Baisha is a little old town just 20 minutes from the famous Lijiang Old Town. Find out why is it worth spending half a day here.
If you are tired of the crowds in Lijiang and have visited Shuhe already, or you are simply looking for a more relaxed place where to spend half a day, then Baisha might just be what you are looking for. Baisha literally means ‘white sands’. The town was the first settlement of the Naxi people (纳西族) after they migrated south from the Tibetan plateau.
Located very conveniently close to the Old Town of Lijiang, it’s still somehow underrated and not overcrowded, although in recent times it has seen an increase in the number of tourists.
How to get to Baisha and where to stay
Baisha is located very close to Lijiang Old Town, right after the other old town in the area: Shuhe. You can either bike there, take a bus (n° 6) or a taxi.
By car, it shouldn’t take longer than 20 minutes. Keep in mind that if there are a lot of tourists it might be difficult to find a taxi so it’s better if you use Didi or similar apps to call a driver (Didi is the Chinese version of Uber).
If you want to stay in Baisha for the night you can use Trip.com since it’s the best option to book hotels in China. Booking.com doesn’t really have many choices and they are often overpriced.
What to do in Baisha
Baisha is composed of many smaller towns. The main one, where the market square is situated, is called Sanyuan Village (三元村), but is more often referred to simply as Baisha Old Town (白沙古镇).
Dabaoji Palace (大宝积宫)
An interesting stop could be Dabaoji Palace (大宝积宫) where you can see an impressive collection of large mural paintings (白沙壁画). One section of this building is dedicated to Joseph Rock, an Austro-American explorer, and botanist who spent several years in Yunnan and was based in the village of Yuhu (玉湖村), about ten kilometers north of Baisha. Joseph Rock is quite a “celebrity” and he should deserve an entire blog post.
Naxi Embroidery Institute (白沙纳西传统手工刺绣院)
You can also visit the Naxi Embroidery Institute (白沙纳西传统手工刺绣院), situated only a few steps north of the main market square. It was established to preserve local embroidery traditions. Many pieces were donated recently after their owners had been hiding them for a long time to save them from the cultural revolution.
Walking around the Old Town
There isn’t really anything else to do besides strolling in its cute little alleys, spending some time in one of the many nice coffee shops, or eating in one of the good restaurants. But people who visit Baisha are not really looking for a lot of action anyway.
The Naxi culture and writing
Before becoming part of the Yuan empire (under Kublai Khan 1271-1368) Baisha was the capital of the Naxi Kingdom. Interestingly Naxi literally means “Black People” probably because they are very dark-skinned due to the high elevation where they live. You can learn a bit more about their culture here.
Over 1000 years ago, the Naxi created a unique written language that uses pictograms. Today it’s the only language in the world that still uses hieroglyphs (a total of about 1,400 pictures are used). You’ll see their characters everywhere around Lijiang but very few people are able to read them. It has become more of a marketing strategy than a real need for people to use this writing. Regardless I think it’s pretty cool, and it’s always a good idea to preserve this heritage.
The most famous text is a Dongba manuscript about the Creation. Dongba were the Naxi shamans. Ancient copies of this text can be found in Lijiang and in some American universities. On August 30, 2003, the Dongba classical literature was accepted as a written world heritage by UNESCO.
Dongba had a very important role in the Naxi culture because they were the custodian of the written language and were mediators between the people and the world of the spirits. This religion originates from the Tibetan cult called Bon. You can find more info about the Bon religion here.
One of the sacred celebrations of the Naxi people is the Torch Festival, and it’s also celebrated by the Yi, Bai, Hani, Lisu, Lahu, and Pumi ethnic groups. The festival falls between the 24th day and the 26th day of the sixth lunar month.
During the festival, huge torches of tied dry pine and lightwood are erected in all the villages, with smaller torches placed in front of the door of each household.
The origins of this celebration are a bit unclear. According to some, this festival was one of the two yearly Star Returning Festivals. Other legends say the Torch Festival includes the idea of offering sacrifices to deities and scaring away spirits, as well as the wish for a good harvest. However, one of the most popular stories is the legend of Atilaba. This fantastical wrestler supposedly drove away a plague of locusts by using torches that he made from pine trees. Thus the Torch Festival is to celebrate this victory.
To be completely honest with you, I hadn’t planned to visit Baisha during this celebration. I found out that it was gonna be celebrated on the same day I was there and it was a nice surprise.
Don’t forget to check out my Yunnan travel guide.