Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Hello Dali!

After a night in Kunming, my goal was the get out as fast as I could. I donned all my shirts against the cold and walked to the nearest bus stop, gaping in amazement at the silent motorbikes ghosting by. The bus cost one Yuan (about fifteen cents).

Getting off the bus, I walked to the station. The information kiosk was equipped with a very unusual turnstile. It consisted of a horizontal set of bars that looked something like an hourglass. Stepping into it, only one person could approach the window at a time. Very weird. I obtained the information I needed about getting the night train to Dali and walked to the ticket counter.

No one was in line at the window I needed. I walked right up and leaned against the counter right in front of the money/ticket slot cut in the window and waited for the attendant to complete whatever task she was doing. She glanced up and I said "Da-LEE." She nodded and turned to her computer. Just then, a guy sidled up next to me, shoved some money into the slot, leaned over and started speaking into the grill. The guy was cutting in line while I was being served! Now I knew why the hourglass turnstile was needed. The ticket agent waved the guy away and then informed me that the train was full.

Back on the street, I checked the bus stations. There are a few of them around the train station and I found a bus heading to Dali in only an hour. I bought my ticket, put my backpack in the hold and dropped my little bag on the seat. I was hungry. I looked around inside but found only snack food. Back on the street, I found myself longing for Thailand or Myanmar as those streets are full of vendors selling tasty meals on nearly every corner. Around this part of Kunming, there was nothing. (I later discovered there are some vendors, but the food offered was not particularly appealing.) I managed to find a shop with instant noodles and had them prepare the little bucket shaped cup for me. It was spicy, but palatable. I picked up some gummy candy snacks in the bus station just in case; these I later gave away as they were much too horrible to consume.

My seat was near the front so I had a good view of the modern China. Kunming looked very modern, even if it had a Chinese style to the buildings. The bus ride was uneventful, but I did see some interesting rice paddies and villages along the way. The bus stopped at a town that was just south of old Dali. I knew I needed to get a ride to the old town.

I noticed a Chinese guy who looked a bit lost. Pijaing was Chinese but educated in the US and was heading to Dali! Between my guidebook and his communicative skills, we quickly found a pickup bus to the old city. Along the road, he told me about his experience in the US and the changes he's since since returning to China last year.

The bus dropped us off at the main entrance to the old city. It looked like something out of a Hong Kong movie. A great wall extended east and west of the magnificent gate. We walked in and spent the next hour looking for a reasonably priced guest house.

Just West of the city, a road runs past the wall. We managed to find a cheap guest house there (fifteen bucks a night) and headed back into the old town for supper. The restaurants put all their produce and meat products right out in front so you can inspect their quality. It's also useful for non-Chinese to point to the items they want.
Pijaing and I picked out some ham, mushrooms, cashews
(mok-mu-himmo-pawn in Thai) and greens. We sat with our Dali beer and
feasted on a meal that cost less then ten bucks for the two of us.

Around the corner, we discovered the pedestrian only portion of the city. It was described to me as being something out of Disneyland, but it was much more entertaining.
The old city is square and was originally surrounded by a massive wall, most of which has been lost. It was home to an empire that flourished over a thousand years ago. Today, it has been cleaned up, updated, refurbished and mostly modernized, but still maintains an ancient feel. The most interesting part of the city, for my money, are the numerous streams running through the streets. These may have served to bring fresh water down from the mountain, but today they serve a more decorative purpose - and the locals have certainly done an outstanding job with this remarkable waterworks. The main pedestrian area has a sort of stone lined trench, in which it is very easy to fall, but one of the side streets has a delightful series of cascades with numerous stepping stones.
There were a respectable number of tourists in the city that first night, but the next day the place was swarming with holiday goers. It was the first time I really felt like I was in China.
The city is on the edge of a huge lake. I could see the fertile valley floor from the bottom of the hillside on which the city is located. Huge ferry vessels traveled across the lake to the various towns. Pijang and I took a ride to the wharf so we could have a look at the goings on there. The wharf was inundated with souvenir vendors and tourists. "Where're the fishermen?" I asked. We tried to get out onto the dock, but to do so required paying about fifteen bucks to ride the tourist boats. It turns out that the wharf is really the government tourist boat dock. We could see through the gate a number of opulent tour boats ready to ferry us to the other side and back. The officials assured us that this was the wharf and denied the existence of any other boat launch. We decided to skip the official tour.

I had a chance to look at a number of hotels in the old city. They look more like temples than guest houses. The more modern structures looked more at home in the California hills than in Southern China. This place is modernizing very quickly ... too quickly. There are still plenty of traditions though. One curious thing about the Bai people is the women's penchant for boots.
Another local flavor is the colorful headdress. Although the photo here shows a child, it is worn by many of the local women (and not just for special occasions as near as I could tell).
One of the big specialties of the area is Pu-erh tea. I don't know much about it, but it is supposedly highly valued. I say supposedly because I could buy it for a bit of money or a whole lot of money. I had an opportunity to have some of the better quality tea with the merchant below. I assume Pu-erh tea is something of an acquired taste.
"For all the tea in China"? You have no idea how much tea China has. In addition to the copious quantities they drink at all hours of the day (seriously, they go through a lot of tea), they turn the tea leaves into works of art. I saw whole wall panels made of compressed tea leaves, but medallions and plaques were more common.
One of the more curious things in the city was a shop dedicated to selling matches. It actually took me a few minutes to figure this out, but it sells nothing but matches. If that is not an indicator that the Chinese smoke too much, Dali has three of these shops dedicated matches.
On my second day, in need of some exercise, I decided to take the thirteen kilometer hike across the mountain range to the West of Dali.
I used the cable car to get to the top since I had only a few hours of daylight. I had my hiking boots, some extra shirts in case the temperature went down further, and a small supply of fruit to keep me going. I realized all my preparations for an arduous walk were in vain as I encountered a couple of tourists coming the other way on the neatly paved stone path. It was a gentleman in a suit and a woman sporting high heels. I ran into a good number of be-suited Chinese men and women dressed for a night out. It was a bit unnerving, but the walk was quite pleasant.

Dali was still cold, but a lot more tolerable than Kunming. I was tempted to spend one or two more nights in the city, but also really wanted to see as much of the area as I could. I was told that the city of Lijang was really impressive, but I couldn't see how it could top Dali. Oh, how wrong I was.

See more photos from Dali here.

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