Thursday, 6 December 2012

The Ancient City and Rural Countryside of Dali, Yunnan, China

We clambered through the train carriage with awkward backpacks through a narrow hallway we found our cabin and were disappointed to find our berths were in separate cabins. A moment later a Chinese women, travelling alone, was happy to switch with us.  An english accent greeted us from above in the third (upper) bunk of the cabin, Alex from south London, recently graduated in economics with a first from Oxford, taking some time out before commencing work in October.  There was no need to go out for a cigarette before turning in for the night as the second hand smoke hanging in the air was enough to satisfy anyone.  Slipping my face mask and eye mask on under my headphones I must have been a ridiculous sight yet I slept better than I anticipated on the eight hour journey. 

Julian, Alex and I were the last off the train and my breath hung in the air with every exhale.  I inhaled the cold air deeply, only to find myself choked with yet more cigarette smoke (every man, woman and child smokes excessively here and my refusal at ever offer of one is met with looks of confusion).  Still, the cold air is enough to satisfy and I smile as I slip on my hooded sweater.  Avoiding the trough stye toilets I waited for the men outside before we refused the offer of a 50RMB cab ride into the old town, opting to take the bus instead.  Turns out, 1.50RMB (US$0.20) each got us 30minutes down the road to the ancient city where Alex and we parted ways in search of different hostels.  

The beautifully named Colours of the Wind Hotel was unfortunately full and we paused our search for accommodation for a bowl of freshly prepared noodle soup with a handful of spring onions and dried beef, spiced (though Julian might disagree) to perfection.  As I finished my bowl of soup Julian set off in search of a guesthouse and soon returned with a twinkle in his eye, unwilling to offer any details.  Half a block away he lead me into a stunning traditional courtyard house into one of the most beautiful rooms I have stayed in for 80RMB. Once again our timing appeared impeccable and we had hit the winter season price, a huge drop from 278RMB in high season, almost had the hotel to ourselves and the weather was still warm enough for T-shirts and my Laos sarong during the day.  A rooftop terrace offered views of the rolling foothills of the Himalayas and surrounding rooftops, stunning in their own right.

After a refreshing hot shower and a cup of Chinese black tea we set out for a walk in the old town, passing through a park where locals engaged in thai-chi, badminton, enjoyed a game of cards or played traditional instruments.  Children in their blue and white school uniforms, typical of the communist regimes as we saw in Poland, Vietnam and Cambodia, although here the boys wore Mao style, high collard over shirts, buzzed through the streets on their way home, bowl of noodles in hand.  Bamboo baskets of dim sum and vats of boiling broth steamed the air, chefs needing dough and stretching noodles long.  Stalls and shops line the streets tended by women in traditional tribal dress, some of their patterns recognizable to us as the H'mong or Akha as we had seen in northern Thailand and Vietnam, along with many other designs not familiar to us.  Yunnan is home to more than half of Chinas 56 ethnic minorities, and here we meet the Bai people with their pinks, puffed arm white shirts and wonderful headgear.  Silversmiths beat their material flat with hammers on anvil at 100 shop doorways, making me cringe with every strike, wondering how these people were not wearing earplugs while they worked.  Hand weaved shawls and skirts, jade in every shape in size from necklace pendants to large intricately carved tables, jewellery and paintings.  The place was busy with Chinese and Koreans in large tour groups, being led by women in yet more traditional attire.  We would have to move to the side of the street to allow the big groups to pass us and we pleased that we were here in low season, wondering how packed the streets must get in high season. 

We bumped into Alex again, and as we stood talking we drew many stares, some sneaking pictures of us from across the square, some pretending they were shooting something behind us, others raising their cameras up only paces away and some coming and putting their arms around us, posing for pictures with the white skinned foreigners, stroking the arms of Julian and Alex, as Chinese men don't grow much body hair and tend to shave with tweezers rather than razors.  It was an amusing 20 minutes as we chatted and had random requests for photos, enjoying the good natured fun of it, as we were as much an attraction as the city itself.  Dali is one of the biggest travel destinations for the Chinese for its traditional architecture and large percentage of minority people, and everyone; on holiday and a tourist themselves, were in good spirits and the place was buzzing with fun energy, some dressed in the finest attire, taking as many people pictures as shots of the city.  The three of us agreed to meet the following morning for breakfast and and cycling tour of the countryside. 

Following Alex's advice, as we approached the next gate south we turned and followed the high stone old city wall west and up a set of stairs, avoiding another fee.  We followed the top of the wall hand in hand, admiring views of the city and greeting others as they passed.  A couple; him in a cowboy hat and her head wrapped in a red headscarf, were a particularly attractive and flamboyant pair.  A group of men sat smoking cigarettes, staring at us as we passed though refusing to greet Julians repeated greetings, some in mandarine, some in english, german, french and eventually in laos and thai, still they didn't mutter a word.  As we neared the eventual end of the wall overlooking the main highway, tour groups beneath us boarding a bus raised their cameras at us.  The men had continued their walk, wandering behind us and as we passed them on the way back, finally returned Julians persistent greetings with rueful grins. 

