For our five nights in Lijiang County, we stayed at a delightful guesthouse in Shuhe Old Town, four kilometers from Lijiang Old Town. Like Shangri-la in the north, Shuhe was a stop on the Tea Horse Road over which Tibetan horses and Chinese tea were traded for centuries. Today that heritage is still in evidence, with dozens of horses carrying goods and tourists through the ancient village. Their clomping hooves and jangling bells provided a lively soundtrack to our explorations of the quaint little town. A recognized area of the Lijiang UNESCO World Heritage site, we found Shuhe less crowded and more charming that its higher-profile neighbor. Shuhe boasts wide lanes which give visitors plenty of elbow room and the bordering farms provide a bounty of fresh fruit for ethnic minority women to sell. We had the good luck to visit during strawberry season and bought a bag to enjoy every evening.
As in Lijiang, Shuhe is laced with pretty canals gracefully overhung with weeping willows, and we saw several couples having wedding photos taken in the lovely setting. The canals and ancient wells are still used for all manner of washing – produce, dishes, hair – and also act as a refrigerator of sorts, with drinks and dairy kept cold in the water. But where Lijiang’s rehabbed buildings contain shabby restaurants and bland trinket shops, Shuhe’s canals are lined with cute cafes where live musicians play Chinese folk tunes and western indie rock. We also found stores selling unique regional items in addition to the standard tourist schlock. One specializes in handmade Naxi paper products such as journals and dictionaries of the hieroglyphic Dongba language while another features freshly-dyed fabrics. Others sell linen clothing and silver teapots. By dusk, the stores are empty and the town all but deserted, as the day-trippers return to Lijiang. This was our favorite time to explore Shuhe.
A little after 8 o’clock every night, a crowd gathers in the large square near Shuhe’s south gate. A few men get a fire going in a big iron pot and girls dressed in minority costumes trickle onto the scene as a plume of smoke wafts through the air. Soon the girls line up along the outer edge of the square and, led by two costumed young men, begin to dance around the fire to traditional music. Locals are quick to join in, with everyone – from grannies to schoolboys – holding hands and dancing along, seemingly having a grand old time. It was a little cheesy, but I enjoyed it anyway.
We stayed at Lu House, a boutique hotel on a quiet back alley near the center of Shuhe. There is a farm directly across the street and every morning we could hear the horses trotting off to work. Lu House is ideally located for riding through the countryside and has two bikes on hand for guests to use. It is possible to bike to Baisha Village, though the hotel manager, Amanda, drove us over for the afternoon since we were the hotel’s only guests that day. She made us breakfast every morning and was incredibly friendly, chatting with us and offering loads of travel tips. She also arranged our day trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge, got her brother to take us for a horseback ride, procured our train tickets to Dali and drove us to the station. On top of Amanda’s exceptional service, there was fantastic water pressure in the shower and a luxuriously comfortable bed. We didn’t want to leave!
Dining options in Shuhe are varied and offer something for every taste. Little Chengdu Kitchen serves up classic Sichuan fare such as fiery dan dan mian and refreshingly cold cucumber pieces soaked in vinegar. Every time we passed this restaurant it was packed to the gills, and we had to wait about 10 minutes for a table. Dinner was tasty and cost around 80 RMB (13 USD) for the two of us, including beer.
At Amanda’s urging, we went to what she considers to be the best hotpot restaurant in town. We got essentially a whole chicken, seemingly hacked to bits with a cleaver, in a pot of savory broth that was cooked over a charcoal fire. Had the bones, cartilage and feet been removed, it probably would have been delicious. We had an entire rack of veggies to add to the soup and a zesty dipping sauce, and the whole shebang cost just 114 RMB (19 USD). Amanda asked for a review when we got back to the hotel and we answered honestly that the soup contained more bones than meat. She asked how we ate chicken back home and we explained how the chef would remove all the bones and only serve the tender pieces of meat. She looked absolutely befuddled at this idea.
After the hotpot, we craved comfort food so we headed to le Petit Paris Boulangerie for cheesy deep-dish pizza and pieces of cake. It was so relaxing to sit on the patio by a canal, sipping cold German beer and listening to Chinese musicians strum guitars. At the end of a song, we applauded as we would when listening to a band back home. The musicians looked up, stunned, and beamed at us – we were the only patrons clapping our hands.