The Yunnanese ethnic diversity and character that old town Lijiang lacked, we found a few kilometers away in ancient Baisha village. Still a part of the Lijiang UNESCO World Heritage Site, Baisha is far enough removed that only a few tourists on bikes wander down its sleepy, dusty lanes. The Naxi first settled in Baisha centuries ago, well before Kublai Khan united the region with the rest of China in 1271, and it was the original home of the ruling Mu family before its move to nearby Lijiang. Today, Naxi women cheerfully sell vegetables on well-worn steps while locals pick up rice and other staples at the corner store. It is a living, breathing place, seemingly unchanged with the passing of time (and influx of tourists to the region).
Baisha’s two main streets are lined with an array of quiet shops that are decidedly less touristy than what we found in Lijiang. Local artisans can be seen hammering copper sheets into bowls and dying yards of traditional batik fabric left to dry in the sun. Hand-painted souvenir t-shirts feature Tibetan script and Dongba characters, the hieroglyphic Naxi language which also adorns a few of the walls. In one shop, we watched a man carefully inscribe a shirt with a Tibetan prayer for peace. A few clothing stores feature unique pieces such as linen dresses with embroidered trim and softly woven sets of cold-weather accessories suited for the mountain climate. Along the street, tables are covered with a mix of mass-produced items and antiques that look like they survived the Cultural Revolution buried in someone’s backyard.
We visited a school where Naxi girls learn the art of silk embroidery from masters, diligently working for weeks on a single piece. One master had been intricately embroidering a silk screen for several years, though we were told that, with her eyesight fading, there were concerns she wouldn’t be able to finish it. Another master created an embroidered painting of American President Obama and his family, which was presented to them as a gift by Chinese President Xi.
A girl with excellent English stepped away from her sewing to give us a tour of the workshop and explain its fascinating history. Embroidery was banned during the Cultural Revolution as an unnecessary luxury and the skills were nearly lost. Now the government gives money and supplies to the school in an effort to revive the traditional art. The students sell their signed works in the attached shop for 250 RMB (41 USD) each and purportedly get to keep the money. More exquisite pieces are also available, with some upward of thousands of U.S. dollars.
Baisha’s most famous resident is Dr. Ho Shixiu, an expert in Chinese herbal medicine who has been featured in media as varied as National Geographic and the BBC. The sprightly 93-year-old welcomed us into his office and proudly showed off his accolades. Dr. Ho told us that his family was very poor when he was young, so he grew up eating roots and vegetables instead of meat, attributing this to his long-standing good health (and also his lack of teeth). Dr. Ho’s philosophy is simple and he repeated it to us several times: “Optimism is the best medicine.” He also told us that we looked very healthy so no herbal prescriptions for us.
We stopped in the Impression Baisha Cafe for lunch and were very pleasantly surprised to find a menu featuring local Naxi specialties. This is exactly the type of place we had hoped to find in Lijiang but had eluded us until now. Tender, flavorful pieces of yak came sizzling on a hot iron plate playfully shaped like a bull. Stir-fried Naxi potatoes were tossed with chunks of tomato and spring onion in a savory, yet tangy sauce that brought to mind oyster sauce and vinegar. On the recommendation of another diner, we ordered the Naxi cheese, a delightful serving of breaded and fried slices yaks-milk cheese with sugar on the side for dipping. The salty/sweet combination was deeply satisfying. All this came with a small bucket of steamed rice and cost just 134 RMB (about 22 USD). Not bad for our best meal in Lijiang!