Shaxi is a delightful town that hasn't yet been taken over by restaurants and souvenir shops. On market day (Friday) it's packed with locals doing their shopping and on other days it's all but deserted, so unless you're averse to markets I'd recommended you try to incorporate rather than avoid - it's the real thing.
When we mentioned to a fellow guest at our hotel in Dali (Gurong) that we were going to spend three nights in Shaxi he said 'Why?'; after all, he and his wife were just going to stop off for a couple of hours on their way to Lijiang. To be honest I didn't really know (not at that time having read Ringwood 61's very eloquent contribution below), other than that we try and make it a rule to stay at least three nights in any location so that we're not always on the move and can feel we've got the measure of the place.
As always the weather makes a big difference, so if your visit coincides with an inclement spell then you may indeed wonder why you bothered, but we had glorious sunshine at the time of the late October rice harvest and the pastoral setting looked idyllic. It isn't of course for the locals who toil ceaselessly in the fields just to make ends meet, but it's how life will have been for very many generations.
In the event three nights was about right, giving us one day for the market, one day to explore locally, and a few hours spare to visit Shibao Shan. On our 'day off' I hired a bicycle from our lodgings (Old Theatre Inn), not least as it was an opportunity to see if I could still ride after nigh on forty years (which I could, save that in my youth one only had three gears!). I had an enjoyable day - if somewhat saddle sore afterwards - but it's true that even a bicycle seems too rapid a form of transport in this environment. The best way to explore the nearby villages is undoubtedly on foot and lingering as long as possible in the process. My wife stayed nearer to base and simply read on the terrace and pottered around the nearby fields, and reckoned it was the best day of our entire holiday.
So there you have it. The image you retain of Shaxi will very much depend on whether you make it a quick stop-off or a key destination in its own right. If the latter appeals then try and visit soon before the new motorway opens (or better still wait until immediately after it does open!), as it's a sad fact of life that the improved accessibility and dramatic reduction in journey-time from Dali to Lijiang will mean that far more tourists will make the short detour to Shaxi and, in the process, will ultimately destroy the very character of the place they come to see.
NB We should all be grateful to the Swiss whose research and conservation efforts a few years back led to repairs being carried out to the old town (Sideng) - see exhibition in the temple across the main square from the theatre (free for foreign visitors on production of passport).
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