Midway between the tourist magnets of Lijiang and Dali, is a green valley where rice fields are threshed by hand and locals still far outnumber tourists. This is the Shaxi (沙溪) Valley, by now discovered by international tourism but still unspoiled. Outside the village, itself a remarkable model of sustainable small-scale tourism, we managed to escape even further into the folds of mountains, untouched by the ravages of time.
A country road led out of the main town of Sideng, and we located a long path extending out seemingly towards nowhere in particular but for the hills. We parked our bicycles next to an unmanned security booth and set out following the instructions from our guesthouse. Here in these hills, we were told, lies a temple with a sacred stone the shape of a bell, and ancient stone sculptures of the gods from dynasties nearly forgotten. These buddhas were hidden so well in the hills that centuries later, the zealous Red Guard could not find them in their iconoclastic tear across the country.
A creek flowed down and out of a rocky valley, crossed by a red sandstone bridge the color of the earth. A pavilion with curved eaves peeked out from the rock formations lining the sides of the valley, some sheared off in smooth planes, and some like bulbous waxy gourds standing upright. A small niche sheltered a Buddha figure at the base of one of these stones, looking much like the knotted head of the Buddha, a common metaphor for this type of stone. We spotted what we thought was our destination, a structure of red colored wood clinging to the face of a mountain. On we pressed, across rope bridges and up stairs climbing steeply along the precipice.
The structure we had seen from below turned out to be merely the door guardians of the temple complex. Behind fine wooden screens, we could see two fierce images carved into the red sandstone cliff face. We took a short break at a clearing overlooking the greater valley below, sharing sunflower seeds and local style yogurt. A Korean hiker materialized from the crevices of the gorge, the only other human we had seen for hours.
The sun beat down through clear blue skies on orange earth and young pine needles. Our path led us up to the mountain ridge, into denser woods and then back out. A look out pavilion and trail map confirmed our arrival in the temple area proper. Another valley dropped out below us, with a temple of many levels and courtyards and emerald green hills shifting shades in the cloud dappled light.
Inside the temple, another Buddha head stone was dedicated to Guanyin. The collection of the most rare sacred statuary was enshrined along a covered grotto, including figures of buddhas, and a Guanyin (goddess of mercy) which formerly held a child in the same way the Theotokos Mary is portrayed. The final figure was an enigmatic article, a dark object representing the female reproductive organ. Local records note that couples would visit the place and ask for help in conceiving a child.
We found a pavilion overlooking the green rolling hills and picnicked on Shaxi baba and Yunnan cheese. An afternoon out of time yielded treasures from start to finish.