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June 4, 2014

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Visiting Xizhou is like being trapped in time

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AS an urbanite living south of the Yangtze River for more than 30 years, I’m accustomed to hearing praise for picturesque water towns and classical Chinese gardens, sometimes termed “heaven on earth.”

But when I paid a recent visit to the Dali area in central Yunnan Province, I realized there might be another kind of “heaven” on earth.

Set in the Cangshan Mountains near Erhai Lake, the area contains 26 ethnic minorities and colorful cultures, giving visitors both exotica and a fascinating landscape.

It’s was truly a relief to get away from smoggy Shanghai when I saw the crystal blue sky and bathed in warm sunshine as I walked out of the Dali airport.

We decided to avoid the crowds, vendors and well-trodden paths in Dali Old Town, featuring “old buildings” that received very obvious and recent face-lifts.

Instead, we decided to venture into small, ancient towns scattered in the countryside.

They are the real thing, filled with quaint and mostly intact centuries-old courtyards and buildings and surrounded by peaceful scenery. The hurry of the outside world does not intrude.

The local food is delicious and made from natural ingredients only available in the region.

These towns and villages are like pearls scattered around Dali and they have become a magnet for independent travelers pursuing a fresh and different experience.

Among the small towns, Xizhou — literally “Happy Prefecture” — is not very commercial and has not yet been developed for tourism. It is well preserved and anyone who wants to understand the Bai ethnic culture and Dali should not miss it.

Xizhou is just west of Erhai Lake, around 20km from Dali Old Town. As we traveled by taxi through the small town, to be frank, I was a little disappointed at the disorderly streets and garbage littered in the bazaar.

My disappointment did not dissipate until we arrived at a boutique hotel, so chic and elegant, that we decided to stay and explore, saving the tour around the township for the next day.

Renovated from a typical Bai minority courtyard residence built during the Republic of China period (1911-49), the Sky Valley Heritage Boutique Hotel achieves balance between modernity and history. The Shanghainese owner fell in love with the peaceful town and invited an Italian architect to convert the residence, making it comfortable while preserving the original structure and some of the decorative elements.

Sitting in the 100-year-old cobblestone courtyard and sipping a cup of local tea, we appreciated the old bricks, tiles, carved wooden windows and delicate reliefs, which heightened our expectations for the next days’ trip in town.

The daytime seems much longer in Yunnan and I was surprised at the time shown on my watch when sunshine sneaked through the curtain and awakened me. As recommended by online travel guides, we took a horse-drawn carriage after breakfast to begin our one-day tour.

Simple carts are still common transport and visitors can see Bai women in traditional dress hail the drivers to take them to the fields, or back home. They hail carts the way we hail taxis.

Given the increasing number of travelers, some smart hostlers and inn keepers have upgrade their carts into more comfortable and elaborate carriages with colorful decorations and turned the tours into sightseeing experiences.

We were lucky to find Mr Dong, a veteran hostler who proved himself to be a nice guide. He told us a lot of history and stories about the township and the historic residences that we visited.

Mr Dong’s carriage first took us to a residential block of Bai ethnic buildings, considered unique in Chinese architectural history. Many are memorable for their simple, elegant style and functionality.

While these buildings still house locals, the dwellers warmly welcomed us when we arrived with Mr Dong. They explained various residential architectural styles. One of them is “san fang yi zhaobi” in which three houses form a U-shape and one screen wall fills the fourth side and encloses the space. In “si he wu tianjin,” four houses enclose a space containing five patios.

Though many buildings we visited were a bit dilapidated, we could still appreciate the beauty and delicacy in impressive sculptures and paintings on the screen wall and on wood pillars supporting corridors.

Most of the historical buildings in the residential block belong to four families surnamed Yang, Yin, Yan and Dong.

Interestingly, not every family is entitled to build a house in any style they fancy. The fourth screen wall, a sign of knowledge and status, is a privilege reserved for wealthy businessmen and famous intellectuals.

The four surnames, one of them being Mr Dong’s, represent the major of the town’s well-known personages. As a result, they own the most elaborate residences, as Dong told us, and he is very proud of his heritage.

