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Photo by Kate Gross-Whitaker

Sha Xi

A light pitter patter of rain accompanied us as we walked down the stone steps toward Shaxi.  Blankets of trees encased us on either side–the only goal was to not slip and go crashing down the mountain side.  Suddenly, the trees fell away, and we stood on an outcropping, and the entirety of the valley stretched before us. This was a great photo-op, Jesse quipped.

The hills rolled beneath, giving way to rectangular splotches–all different shades of greens: tobacco, corn, squash, rice, taro, lotus. After the obligatory photos and some of us getting maybe slightly too close to the edge, we started our final descent. The rain had stopped to be replaced by the pitter patter of our tired feet on the steps.

Over our five day stay in Shaxi, we explored the town and also the effects of tourism on it. We got breakfast from the food carts that lined the main road in the town center. Husbands and wives sold Bao Zi and Mian Tiao next to each one another and others sold a variety of different kinds of mushrooms–freshly picked from the mountains in the spring. We explored the park near the river and, on our last night, happily joined in a square dance there. Women in vivid, ornate costumes danced around a fire in the center of the park, and tourists and local people alike tried to keep up.

On Friday, we ventured to the weekly market, where vendors peddled every kind of good–pomegranates, little painted turtles (the humaneness of which was questionable), tobacco leaves, and all sorts of household goods. We bought a motley assortment of fruits–always making sure to ask: “yi jing duoshao qian?” (how much for a half kg?): mangosteens, pamelo, oranges, longang, and more.

We made dumplings with Lu Laoshi one night. In his deep booming voice and Beijing accent, he taught us the proper way to roll out dumpling skins from dough (though very few of us came close to his perfect examples) and how to create the aesthetic and practical pleats on the Jiao Zi exterior. We made around 150–some resembled dumplings, others couldn’t stand the boiling water. We all gathered around two tables–pushed together–and ate until we resembled dumplings ourselves.

We talked with Zhao Laoshi about Bai culture. He spoke about Bai history in Yunnan, Bai traditions, festivals and culture. He even played his traditional instrument for us, filling the small room in the Shaxi Cultural Center with beautiful music. While in Shaxi, we also discussed and observed the effects of tourism on the local economy and its inhabitants. We thought about the relationship between culture and tourism–whether this relationship is parasitical, if tourism ultimately destroys local culture or whether it is symbiotic, if tourism allows for the preservation of local cultures. To us, Shaxi seemed like a place of constant change. Everyday, more and buildings went under construction. We saw carpenters carving ornate designs–intended to look suitably “ancient”–to put on the newly refurbished facades. The shops sold small trinkets–apparently novel but quite similar to the place next store–to tourists from all over China and the world. They all came to Shaxi–a small town nestled in verdant hills: bustling yet serene, isolated yet connected.

I’m writing this Yak in Liming a few days after we left Shaxi. In about fifteen minutes, we’re embarking on a four day trek into the mountain surrounding Liming.