Not far from Dali, by the shores of the Erhai lake sits little Xizhou. Everything that Dali has lost, Xizhou still has. A thriving community of residents who live and work in the village, stunning well-preserved architecture with beautiful details, interesting street food and a chill vibe. Unlike Dali, Xizhou remains accessible, preserving its human scale. No big hotels, no neon – for now. The tour groups have discovered Xizhou but thankfully only as a day trip destination. That may not last because Xizhou’s charm is an open secret now; and when the electric golf carts with guides and wireless mics have started zooming around its cobblestoned lanes, you know it won’t be long before it goes the way of Dali. But hopefully that will take a while so go while you can still wander its alleys and lanes with some space to yourself.
Our first glimpse of Xizhou was not promising. The driver had parked at the periphery and had bought us tickets to the town which was part of a tour. Honestly, I would much rather have walked in myself and skipped the tour but was told that this came as part of the ticket cost (which I doubt). More and more by this time I was beginning to think my driver and I were not on the same page when it came to all these and I was getting seriously annoyed. He was giving us the usual touristy runaround – something I would never sign up for. But because the tickets were already purchased, I was resigned to the idea of being one of those who were zoomed around on those ubiquitous electric golf carts. But I was determined not to stick with the group if I could help it.
We were packed into a 12-seater (like those electric trams at the zoo) for a three-minute ride into the heart of the old town. From there, we walked into the main square. The tour included entry into one of the conserved mansions of Xizhou’s successful businessmen – the Yan family courtyard. The place was crowded with other groups and so commercialised that rooms had been converted into gift shops patrolled by staff who follow visitors around like hawks.
I tuned out of the tour, wandered around by myself and then headed out into the square where we tried Xizhou’s specialty, the pan-fried Baba cake. Said to be invented in the Qing dynasty, the pancakes had both savoury and sweet versions. We tried both but could not agree which tasted best. One thing for sure, eat while its hot or risk the texture turning oily and tough.
From that point, I skipped the rest of the tour. The golf carts went off and I ducked down one of the long streets radiating from the square. Away from the square where most tourists end up, the streets of Xizhou were lovely to wander about. There was an interesting mix of designer boutiques, bookstores, cafes and mom and pop sundry shops, even an elderly barber hard at work.
Xizhou has some interesting architectural elements to the buildings that I did not see elsewhere. Like this rare curved wooden corner building for instance:
Follow this road all the way and the views open up to fields of green and at one end sits the Linden Centre. The Linden Centre is both a boutique hotel and a community space for travelers, foreign students and anyone interested to get to know Chinese culture. I would have enjoyed walking through the fields to take a picture of Xizhou from afar but we did not have the time.
What I enjoyed most of all in my short visit to Xizhou are the peeks into the homes of people living in Xizhou. Not the manicured-for-tourists Yan family compound but the crumbly clay walls, the carved details of roofs, the lines of washing across a yard, the squawking chickens and the cautious smiles of the inhabitants.
Not far from the Linden Centre is an old house. Once a magnificent mansion, it has since been parceled out to different families during the Cultural Revolution. Now it sits in disorderly decay, still home to many. A handwritten sign on the door says 2 yuan ‘entrance fee’ to have a look around. We peeked in and from one of the rooms around the courtyard, a woman looked out and said shortly: “2 yuan” which we gladly gave. We were clearly not the first to peek in and have a look.
The house must have been grand in its day. I counted three or four courtyards – usually a sign of wealth. Around these, the rooms have been sub-divided and I think in just that one mansion alone, there must have been easily eight or nine families. One of the courtyards was given over to storage and livestock. The residents still draw water from a well in the premises. The architectural details here remain elegant if a little faded. The honeycomb grey bricks and the the carvings on the walls, lintels and eaves are beautiful.
It was close to evening by the time we wandered back to the square but we hadn’t even finished half of Xizhou. Like Weishan, this is a place well worth lingering for a night or two. I’m sure it would have a completely different mood at night.
Even the fire hydrant is cute:
Xizhou has the unusual vibe of being a bit of a hipster spot set in a stately old town with buildings which are ageing gracefully. It does not have the throngs of tourists – lucky for us and many of its streetscapes still look like they have not changed in hundreds of years. If you’re in the Dali neighbourhood, don’t skip Xizhou. Pop by and chill out for a day or two.