Throughout history, craftsmen from Xizhou were renowned for their skills as carpenters, carvers, masons, sculptors and painters, and they traveled to Vietnam and Myanmar and throughout southwestern China to build and decorate houses.

Leaving the historical complex, Mr Dong’s carriage took us on a bumpy ride through country fields to reach Haishe Park, “haishe” meaning sea tongue. The park is shaped like a long tongue that wriggles into Erhai Lake. The park is totally natural and there’s no man-made construction. It’s like a nature reserve. But there is a public bathroom, the one convenience.

Some trees grow into the water and the reflection in the crystal-blue water is breathtaking.

Travelers take picnic lunches in the meadows surrounded by the grand Cangshan Mountains and verging on glassy Erhai Lake.

On our way back to the hotel, Mr Dong took a different route. We glimpsed villagers’ daily lives and even saw a wedding banquet.

Visits to the old residential complex are free. If you want to experience more Bai-style architecture, you can explore Yan’s Compound on Sifang Street in downtown Xizhou. Built in the 1920s, it covers 3,000sqm and is considered a representative extended family household. Today it is a museum. Admission is 60 yuan (US$9.6).

The compound is divided into four parts and each is cleverly connected. The principal house with its screen wall and two wings functions as living room and chamber to host important guests. According to Bai tradition, the screen wall should face east to the rising sun, ensuring early morning sunlight reaches the interior rooms.

Both the second and third parts are enclosed by four houses with four small rooms. These demonstrate the traditional “si he wu tianjing” style and contain the family’s bedrooms, guest rooms and other facilities.

The final part of the compound embraces a modern, Western building in a nice garden. The magnificent design of Yan’s Compound reflects the Bai people’s architectural gifts. I found the relics on display in the museum impressive and they gave me insight into Bai ethnic history.

Leaving Yan’s Compound, visitors will find themselves in a small square called Sifang Jie, literally Square Street. These squares are common in small towns in Yunnan where they are usually found in town centers and are filled with food stores and groceries.

You can enjoy snacks and shop for souvenirs.

How to get there

Fly to Dali in Yunnan Province, a four-hour trip with a transfer at Kunming airport. From Dali Airport, take a taxi to Xizhou township. The ride takes 40 minutes and costs 160 yuan, but costs a little more on holidays.


¥ Without a clear distinction between the four seasons, DaliÕs temperature ranges between 12 and 20 degrees Celsius with the mercury rising to around 25 degrees in the summer. The sun shines most days and Xizhou is truly a year-round travel destination due to its temperate climate.

¥ Try Xizhou baba (ϲÖÝôÎôÎ), also called posu baba£¨ÆÆËÖôÎôΣ©, a roasted wheat-flour cake. The flat and round snack comes with two different fillings: a savory version with minced pork and spring onions or a sweet version filled with dousha, or red bean paste. ItÕs crispy outside and so delicious.

¥ Sifang Jie Shidian (ËÄ·½½Öʳµê) is a restaurant on Sifang Street offering high-quality local produce and dishes at reasonable prices. The owner is hospitable. ItÕs recommended by Lonely Planet and stays open late.

¥ Villagers sell handicrafts in the open courtyard of an old residential complex where the carriage tour makes a stop. The crafts are charming and exotic, with colorful patterns and delicate embroidery. Remember to bargain. A 20-30 percent discount is acceptable.

History of Xizhou

Surrounded by rice paddies and dotted with well-preserved Bai traditional houses, Xizhou is a legendary town in the Nanzhao Kingdom (AD 738-937). It was a key military stronghold and center of trade and Buddhism in the kingdom.

The town prospered on the southern Silk Road during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The areaÕs tea and marble products were traded all over Asia.

At the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, some wealthy families sent their children to study overseas. Many returnees became wealthy businessmen and built grand residences in the town.

During the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45),  Xizhou was a refuge for Chinese intellectuals who relocated there. Two of ChinaÕs most famous cultural figures, writer Lao She and painter Xu Beihong, used to live in the town.


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