I suppose most villages in China – if they have survived wars, earthquakes and the relentless passage of time – could be considered Ancient Towns. Some have achieved status as World Heritage sites – Lijiang and Pingyao – or as AAAAA Tourist Attractions – Zhouzhuang and Dali. But some are just there… like Xizhou Village, on the edge of famous Dali Ancient Town and on the edge of being “discovered.” Dali overshadows its neighbor because it is large and elegant and established as the premier tourist, cultural and heritage destination in Yunnan. But on a day trip out from Dali, I was treated to Xizhou – totally authentic and free of tour groups – so far.
Three things made Xizhou stand out for me. The first was the architecture – beautifully intricate gates and doors. Even the most modest homes had magnificent entrances. Blue like the Yunnan sky!
Everywhere, hand-painted murals and marble art pieces. The marble comes from the mountains of Yunnan, and pieces are presented as natural art, some framed and some mounted on walls, some marketed as a trademark craft of Yunnan.
Details tell about the inhabitants – horoscopes and accomplishments.
Xizhou is a living art gallery, not just the painting and architecture, but in its prominent industry – silk weaving and embroidery. A tour is possible but photographing the exquisite and expensive work is not. The master artisan at this celebrated facility is a young man who is struggling to keep the traditions alive and to teach others. I asked if he was teaching his son and he is sad eyes said it all.
The second thing in Xizhou that impressed me was the shopping basket-backpacks that the ladies all carried in the market. I don’t recall seeing them anywhere else. In an era of plastic shopping bag pollution, these are so practical in the market but not practical for a traveler like me, although I wanted one badly.
The market was fascinating as always in China – usual and unusual vegetables. The yellow monstrosity is a vegetable called Buddha’s fingers.
Among the usual fish, some unusual animal heads. Tell me if you can imagine what they do with goat heads or hog faces.
Always in the market, there are interesting things to linger over – embroidery cotton, firecrackers, brass mountain bells, strange smoking devices and my favorite – baskets! That tube is a type of water pipe, and the smoker puts his whole mouth into the end to suck and blow – or so I am told. Something I only saw in Yunnan. The mountain bell is now hanging in my kitchen and we use it for “last call.”
The third feature that made Xizhou memorable was the casket maker. He carves wooden caskets by hand, and for people who survive to 100 years, he lacquers them a brilliant red. Three coffins were waiting in his shop – so I put my name on one. I’ll go back for it in 30 years or so. It was striking to me that there were only the red caskets – like nobody died in Xizhou under the age of 100.
Side streets are always fascinating for the services that locals need – the dentist, the pawn shop, the poster reminders to be a good worker and party member. Sometimes I shudder at the open dentist chairs I see, thankful that I don’t need one urgently.
It was clear to me that this village has tourism prospects and they knew it. Frankly, it was infinitely more charming and engaging than its famous neighbor. The streets had not been widened, there was no McDonalds or Starbucks, there were no neon signs and hustlers selling souvenirs. Just one bohemian coffee shop, one grumpy dog, a collection of unique architectural styles and details, a few guest houses, and the gentle seniors shopping. I’d go back to Xizhou in a heartbeat!