We decided to return home to freshen up and change, as our current backpackers attire and Julians unshaven face was hardly up to the regular photo-shoots.  Clean shaven, showered and me in my Laos sarong we felt more up to the task and enjoyed the evening wandering the streets of old town, alongside trickling streams with stepping stones to pagodas under weeping willows, admiring handicraft we couldn't afford (though my mind wheeled over a gorgeous skirt for our entire time there), drinking Yunnan coffee and munching on street food, avoiding "Foreigners Street" with unique restaurants and high prices and instead, followed the school kids to find a meal. For US$2 we filled two bowls with the numerous dishes on a buffet, lots of veggies, spiced (as usual) hotter than Julian cared for.  Dishes in this part of the region are spiced fairly hot, being meshed between India and Sichuan (Sechwan) and pretty much everything is seasoned with grated chilli as a minimum. 

We met Alex under the south gate in the Old Town and after a bowl of noodle soup for breakfast, hired out some bikes; Julian and I sharing (for the first time) a tandem.  Cycling down cobbled streets towards Chinas second largest lake, Lake Erhai, the skies were a brilliant blue, the air crisp and sun warm.  We shared the road with many other cycling tourists, all waving as we passed, that same infectious energy as was in Old Town the previous day.  On the shores of the lake we filled a bag of unknown, sugared, sun dried fruits at a small market by the ferry dock.

The once brilliant green rice paddies were now a faded gold, rich in autumn colours. Fields just recently harvested, the stubble standing at just a few centimetres where a week or two before the crop had been waist high and rippling in the breeze.  We have now observed an entire rice season, starting with the newly planted fields around Paula's stone house in Pai, northern Thailand, the growth of the stalks throughout Vietnam and Cambodia, the smoke drifting south into Laos from the Chinese burning the first of the stubble in the north and finally, the cultivation of the harvest and replanting of the seeds in in Yunnan province.  Dried rice stalks were being chopped down with dajas; scythe like tools with a handle around 50cm long and a wicked looking curved blade at the business end. The farmers wearing traditional dress, western style having influenced only a portion of population in Yunnan's countryside, stacked the stalks in sheaves after threshing or once dry piled them high upon small three wheeled trucks, handcarts and trailers pulled by oxen, bicycles, tricycles, husbands and wives.  

Fishing nets were laid on the pavement, the aroma of drying fish lingering in the air. We came across whitebait farms, four or five people working each net, gathering and beating alternately to bounce the small fry together at the bottom of the net. On the lake, the occasional flat bottomed, high sided row-boat plied the shallows for a days catch. All along the roadside rice, chills, corn and winter feed was laid out for drying under the late summer sun and everywhere people tended the fields with hand tools, the passing of centuries barely noticed. As the paddies were cleared from the seasons crops, in places already we saw the planting underway, digging stick in one hand punching a hole, then the seed dropped in with the other. Repeat until field is full! 


Small villages dotted the countryside; each home of traditional courtyard style with elaborate gateways, some in various stages of decay, many of the outer walls lined with painted chinese characters and gong-bi style landscapes.  

Guarded by two stone lions, we paused in front of a small temple in the midst of one such village. On one side, a basketball court temporarily commandeered for drying rice grains whilst to the north side, several men of advancing years sat enjoying the warmth of the day and each others company, no doubt putting the world to rights with their discussion, maybe to exercise the mind a little later with a game of mahjong, Chinese chess or a few hands of cards.

It was all very relaxed in the late summer afternoon until a gaggle of school kids making their way home paused where we were, their laughter and chatter breaking the peace of the place and we continued on our way. We rode through the fields, interspaced with small farming communities briefly joined by another group of (Chinese) tourists as we made our way up the lakeside before one of them succumbed to a passing motorbike which clipped him, sending him over the handlebars and forcing his friend behind to take avoiding action into the ditch. We left them to gather themselves and patch up any scrapes, our language and first aid skills of little use once we had seen the riders were conscious and cursing the motorcyclists dust. In Asia it is not the done thing to stop at an accident if you are at fault, the result can be expensive or painful and the chances of getting away great and easy, especially in rural areas, especially when motor power is pitted against pedal power.

On we rode until we came to a small town and protesting stomachs persuaded sustenance sought. We found an establishment to suit our needs and were treated to a wonderful (if somewhat expensive) spread by the proprietor and his daughter before heading off for a wander around the surrounding streets. Finding a barber of which Julian was in desperate need, we stopped in for a head chop and for US$2 he managed to strike gold with a wonderfully skilled woman, cutting with absolute professionalism, fading the cut and even after a little persuasion, trimming his bushy eyebrows. Making our way back to the central square we met up with Alex who had gone in search of some socks and we sat and ate a couple of wonderful, thick pancake made from corn flour off a street vendor, obviously a local speciality, before remounting for the ride home. Mindful that it had taken us nearly three hours to get this far and our hire time for the bikes was due, we opted for a return route along the main highway, Julian setting a fast but consistent pace, encouraging me to keep up as he called into the wind at me and farmers we passed, greeting them in mandarine. Many of them well older than retirement age in the west would rest their spades just for a moment and glance up, smiles spreading across their faces, returning our greeting as we passed, pedalling with ferocious energy.  We returned to the confines of Old Town in under an hour, breathless and buzzing from the strenuous blast.

The following day Alex departed north for Lijian whilst we lazed around the city and enjoyed its charms for one more day whilst making our own plans to leave the next day for Shaxi. It should have been relatively straightforward to get from our hotel to the bus station; we had instructions from the hotel both in english and chinese but still managed to make a mess of things. We caught the local bus from Old Town with no problems but had already passed the north bus station and were heading into the new city before we realized and had to backtrack some two or three kilometres on the return route, passing a particularly strange sight on the way; a Walmart.  We were pleased to find our favourite bus ride snack and bough a bag full of longan berries we initially fell in love with in Vietnam for our bus trip north. 

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