It was bustling with people. Old and young, equipped with soon-to-be-filled wooden baskets on their backs, made their way through the narrow streets. Street vendors everywhere. Lined up one after the other on either side of the street or scattered throughout the middle. The air was filled with a variety of scents. Some of them quite good, tempting us to explore their origins, others less so. Christian and I found ourselves at the weekly Friday market in a town called Shaxi.
Shaxi, which is located in the Yunnan province only about a 2 hours drive away from Lijiang, started as a trading point for tea and horses during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). It’s said to be the most intact horse caravan town on the ancient tea route leading from Burma to Tibet. We were struck by Shaxi’s authenticity. Lijiang (known as the main attraction in the region), Shuhe Old Town (where we stayed at a lovely B&B called “The Bivou”) or Baisha (where we met Dr. Ho) were all beautiful but also felt somewhat gentrified and quite touristy. Shaxi, in contrast, felt more untouched, had more local shops and just in general seemed to go about its daily business instead of catering to tourists. It was beautiful and incredibly refreshing. At times Christian and I seemed to be the main attraction in town, getting curious looks from locals ourselves. Wandering the streets, we made some interesting observations.
Besides a very rich local produce offering, teas, staples, clothing and household items, people also stocked up on livestock (or alive animals that would meet the dinner table soon). A small “chicken market” offered a variety of alive chickens in the age range you desired. You just picked the chickens you liked, packed them in a cardboard box and tied the box to your wooden shopping basket.
Then there was the “fish market”, an accumulation of low, square plastic basins with all sorts of fish. You could get them gutted or alive (in a plastic bag).
That said, the most unexpected offering were dental and ear doctor services. Imagine the dentist’s office as a simple plastic chair next to a table with some accessories on the side of the road. The dental offering seemed to consist of cleaning services, teeth removal and also prosthetics. For the latter, one could choose from a few used (yes, used!) dental implants. Some of them were missing teeth. Others were decaying already. I guess better than nothing if options are limited. ‘Unfortunately’, no one seemed in need of (or was willing to undergo) any procedures while we were there.
The ear doctor, however, seemed in higher demand. He was examining the left ear of a middle-aged man. A crowd of onlookers had gathered in a close circle around the patient’s chair. I almost squirmed when the ear doctor, quite a young man, took his silver instrument and ‘dug’ into the patients ear. He moved the long tweezers forcefully from one side to the other. The patient grimaced out of pain. This was not pretty to watch. Suddenly, a dark brown piece (the size of a fingernail) materialized itself. The ear doctor dropped it in a little yellow metal jar on the table. That’s when I realized that the jar already contained dozens of others brown pieces. All of the pieces were earwax! Earwax that probably accumulated over many, many years. The patient played around with his ear, testing his hearing abilities. He seemed pleased with the results. With that ‘fluff’ removed his hearing ability must have just jumped 10x! I was, however, still questioning the doctor’s method. Couldn’t the patients ear get hurt in the process? The doctor, for sure, had attracted some more attention and would probably make good business that day.
Having worked up an appetite, Christian and I hit a few food stalls, eating our way through a selection of noodles and desserts. We didn’t really have an idea what exactly was offered but with an adventurous spirit we tried various dishes. The first dish was a mix of cold rice noodles with different spices, cilantro and a type of soy sauce. Then I saw some kids taste an interesting drink. It was of brownish color with some sort of solid, gelatinous balls inside. Upon tasting it I found it a bit too sweet but good nonetheless. And then we tried this dish that we had seen several times throughout the day. Grayish looking thick, solid custard that was mixed with noodles, spring onion, peanuts and a variety of sauces. Even to this day I still don’t know exactly what we ate. Christian thinks it was lard, I keep telling myself it was some gelatinous, rice-based substance.
With both of our stomachs and curiosity satiated, we made our way back to Shuhe Old Town with a quick stop over at Mount Shibao, renowned for its grottoes with Buddhist sculpture carvings. The day had been a highlight of our stay in the Yunnan region, truly transporting us back to another time.