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Andy’s Travel Diary

Wednesday, 28 Feb 2007

Location: Dali, China


The China Lonely Planet features a fantastic picture of three pagodas reflected in a pool and surrounded on all sides by trees and mountains. Just a few kilometres outside of Dali, i decided to hire a bike to take a visit.

The pagodas are some of the oldest standing structures in south-west China, built in the ninth century and climbing to a height of 70 metres. Recently Chongsheng temple, which once stood on the site, has been rebuilt. But when i reached the gates i was asked for 120 yuan - almost fifteen dollars. Naively i thought they must have made a mistake and meant twelve yuan, but when i offered this amount the man behind the desk just shook his head (almost apologetically) and pointed to a hundred yuan note. The Lonely Planet, written only a year or so ago listed the entry price as ten yuan! If anything demonstrated to me how rapidly China is changing it was this. Granted Dali is touristy, but even a similar site in Britain would not cost fifteen dollars. I was not about to spend three quarters of my daily budget on one sight. Frustrated, i checked on the internet and discovered the picture in the LP was taken from the nearby Pagoda Mirror Pond - a snip at just two yuan to enter. Clearly the greedy authorities had cottoned onto this loophole because i arrived at the gate to discover they now charged 121 yuan - more than it costs to enter the site itself. I thought about sneaking under the counter or climbing over the wall but in the end i just gave up and stared at it from a distance.

Disappointed i decided to explore the surrounding villages that lie around the lake. I spent the afternoon cycling along narrow paths which criss-cross the broad green fields around Dali and grow all kinds of fruit and veg. Men and women in grubby clothes tilled the earth, washed the produce in the streams, planted seeds or worked the complex irrigation channels that brought water down from the mountians. In contrast to these wide open expanses, the villages were cramped and labyrinthine. While Dali evokes pre-modern China, these villages are premodern China. The narrow streets were largely deserted. Everyone was in the field or carrying produce back and forth. Those that weren't working could be found in the small, shady village squares populated mainly by old men in blue Chairman Mao suits. As i cycled past in my skinny jeans and chequered black and white shoes (everyone stares at them in China) all heads would turn in my direction and follow me until i was out of sight, as if i was the most interesting thing to happen in the village since the Cultural Revolution. If that wasn't enough excitement for one day, the strange boy with the spike protruding from his bottom lip and oddly tight western clothing would return, cycling past numerous times due to turning down a dead end or going round the maze-like villages in circles. And so it went on until eventually and with no warning, the houses stopped and i found myself in the fields again. This happened in every village. By the time i reached my guesthouse i was exhausted and famished. Back in town i stopped at a dingy room serving lots of Chinese people noodles. I always try and follow the locals when it comes to food - they know best. So i found myself a seat and waited to be served. In southeast asia, even if the owners of the restaurant or stall do not speak english they seem genuinely pleased to see you. In China, not so much. I don't think a westerner had ever eaten in this particular place before because the woman looked thoroughly perplexed when i sat down, a look mirrored on my face when the noodles appeared, cold and with strips of a soft white substance piled on top. Looking back it may have been local cheese. It was delicious whatever it was.

Another day in Dali was spent at Zhong He temple which is perched high on the mountainside overlooking the town. I didn't fancy the one hour walk, my legs were still knackered after the long bike ride, so i took the chair lift which slowly ascended over the dense pine-forest covered hills. The views were stunning. I sat on a small terrace drinking green tea and admiring the deep blue of Lake Erhai Hu (China's seventh largest) and the surrounding patchwork of green fields and white villages.

The temple was small and not overly impressive, but it was my first experience of a temple dedicated to Tao, a complex and ambigious mix of religious and philosophical thought. The building, spread over three layers, was decorated with Yin and Yang symbols, dragons and colourful carved woodwork. Monks dressed in black robes tended to the shrines. One of them beckoned me to the main room, gave me some incense sticks and made me stand in front of a red-faced statue. He struck a gong three times as i bowed. Finally my name and birthdate was entered in a log book and i offered a donation. All for good luck apparently.

My final day of sightseeing was spent at the Shaping Market, a weekly meeting of Bai locals from the surrounding villages. Most people do a tour from Dali but i didn't want to be restricted by time, so i took a local bus. All the hustle and bustle takes place on a low hill at the base of the mountain range. Stalls were placed around the hill and some old stone ruins. The market was a wonderfully colourful spectacle; an authentic insight into Bai society and fashion. While the men wore indistinct shirts and trousers, the women were dressed in their best livery, a variety of ethno-cultural clothes in lurid colours, dense patterns and elaborate headgear. You can never have to many pairs of green sequined trousers i always say.

Most of the people were here to buy food for the week; huge bags of dried noodles, fresh vegetables and fruit, live chickens, mounds of dried red chillis and piles of spices which filled the air with pungent smells. But it was also possible to buy clothes, blankets, books, cooking utensils and colourful batiques that the Bai are renowned for. For those with tooth-ache a dentist had conventiently set up a chair and mirror in the middle of all the chaos. I spotted an english copy of Mao's little red book. I snapped it up, along with an original chinese version - it's the ultimate tourist item from China.