The old bridge of Shaxi spans the Heisui river at the Eastern Gate. The town did not yet exist when the bridge already stood. Over it passed the road of tea and horses from Erhai Lake in the south through the valleys of Hengduan Mountains toward the mountain passes of Tibet. Its predecessor had certainly been built in the 8th century, when the Tang Dynast began the shipment of tea from Yunnan to Tibet in exchange for horses. In its present form it was rebuilt in stone under the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century, together with thousands of its companions, that were meant to keep the Mongol Empire together. Marco Polo also passed over it. Later, when the Ming Dynasty in the 1390s after long battles occupied Yunnan, the last bastion of the Mongols, they tried to reinforce the cohesion of the empire through central founding of Buddhist monasteries. On the right bank bridgehead, just far enough away that the river would not flood it in springtime, in 1415 they built the Xingjiao Temple and Monastery. Soon the weekly market of Shaxi Valley also moved here, in the spiritual and military defense of the monastery, from the Aofeng Hill in the middle of the valley. In front of the temple, a market place was formed, and around the market place, the old town of Shaxi, the best preserved station of the road of tea and horses.
The bridge, which saw the town being built up, still keeps an aristocratic distance from the newcomer. It stands two hundred steps from the Eastern Gate of the city, and at the bridgehead it has its own Taoist shrine, where travelers, before entering the bridge, prayed for a successful return. They lit incense even in front of the two worn stone lions on this side balustrade of the bridge. They still do so today, although the time of caravans is over forever. The last one set out on the road in the 1940s, before the old world passed away also in Yunnan. A small wall is erected right before the bridge, it can be crossed neither by horses, nor carriages, only on foot. Only at night sometimes, when the bridge is dreaming, you can hear hoofbeats and the sound of copper bells.
Horse caravan in Shaxi. Recording by Lloyd Dunn, February 2017