Once Shaxi was a thriving little town. Nestled in a beautiful green valley Shaxi was a good place to live. A pleasant climate, plenty of water from the slopes of the high Cangshan mountains to the east, and good agricultural land made its Bai farmers prosperous. And every few days, mostly during the dry winter season, a caravan on its way north to Tibet or south to the hot lowlands passed through.
From the hills of Simao and Xishuangbanna the caravaners brought tea; animal hides and bones, important in Chinese medicine, from Burma. Salt, one of the most important commodities before the advent of refridgeration, came from Qiaohou, just south of Shaxi, or from Yunlong across the mountains to the west. Tibetans in turn brought down musk, mushrooms and medicine from the cold mountains of the north. And opium, always an illicit good, was certainly carried somewhere hidden on this route that bypassed the checkpoints of Dali.
Whenever the caravaners came they held market in the evening and at night, trading some of the goods they brought for local products. Around the market square shops opened and guesthouses, where the caravaners would spend the night. And because the times were good a large stage rose on the market's eastern side. And with the goods came the gods. On the top floor of the stage resided Kuixing, the god of literature and culture. Directly across, on the market's other side, was the entrance to Xingjiao Temple, a Buddhist holy site. When the Azhali Buddhists, who founded the temple in the fifteenth century, were driven out, it became a centre of Guanyin worship, the Bai people's religion.
But the events of the middle of last century spelled the end for Shaxi. When the People's Liberation Army advanced on western Tibet in 1950 they requisitioned all the pack-animals they could find. The trade between Yunnan and Tibet that had flourished over centuries came to an abrupt halt. The communists' ban on private markets put an end on the exchange of local goods.
Religious persecution saw the closure of the temples and the disappearance of their sculptures. Government offices moved in. But as through a miracle, the soot of history had blackened the old fresoes on Xingjiao Temple. Invisible high below the rafters they survived the onslaught of history.
The communists' plan for radical development sideline the small valley further. When the modern road arrived, it bypassed the old market place by a few hundred meters - and spared the old market wholesale destruction. From a thriving economic centre, Shaxi's Sideng market became a ghosttown. Squatters moved in, buildings decayed to the point of collapse.
Even the early days of tourism in neighbouring Dali, Lijiang, even Shibaoshan left no trace on Shaxi. Fortunately: it gave Shaxi time to wait for a gentler re-awakening. When Shaxi's time came even Chinese development planners felt the negative effects of the destroy-and-rebuild approach that blightened early tourist developments. They sought a new approach - and found it in Jacques Feiner, a Swiss conservation expert.
Jacques Feiner had made his name on groundbreaking restoration work in Yemen's Sanaa. His approach is to restore, not rebuild, using tradional techniques and materials. Where modern additions are required they are clearly visible as such, rather than blending in "traditional" style.
Funding came when the World Monuments Fund added Shaxi to the Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites as the only surviving example of a market town on China's old caravan roads. The restoration work first began on Shaxi's most endangered structures, threatened by imminent collapse. Now the stage has been restored, the gate repaired, the market drained and relaid, the temple cleaned up and reopened.
Feiner's approach may be more European than Chinese, but it has won major awards, the last a Unesco Award of Distinction for cultural heritage preservation. The money coming in is to fund the further stages of the project, more ambitious than restoration of the market square. For the project to succeed long-term, entire Shaxi valley, the historical layout of its villages, need plans for sustainable development, which allow its Bai farmers a way out of poverty without losing their culture.
To survive, Shaxi needs to live. Shaxi's market, long ago moved to the main road, will return to its historic square. New shops will move into the old buildings. Xingjiao Temple will open for worship once again, and the stage is ready once again for local performances. New caravans are beginning to arrive from all over the world. This time not traders, but tourists.
Read more on Shaxi at http://www.shaxichina.com/.