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  Chinese Way>Life

Visiting Xizhou is like being trapped in time

2014-06-04 11:01:05

(Shaihai Daily)


We were lucky to find Mr Dong, a veteran hostler who proved himself to be a nice guide. He told us a lot of history and stories about the township and the historic residences that we visited.

Mr Dong’s carriage first took us to a residential block of Bai ethnic buildings, considered unique in Chinese architectural history. Many are memorable for their simple, elegant style and functionality.

While these buildings still house locals, the dwellers warmly welcomed us when we arrived with Mr Dong. They explained various residential architectural styles. One of them is “san fang yi zhaobi” in which three houses form a U-shape and one screen wall fills the fourth side and encloses the space. In “si he wu tianjin,” four houses enclose a space containing five patios.

Though many buildings we visited were a bit dilapidated, we could still appreciate the beauty and delicacy in impressive sculptures and paintings on the screen wall and on wood pillars supporting corridors.

Most of the historical buildings in the residential block belong to four families surnamed Yang, Yin, Yan and Dong.

Interestingly, not every family is entitled to build a house in any style they fancy. The fourth screen wall, a sign of knowledge and status, is a privilege reserved for wealthy businessmen and famous intellectuals.

The four surnames, one of them being Mr Dong’s, represent the major of the town’s well-known personages. As a result, they own the most elaborate residences, as Dong told us, and he is very proud of his heritage.

Throughout history, craftsmen from Xizhou were renowned for their skills as carpenters, carvers, masons, sculptors and painters, and they traveled to Vietnam and Myanmar and throughout southwestern China to build and decorate houses.

Leaving the historical complex, Mr Dong’s carriage took us on a bumpy ride through country fields to reach Haishe Park, “haishe” meaning sea tongue. The park is shaped like a long tongue that wriggles into Erhai Lake. The park is totally natural and there’s no man-made construction. It’s like a nature reserve. But there is a public bathroom, the one convenience.

Some trees grow into the water and the reflection in the crystal-blue water is breathtaking.

Travelers take picnic lunches in the meadows surrounded by the grand Cangshan Mountains and verging on glassy Erhai Lake.

On our way back to the hotel, Mr Dong took a different route. We glimpsed villagers’ daily lives and even saw a wedding banquet.

Visits to the old residential complex are free. If you want to experience more Bai-style architecture, you can explore Yan’s Compound on Sifang Street in downtown Xizhou. Built in the 1920s, it covers 3,000sqm and is considered a representative extended family household. Today it is a museum. Admission is 60 yuan (US$9.6).

The compound is divided into four parts and each is cleverly connected. The principal house with its screen wall and two wings functions as living room and chamber to host important guests. According to Bai tradition, the screen wall should face east to the rising sun, ensuring early morning sunlight reaches the interior rooms.

Both the second and third parts are enclosed by four houses with four small rooms. These demonstrate the traditional “si he wu tianjing” style and contain the family’s bedrooms, guest rooms and other facilities.

The final part of the compound embraces a modern, Western building in a nice garden. The magnificent design of Yan’s Compound reflects the Bai people’s architectural gifts. I found the relics on display in the museum impressive and they gave me insight into Bai ethnic history.

Leaving Yan’s Compound, visitors will find themselves in a small square called Sifang Jie, literally Square Street. These squares are common in small towns in Yunnan where they are usually found in town centers and are filled with food stores and groceries.

You can enjoy snacks and shop for souvenirs.

How to get there

Fly to Dali in Yunnan Province, a four-hour trip with a transfer at Kunming airport. From Dali Airport, take a taxi to Xizhou township. The ride takes 40 minutes and costs 160 yuan, but costs a little more on holidays.

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