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Andy’s Travel Diary

Tuesday, 27 Feb 2007

Location: Dali, China

MapDALI - SURREAL AND SERENE
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China covers such a variety of landscapes. Yunnan province is almost a microcosm of this environmental diversity, as i experienced on the bus to Dali (only five hours - a welcome change after so many long journeys). What began as alpine forests dotted with large factories belching and coughing out smoke soon gave way rusty red mountains cut with deep crevices that could have been the locale for a gun-totting Western. Industry was replaced by a China i had not yet encountered - small villages of brick and mud with sweetcorn drying from the roofs. Then verdant and lush mountains with cramped villages capping small hills and surrounded by terraced rice paddy fields on the lower slopes.

The bus arrived in a characterless Chinese city. Dali city. This was not how Dali was described to me. For a brief moment i thought i'd got the wrong bus. Thankfully two Isarealis told me that Dali consists of a standard, 'anywhere urban' city of three million, and an ancient walled old-town only half hour drive away by local bus.

We were dropped off outside one of the main gates to the old town. A small man waiting at the bus stop beckoned me to follow him to the guesthouse i told him i wanted. The Tibetan Cafe was a cosy hostel of wood and stone set around a central courtyard and with traditional Tibetan flourishes such as patterned hangings over the doors and windows. It was charming, much like the town itself.

Dali is enchanting. The town is built on a gentle slope down to Lake Erhai, and sits at the base of an imposing mountain ridge which rises imposingly above the traditional roofs. Most of the streets are cobbled, car-less and lined with pink cherry blossomed trees. The buildings are all quaint stone houses or wooden shops with low sagging roofs sprouting dry grass, or beams leaning at awkward angles. Water trickles down from the mountains through streams along the side of the streets. This was the China i wanted to see, not a tour of Asian metropolises.

Dali is the home of the Bai ethnic minority who are easily identified by their deep red flushed cheeks and bright clothes. Due to its cultural importance, historic status and stunning location the town attracts large numbers of tourists. The town has thus experienced a degree of gentrification, most of which has been tastefully done, though certain areas such as main street are filled with photo shops, expensive restaurants and bars all built in the local style but which undermined the authenticity of the place. Whilst walking around town I happened upon eight Bai women dressed in elaborate clothing singing folk songs. Interesting as it was, the stage and microphone smacked of a Disneyfied ethnic minority tour. I half expected to hear "It's a small small world..."

Dali attracts mainly Chinese domestic tourists, so the town was filled with huddled groups all wearing the same baseball caps. Chinese tourists are an annoying breed. Don't get me wrong, us Brits can be pretty awful too; linguistic incompetence and alcohol over-consumption especially. But Chinese on holiday adhere to six cardinal rules:

1) Barge foreigners out of the way to get the best view of a sight. Use your elbows for maximum effect. Act in a way similar to queuing at a train station x-ray baggage check (see post on Nanning).

2) Have your photo taken in places that obscures the view for everyone else. Try, if possible to ignore any rules on signs restricting your movement to achieve the best shot, e.g. if a sign says 'Do Not Enter Stage Area', what it really means is - one by one, have a photo taken standing on the stage directly in front of a group of Bai singers who are performing for a crowd.

3) Burp loudly (preferably in my face).

4) Under no circumstances should you smile during photographs. Look as though you are having the worst time ever. Perhaps imagine that someone had just burped in your face, loudly.

5) Look at something interesting for a second or two, then call somebody on your mobile phone and talk loudly.

6) Gawk unashamedly at foreigners - do Not smile at them!

They have ample opportunity for number six. Dali is a backpacker paradise and attracts healthy numbers of backpackers enjoying the cosy bohemian guesthouses, rustic-trendy cafes and western food/music of foreigner street. Dali is a place to forget about the trials of travel in China and relax for a while. I mean really relax - helped by the abundance of herbal alternatives to beer. But don't go looking for shady men to score some weed, hunt out the OAP's. It was quite a shock the first time one of these old Bai women approached me. "Awww, aren't you cute, you want me to look at one of your bracelets and...oh what's that?....oh my god, you're a drug pusher?!" The whole town is full of these aged women shiftily asking "Mista want smokey smoke?" I guess it keeps people in employment and would keep pension costs down. Could be a solution to the future crisis of Britain's ageing population.

Though touristy, off the main street traditional life could still be glimpsed, such as a family eating dinner around a stove in a tiny room that backed onto the alleyway, or the butcher chucking out a horses skin onto the pavement. I spent many hours wandering round the back streets or sitting outside eating Bai food such as tofu and sauce with large grub like roots. The weather was certainly warm enough during the day, but when the sun went down the temperature just dropped. It was absolutely freezing at nights especially with no heating in the guesthouse and no hot water. Getting up was hard!