A 90-minute drive along the new highway from Dali and Lijiang, the Shaxi Valley lies on the route of the old Tea Horse Road connecting Yunnan with Tibet and Myanmar. Screened by forested mountain ridges, the vale retains some of the best preserved period architecture in the entire region, in villages populated mainly by members of the Yi and Bai minorities.
If you’re wondering what southwest China must have been like 15 or 20 years ago, this pocket of Tang-era elegance will provide some pointers. A preservation order has been placed on the entire area prohibiting modern construction and as a consequence, its settlements remain superbly picturesque, featuring traditional whitewashed farmsteads and courtyard houses with upswept eaves and tiled roofs, nestled beside rivers spanned by humpbacked bridges.
At the centre of the largest village, a painted wooden temple and old theatre stage dominate a cobbled square lined with cafés and pretty artisanal souvenir shops. Every five days, Bai people dressed in traditional garb descend with bamboo baskets on their backs to buy and sell fresh produce here.
Stay in Shaxi and you’ll also be able to make the memorable hike up nearby Shibaoshan, a sacred mountain to the north, where a string of ancient temples and shrines are connected by forest trails. Horse treks through local villages and a friendly cookery school where you can learn to make jiaozi dumplings, Yunnanese pastries and other local specialities, provide additional incentive to extend your stay.