning my future travels.

Rammed earth and plaster 4935 Rammed earth and plaster

The Hubers occupy the upper floor above the two small dormitory-style rooms – I am fortunate to have one of these rooms to myself as it is small and there is no-where to hang clothes apart from the back of the door – and while the ceiling has good insulation, it is not sound-proof against two small children running around on the wooden floor early in the morning!

Franz’s research involves interviewing a sample of families from Shaxi and the surrounding villages about their collection of mushrooms or medicinal plants, whether for trade or home use. He and Caroline have been involved with the Shaxi project for over five years and work with an interpreter, Frank, who is also based in Kunming, mainly teaching Chinese to foreigners.

I was tentative about asking if I could accompany Franz on one of his interviews, but he was very relaxed about it. So the first morning Franz, Frank and I walked to the neighbouring village of Changle to meet the Village Official and ask for permission to interview a number of families from different economic backgrounds. After the obligatory tea and passing round of cigarettes, he took us to a very poor family on the edge of the village, Franz buying four bags of sugar as a gift from the tradition stall-type shops on the way.

I was very keen to make sure that the family was happy with me taking photographs of them and their home, but this seemed to be no problem. So while Franz and Frank worked through their questionnaire, I wandered around photographing the interview process and the other activities that were taking place around the outside courtyard: the farmer’s mother plaiting the corn-husks together for hanging and drying and the Tibetan mother and child listening to the questions with keep interest.

Interviewing a farmer 5844 Interviewing a farmer

Preparing maize for drying 5738 Preparing maize for drying

Tibetan mother and child 5728 Tibetan mother and child

The Grandmother 5818 The Grandmother

Because Franz was working through the questionnaire in English, and Frank translating the answers, I was able to gain an insight into this family’s lifestyle that I would never have been privilege to as a tourist to Shaxi. I was amazed that people are quite happy to discuss their, and their family members’ ages and educational level, and go into great detail about the income they derived from various sources.

There was no reluctance in any way to discuss such private matters – and I wondered if it was because they are used to revealing such information to Chinese officials. This may be part of the answer, but more-so there is a great reliance between individuals, families and neighbours within these villages to ensure a reasonable level of existence, and this information is simply not seen as being private. Unlike in the West where income – and more importantly the accumulation of wealth – is not a subject for open discussion. These predominantly farming families do not own their land, and have little opportunity to improve their situation outside increasing their educational level. And there is little incentive for this.

Farmer's courtyard 5750 Farmer’s courtyard

Because farming is a seasonal occupation, other work is sourced from outside the village where possible. The first farmer we interviewed supplements his income by travelling to Dali where he paints the traditional decoration on the sides of buildings. Others are carpenters or labourers. But for the men who are completely unskilled, there is little opportunity for additional income apart from the seasonal trade from mushroom collecting or growing medicinal plants.

Over the course of about a week I accompanied Franz on a number of his interviews, learning a little more each time about the people who inhabit this peaceful valley – and about their perceptions of why the trade in mushrooms or medicinal plants is declining and, from some, what they believe could be done to protect the environment. This is part of the subject of Franz’s research, and my “fly-on-the-wall” experiences are grossly insufficient to allow me to draw any conclusions. However, I can allow myself some observations.

More on Shaxi in Part II, later.