Saturday, 24 November 2012

Dali - Warm days and Cheese on Toast

The bus journey to Dali took us through stunning Yunnan countryside – if we had caught the train we suspect we would have missed much of the scenery as when we took the train from Kunming to Lijiang, passing through Dali on the way, the train seemed to spend 90% of the journey in tunnels.  However, the road through the mountains south from Lijiang to Dali was beautiful, marred only by a peppering of heart stopping moments. 

It is clearly a national sport in China to overtake on a bend.  Or, failing that, if travelling on a long straight road, to postpone any overtaking manoeuvre until there is something (preferably large and carrying flammable material) hurtling towards you in the opposite direction (extra points if that vehicle is also being overtaken at the same time – let the game of chicken commence!).  In fairness, our driver was cautious by Chinese standards, but that doesn’t mean the other drivers are not!
The tower in Dali Old Town
However, once again, we arrived in one piece and were dropped off at Dali bus station, from where we caught a taxi to the Jade Emu Hostel – an operation very well run by an Australian called Dave and his Chinese partner, Song.
As an Australian, Dave obviously understood the attraction of unfettered access to the internet so the hostel network was hooked into a VPN –a virtual private network that makes China think that you are not in China so you can access Facebook, Twitter and all the other dangerous sites that are not considered suitable for the Chinese people.  That meant I could tidy up the blog and we could catch up with friends on Facebook!

The view across Dali Old Town with
the mountains in the distance
The hostel menu also contained a tasty array of western dishes including delicious burgers and, much to our delight, proper cheese on toast with imported New Zealand cheddar.  It was going to be difficult to leave and, as we ended up staying here for a little over 2 weeks, that proved to be the case.
Our original plan was to head down to Xishuangbanna (Banna) and from here and then back up to Kunming before heading over to Fenghuang and then finally down to Yangshuo for a couple of weeks so that Paul could do a Chinese language course and from there we were to organise our Vietnam visas and travel arrangements to Hanoi.
Narrow streets and waterways
in Dali Old Town
However, Paul found a Chinese teacher here in Dali and we decided to stay in Dali for longer than anticipated.   The hostel was great, the weather lovely in Dali, and there were lots of bars and restaurants in Dali Old Town (although we rarely left the hostel grounds, it was such a relaxing atmosphere).   I would be able to get up to date with the blog and catch up with the laundry. 
We would have had to extend our stay for a few days anyway because we both came down with a nasty virus, the details of which do not need recounting here, but which laid us up for a couple of days and we weren’t really up to doing much for a few days afterwards.  It was bound to happen at some point along the way and we were surprised we hadn’t succumbed earlier. 
We also believe that we had been hit by “the fatigue” as someone put it.  There is no doubt at all that travelling is a huge adventure;  exciting, inspiring, fascinating and just great fun and we are only too aware of how lucky we are to be taking this trip, but being constantly on the move is also physically and mentally challenging, and at times boring (we have spent an inordinate amount of time hanging around train and bus stations).  Like everything, you sometimes need to kick back for a while and recharge. 
The view from the old city wall
Our schedule has not been as demanding some, and we have been flexible.  To a certain extent we have the luxury of time and therefore have spent a day or two longer in most places than some of our fellow travellers, their timetables being more stringent.
So we settled down at the Jade Emu Hostel and started to relax and recharge.  To be honest we practically took root!
We also decided to change our plans and skip Banna which meant that we would still be able to go to Fenghuang and afterwards up to Wulingyuan National Park but still spend a reasonable amount of time in Yangshuo.  Yangshuo was recommended to us by the Alaskan couple we met on the bus to Xi’an who live there for part of the year teaching English and it is supposed to be set in a really beautiful part of China, the climate is good at this time of the year, and although quite touristy you can escape to the countryside by hiring a bicycle and heading out to the villages along the River Li.  However it remains to be seen whether I can persuade Paul to actually get on a bike but I am confident that he will – watch this space!
Fishing cormorants
Our initial impression of Dali was that it wasn’t as nice as Lijiang, but that was probably an unfair comparison.  Dali New City (or XiaGuan) is a massive sprawling city but the old town does have some of the charm of Pingyao and Lijiang old town (although we seriously dispute whether Dali old town is actually that old – it is very traditional, but it all looks a bit suspiciously new to me i.e . rebuilt in 2008).  The whole area is set around a large lake and is flanked by mountains on all sides, so it is set in beautiful surroundings.  Xiguan is located on the southern shore of the lake and Dali Old Town is about 15km north on the western shore.
There is a healthy expat community in Dali.  Actually, “healthy” is probably not the best adjective.  What I mean to say is that there are quite a few of them – about 30 apparently.  Healthy could probably be best used to describe their social life, and then that could be argued as being slightly misleading.
The hostel holds a barbecue every Thursday (Paul missed the first one due to illness but I was able to report it was delicious) followed by a game Killer Pool.  There was a good mix of locals, expats and fellow guests at the barbecue, and it was good to eat something other than Chinese food.

Bai women in traditional dress
We also headed down to the infamous Bad Monkey Bar on the second Sunday we were there to partake of their roast beef dinner.  The bar is English run and they also have their own brewery in the mountains.  There is often live music but unfortunately Paul couldn’t get over the number of dreadlocked staff to properly relax.  He has a particular disdain/dislike for anyone sporting dreadlocks (particularly if they are blond, and if they have a Kiwi accent you have to practically hold him back!).  Dreadlocks are just not right or proper on white blokes.  End of.   Despite this, it was a good evening and the roast dinner was very good, considering we hadn’t had a roast dinner for 3 months and this was one of our cravings.

Noodle o'clock

Once we were feeling fully recovered from our little bug, we went out on a grand tour of Lake Er Hai.  We went with our Chinese driver who spoke very little English but Paul was able to exchange a few words with him.  A retired French couple also came on our trip (more French! – is there anyone in France at the moment?).
We headed out on the road north from Dali Old Town, and began a clockwise circuit of the lake.  We visited a little village with a traditional market (as opposed to a market aimed solely at tourists), stopped to see some local Bai people with their fishing cormorants (although the birds were resting, poking their heads up only to have a cursory look at the gawking tourists), and paid a visit to a batik factory where they make and dye the blue and white batik cloth that the region is famous for. 
Er Hei Lake from the eastern shore
As we travelled around the lake we stopped to watch fishermen hauling in their catch and we also further south on the eastern shore we stopped to have lunch before heading back to the hostel.  We travelled through the city of Xiguan along the southern shore of the lake which by Chinese standards seemed to be quite pleasant. 
It was lovely to see more of the area and the lake and the eastern side of the lake was much more unspoilt than the western shore.  It is easy to see why so many people end up staying for so long here in Dali.  The climate is much more favourable too in this part of China, particularly in the autumn and winter months, the whole atmosphere much more laid back, and its close proximity to Banna and the Laos border also appeals.

Watching fishermen haul in their catch
Behind the hostel is Cangshan Mountain National Park with some rare unspoilt countryside with paths winding through the pine forests and not a concrete Bambi in sight. 

We spent one afternoon exploring outside the park, avoiding the entrance fee, as it was our intention to embark on a longer trek through the park (and we didn’t want to end up paying twice!).  However, we actually managed to return on our last day and avoid paying any entrance fee then either which is a rare feat in China.  On that occasion we hiked up the mountain  through the forest to the ridge path and then back down again.  It was quiet with few tourists around, and apart from the stone path up and down to the ridge path (and the ridge path itself) and the odd pagoda along the way to rest your weary legs, it had little evidence of human tampering. 

The stone path/staircase winds around lots of small groups of ancestral tombs, we can only imagine they are family burial plots, and they are dotted all over Cangshan Mountain (and you can see evidence of them all over Yunnan province).  Recent offerings and joss sticks are clearly visible although it looked like there were some Muslim graves too.  Chinese people and first and foremost Chinese, and theyrespect and worship their ancestors.  If they are religious, it seems that this always comes second.

Paul and YangyYing (she insisted in standing on
the step - she was tiny!)
As you can image, by staying put in one place for just over 2 weeks, we met lots of people, some of whom we had met previously on our travels throughout China.  We bumped into Jan again (the Frenchman from Olkhon Island, the train to Ulaanbaatar and Chengdu).
We also met two Israeli guys who had also stayed at Sims in Chengdu who turned up in Dali while we were here, and who were here when the fighting all kicked off in Israel and Gaza.  I’m not going to volunteer any opinion on that situation, except to say that to see someone so worried about his family gives the events a personal perspective.

A pagoda
While we were at the Jade Emu Paul’s carpentry skills were utilised by the hostel owner with payment in beer.  Paul was actually happy to be doing something so the beer was just a bonus!
He also really enjoyed his Chinese lessons.  Not only did he learn a lot, he had conversational practice, and he became more confident in his ability.  I have to admire his dogged determination to learn such a difficult language, and one that is so different from the languages we are used to with the use of tones such an important element.  He has only been learning Chinese for 6 months and his progress is impressive. 
His teacher, a young university graduate called YangYing who also worked at the hostel, also spoke to Paul about Chinese culture, her own life, working at the hostel, her time at university in Beijing, and how the outlook of the Chinese people has changed with each generation.  To actually discover something about the culture and the real lives of the people who live in the country where you are just passing through is one of the most fascinating aspects of travel, particularly in a place like China which is undergoing so many fundamental and enormous changes, is opening up to the rest of the world, is a welcome host to its many visitors, and yet it is still ruled by a communist regime.
Jade Emu Hostel
This was something which was driven home to us when we met a young Chinese lad staying at the hostel.  At the second barbebue during our stay at the hostel Daniel (his English name) joined us at our table as seating is scarce on barbebue nights. 
We began a conversation with him and discovered he had hitchhiked alone across China from Beijing - a very long way on a train!  He came from a small town in Inner Mongolia and his parents believed he was studying in Beijing.  He was obviously on a very tight budget and was relying heavily on the generosity of strangers he met along the way for food and shelter as well as lifts along the way, although he treated himself to the odd stay in a hostel.
You could not help but have a great deal of admiration for him for this reason alone, China's youth have increasing confidence to explore outside of their own cities and provinces and there are increasing numbers of young Chinese backpackers.
We began talking in more depth and Daniel asked us about the rest of world's perceptions of China, stereotypes, and negative/positive thoughts and ideas about his country.  For example, he met one person who was convinced everyone in China ate dog (it is actually quite rare I am pleased to report).

Some of the ancestral tombs on the hillside
We explained that we tried to have an open mind before we came here and although you cannot avoid some fixed ideas about a country and culture, we hoped that we, along with most people we met, were prepared to leaves our prejudices behind and learn about the country and people as we travelled around.
Daniel seemed concerned about foreign perceptions of China and its people. 
He also explained that in accordance with Chinese tradition he was expected to follow in his parent's footsteps, go home at the end of this travels, start working, get married (to a girl probably chosen by his parents), have children and have the rest of his life mapped out along with generations before him. 

The view across Dali and Er Hei Lake
He clearly did not want this and was depressed at the thought of not being able to make his own life choices.   
He also found comfort in Buddhism, something his parents would not approve of (the majority of Chinese people are atheist in accordance with Communist principles).  His faith was something he could not share with his family and this clearly troubled him. 

Daniel felt strongly about education in China, particularly about social issues, HIV, and the persecution and victimisation of certain groups of people.
He spoke with eloquence, passion, and sadness.  He was clearly tormented, torn between duty to his family and a desire to have the freedom to choose and follow his own path in life.  He spoke of his country in contradictory terms:  he stated unequivocally that he loved his country but that every since the Qing Dynasty, China had been ruled without democracy and that he desperately wanted  and believed this should change. 

More hillside graves
This was the other side of China.  We spent the whole evening talking to him and in particular Paul tried to impress upon him that he had his whole life ahead of him and whilst China was not going to change overnight, it would change because it would have to change, and that Daniel could make small changes in his own life and in his own circle of friends of family.  It was heartbreaking and his passion and anguish really touched us.

China is a strange and fascinating country, full of colour and variety, beauty and contradictions.  It is no wonder than the Chinese people are so proud to call themselves Chinese although it is definitely the younger generation which will cause the problems for the authorities, by asserting their individuality, and wanting to pursue their individual goals, with a desire to change a nation's perceptions which have been ingrained over thousands of years. 
This may not accord with what is expected of them not only by the establishment but by the generations before them.  Staying put for a while has given us an opportunity to reflect of what we have seen so far, to get a little bit under the skin of this amazing country from the perspective of the local people, but also to hear the experiences of westerners who have lived here, and their own perceptions.

We still have 4 weeks left to explore this captivating country before we leave to encounter a whole new other country.  We still feel we haven't scratched the surface.



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