Friday, 30 March 2012

Shaxi Town along the centuries-old Silk Road

Making an Old Town New
Shaxi Town along the centuries-old Silk Road forges a new path in restoration
By Yuan Yuan
OVER THE RIVER: Children in Shaxi Town at Yujin Bridge, a centuries-old structure (CFP)

Between two of the best known tourist destinations in southwest China's Yunnan Province, Lijiang and Dali, another ancient town has sat, largely overlooked, for much of the past century.
Shaxi, an extraordinarily well-preserved small town in Jianchuan County, houses treasures, tea houses and architecture that date back more than 1,400 years.
It has been called the only living link left along the Silk Road, an ancient trade route that connected China to West Asia for more than 1,400 years. Located several hours drive from the nearest major city, Shaxi remained extremely isolated until very recently and the town's people, 90 percent of whom are from the Bai ethnic group, therefore maintain a largely traditional way of life.
Despite its rich history and exceptional state of preservation, Shaxi was in fact virtually unknown to outsiders until 2001, when Jacques Feiner from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology visited this area and realized the historical wealth of the little town.
Ancient and original
"It was so original and so many buildings and sites from its trading days remained," Feiner said.
Shaxi flourished from 1368 to 1911, when it was a major commercial hub on the Silk Road. Nestled in a beautiful green valley with a pleasant climate, the road through Shaxi was the preferred route of caravaners trading in tea and horses.
Traders carrying different goods would meet in the town and exchange their wares at the town fair.
The main market area in the town, Sideng Market, has remained largely unchanged for centuries. In the past whenever trading caravans came to the town, they sold some of their goods for local produce in the evening. Around the market square were dozens of guesthouses, where traders would spend the night.
Nowadays, at night, the locals still gather in the market area to dance and play music and every Friday, the Bai people from all the villages in the Shaxi Valley and the Yi people from the surrounding mountains all come together to trade everything from fresh produce to supplies and horses. Minority women will be dressed in their colorful traditional costumes, and men will often lead pack mules to carry supplies back to their mountain villages, much like in the days of the Tea & Horse Caravan Trail hundreds of years ago.
On one side of the market square sits the Xingjiao Temple, parts of which date back to the early 1400s. It used to be a busy holy place filled with the sounds of chanting and prayers. Also in the square sits the old town's more prominent building, the Sideng Theater, where merchants once gathered to watch operas.
Courtyard homes and guesthouses make up much of the rest of Shaxi. Some of the guesthouses have been in operation for more than 100 years. Comprised of several courtyards, the Laomadian Lodge sits in a 151-year-old building, which was used as accommodation for Silk Road travelers. The guesthouse still houses many of the original cabinets that horsemen slept on top of to guard their personal belongings. White reflecting walls in the courtyards display restored Bai paintings, and, as with all of Shaxi, stepping across the threshold of the inn feels like stepping back through centuries in time.
Careful restoration
After 1949, Shaxi fell into relative isolation. History largely forgot the town over the following decades, and even the early days of tourism in neighboring Dali, Lijiang and Shibaoshan left no trace on Shaxi. This gave Shaxi time to wait for a gentler re-awakening.
In 2001, the World Monument Fund added Shaxi's market square to its Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites as the only surviving example of a market town on China's old caravan roads. After that, a team of researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the local Jianchuan County Government launched a $1.3- million Shaxi Valley Rehabilitation Project. The project consists of five parts, marketplace restoration, village preservation, sustainable valley development, ecological sanitation and poverty alleviation.

ANCIENT THEATER: Sideng Theater in Shaxi Town, Jianchuan County in southwest China's Yunnan Province, has a history of more than 1,000 years and still retains its originality (CFP)

The team that restored the city's old town trialed new and original techniques in order to preserve the area's distinct identity. Feiner, who made his name on groundbreaking restoration work in Yemen's Sanaa, insisted on restoration rather than rebuilding, and the use of traditional techniques and materials. "When modern additions are made, they should be clearly visible as such, rather than being made to blend in by using modern methods and a faux-traditional style," he said.
Huang Yinwu, an architect from the same team, echoed this idea. "To keep its originality doesn't mean we disguise the new as something old. It's about keeping the spirit of buildings and sites intact."
From 2003 to 2004, Huang and his team spent a whole year piloting their ideas on two buildings in Shaxi. During the process, they learnt more about the structures and materials used in the old buildings. They selected some craftsmen from the town and employed traditional skills in restoring their original appearances.
After that, Huang's team started to work on the town's most prominent structures—the theater and the gate of Xingjiao Temple.
"Usually in a restoration project, the construction team submits a plan before they begin work," Huang said. "But in this case that wasn't viable as we encountered many new problems during restoration such as leaking roofs and issues of drainage. So we had to constantly adapt our plans."
This painstaking method proved time-consuming and costly. Seeing neighboring regions including Lijiang benefit by demolishing old buildings and rebuilding in a traditional style, the local government became keen to copy the model.
"Lijiang is not a good example for us," Huang said. "Naxi culture is sold to tourists in Lijiang like in a big shopping mall. Development there isn't sustainable. If the tourism boom declines, there will be nothing left of the culture."
In Shaxi, he explained, tourism isn't yet established, and it remains uncertain how it is going to develop. There is no hotel in town, only a few family guesthouses. "We should aim for slow but sustainable development. For the project to succeed long-term, the entire Shaxi Valley, and its historical villages, need a plan for sustainable development, which allow local Bai farmers a way out of poverty without losing their culture," he said.
The local government eventually acknowledged that plans based on mass tourism were not suitable for Shaxi. Feiner and Huang's restoration work continued. Today the market has been drained and relaid, the temple cleaned up and reopened for worship, and the stage is ready once again for local performances. More and more travelers have also begun making their way to the town.

Shaxi Quick Facts
Covering 287 square km, Shaxi Town is home to about 50,000 residents and has a history of more than 1,000 years. People of the Bai ethnic group account for 90 percent of the local population.
The Bai people are mainly agricultural. Their main staple crops are rice and wheat. Their houses are two-storeyed, with the family living on top and livestock below. The style is distinctive, with mud bricks, graceful eaves and tiled roofs. The main Bai religion is worship of local tutelary spirits. Linked with the religious Guanyin Festival, the traditional ceremonies are still alive. Nowadays, the festival is most important for markets, performances, competitions and games.


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