This is one of my favorite Yunnanese old towns.
I have visited dozens of different ancient towns all over China and this one stands out. Okay, it has less interesting buildings than for example Lijiang, its location is less impressive than that of Fenghuang, there is no exotic vibe to it as in the ethnic villages of Guizhou, and there is no network of picturesque canals like in the „Venices of China” of the Yangtze Delta. What distinguishes Weishan 巍山 is the fact that it has avoided total gentrification. At least it still did so at the time of my visit – the future may change it though! Ticketed entry, loud music, more visitors than locals, agressive nagging, an ocean of plastic souvenirs – this is the inevitable fate of all the gǔzhèns (古镇, “old town”) and gǔchéngs (古城, “old city”). Don’t get me wrong – even those totally commercialized ones give my inner history lover goosebumps, photographic opportunities in them abound, the food is often marvelous. Just stop your tears, scratch that mercantile facade a bit, and you will discover something that might not survive without that unfortunate gentrification. So yes, I love visiting them. But again, Weishan doesn’t really feel like your regular, touristy gucheng. There is still plenty of „real life” feel to it.
The old town area consists of a fairly modest grid of streets surrounded by the otherwise ordinary modern Chinese cityscape. It is not fenced and ticketed, which is a nice change.
The city wall was dismatled long ago, but two of its towers survive. Gǒngchén Lóu 拱辰楼 is a major landmark and the symbol of the city. The original structure, built in 1390, was sadly lost in a fire couple of years ago, but it has been rebuilt and you can enjoy its handsomeness once again. The smaller Xīng gǒng lóu 星拱楼 (also known as Wénbǐ lóu 文笔楼) is just 500 meters away to the south. Between them runs the old town’s most important/beautiful/crowded strip of a street. I leisurely strolled around taking lots and lots of pictures.
Beyond the main touristy area, Weishan has a rather village-like feel.
Sadly, some buildings are in the state of dilapidation, even in the main touristy area. Maybe a bit of gentrification should occur here, after all. „Dilapidated buildings”: I know these words raise the heartbeat of many travelers as a sign of „authenticity” and „atmosphere”. And by analogy, renovated streets will repulse them. But decay is decay and life is life. I remember visiting the famous floating islands on the Lake Titicaca in Peru. We were baffled by the scale of commercialisation, but also amazed that the unique lifestyle of the Uru people is somewhat preserved. It’s sad to see money reigning supreme, but it’s sadder to loose traditions completely. Would you rather see these people unemployed than thrown into commercialism? Would you rather see the architecture of an ancient town being dismantled than renovated? The quality of such renovations, especially in China, is a different subject of course.
There was a time in history when the area of Dali Prefecture belonged to an independent kingdom called Nanzhao 南诏. It was actually here in Weishan – then called Mengshe 蒙舍 – where this kingdom was established. It existed for about two hundred years, between the 7th and 9th century, and rivaled the empires of Tibet and Tang China. When Nanzhao was overthrown, it was replaced by another entity, the Dali Kingdom 大理国, which lasted until the Mongol conquest in 1253.
Both the history of those lost kingdoms and the folklore of the ethnic groups that live here today can be viewed in the Nanzhao Museum 南诏博物馆. It insights into local festivals, tea culture and food traditions among other things. The importance of the Ancient Tea Horse Road (茶马古道) is underlined. The boards are simple but informative, sadly many of them are not in English. The museum occupies former temple grounds (等觉寺), so the architecture is an attraction in itself.
Last but not least, some photos from a local wet market (城南农贸市场, on Baidu Maps: 城南市场).
Further reading about Weishan: