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The road between Lancang and Lingcang has got to be the bumpiest road in the world (though other travellers on this route insist that it's not as bad as most roads in Laos) and squeezed into the upper berths at the back of the sleeper bus with four chain-smoking Chinese makes it more of a challenge.
I wake (since it is impossible to sleep, perhaps "roused" would be more accurate) at three o'clock in the morning to find a weather-beaten hand reaching toward my money belt and I slap the hand away. But the hand continues toward my bunk and retrieves a smoldering cigarette butt that was probably thrown short of the window or blown back in by the wind. Probably.
At 4am I get off at Lincang to switch to a Dali bound bus departing at 6:30am. I have a tasty noodle soup from an all-night roadside stall and sit on a roadside wall in the predawn darkness to await my bus. A good-looking, well-dressed woman approaches me and shyly chats with me. She invites me to view a building a short distance away. I politely decline. She asks me to buy her a ticket to Dali and she will repay me in Dali. I again very politely decline. She then asks me for 20 yuan and I, slightly less politely, for the third time refuse her. She immediately begins to cry and I hurriedly pick up my luggage and walk away.
At a goodly distance from the weeping woman I can see the food stall vendors and the three passengers-in-waiting consoling her and throwing ugly looks my way.
At 6:30 am I board the bus to Dali and as we sit waiting for the driver to appear the woman comes aboard and cries in a lament that culminates in a fit of tears. All the passengers look at me. I shrug and say, "I don't know her!" Eventually I give in to extortion, put 20 yuan in her hand and guide her off the bus.
The 12 hr journey north to Dali is long and tedious. Along the way the flatlands drop away and is replaced by whole mountains sculpted, by the Hani tribe, from peak to valley into rice terraces. The scale of human endeavour is awesome but perhaps clearing the mountains of their natural vegetation also causes the frequent and many landslides which can block the roads for hours. The temperature also drops as we climb to Dali lying at 1900m on the shores of Erhai Lake and completely surrounded by the towering Cangshan mountain range.
Dali is a charming walled town with very old houses and cobbled streets and for 500 years was the capital of the Kingdom of the Bai until it fell to the Mongols under Kublai Khan. Today it is still the capital of the Tibeto-Burmese Bai who number almost half of Dali's population.
Traditional Bai homes are large compounds which house the extended family and the interiors are built mainly of wood to withstand earthquakes. The main entrances are elaborate and decorated with colourful dragons and other benevolent protectors.
I arrive in Dali at 6pm on the last day of the week long Third Moon Fair which celebrates a visit to the Nanzhao Kingdom by the Buddhist goddess, Guanyin. Today, it is like a very large fair or market but fortunately the crowds have dispersed by the time I get there and it is only the tail end of the firecrackers that disturbs the night.
Dali is a relaxed town and has been recently renovated and beautified. Like Yangshuo, there is a western feel from the many cafes, restaurants and bars offering western meals and Internet. Quite a few of these establishments are owned or managed by Chinese women trying to attract a foreign husband. Their line goes: "I have always dreamed of going to America/ England/ Australia/ Israel ..." depending on the customer's accent. But either they cannot place my accent or they have never dreamed of going to Trinidad, because I have never been handed this line directly.
At one of these cafes I meet Glen, an American who has been coming to Dali every year for the past ten years.
"What was Dali like when you first came?" I ask.
"Very different," he says.
"Now they have widened the streets and made the walls and town centre prettier. But back then it was much smaller, there were only two cafes serving western food and the streets were narrower and dirtier. There were a few western travellers in those days, but they were a different breed, real travellers. I still stay at the same hotel. Now there are newer hotels with modern conveniences but I'm a creature of habit.
Which way are you heading?"
"North. Lijiang. Then maybe Tibet, if I can."
"I've heard that they recently opened the roads around there to foreigners. You may be able to go north from Lijiang to Litang in Sichuan, then east to Chengdu. Saves you doubling back to Yunnan." "Have you been along that route?" I ask.
"No. I haven't been anywhere else in China. Every year I take vacation and come directly to Dali, stay for two weeks, then I go back home."
The new Dali feels like a tourist showcase, everything is clean, tidy, pretty. The city walls look like a movie set. Street stalls offer blue and white tie-dyed cloth and a multitude of shops offer marble, marble and marble for which Dali is famous. I find the price of a marble container irresistible and ask for a smaller container of similar proportions for my Japanese powdered tea.
"We will have to make it specially for you," he says.
Even though it is more expensive, it is still worth it and I order one. They give it to me following day; it is well done and I am pleased with it.
I take a walk through the rice paddies and villages to Erhai Lake where a man and his wife are rowing their boat along the shore. They cheerfully ask me if I want to take a boat ride across the lake to see the temples.
"How much money?" I ask, cautiously.
"Ten yuan is all I can afford."
"Okay, twelve yuan."
We agree on the fare and I climb into the boat. The man rows from behind while the wife pays out a long tube-like net from the front. We go slowly along the shore for about one hundred meters then tie up at a small pier.
"Is that all?" I ask. "I didn't see any temples."
"Over there," says the man pointing across the lake to an island.
"I have only fifteen yuan, do you have three yuan?"
"Yes," says the wife and takes the money.
She goes to a stall across the road but returns to say that he has no change. They then both vanish into a house and lock the door. Cheated twice. To make up for my loss, I refuse to take a horse and buggy back to Dali and stubbornly walk the five miles. On a second trip to Erhai Lake, I rent a bicycle and stop in the villages where the children are friendly and curious and the shopkeepers are honest and helpful. One female shopkeeper invites me to a meal in her home but previous experiences of how complicated these situations become make me regretfully decline. I say, "Xie xie, nin. Chi bao le." Thank you, but I have already eaten.
25 km from Dali is Xizhou, far off the tourist track and virtually pure Bai culture. The houses, solid blocks of stone, wood and mud, have remained in very good condition and the lifestyle of the inhabitants have stayed almost the same for the past few decades. There are no Karaoke bars, no video shops, no massage parlours. I am the only foreigner walking through town. In the market are small stalls, actually bed frames, with heaps of rat poison, clothes, shoes, plastic buckets, cassettes, umbrellas, mushrooms, vegetables, carrots, turnips, potatoes. No one asks, "Ni mai shenme?" - You buy what?
Several streets are blocked by heaps of wheat strewn across the road to dry. There is no wheeled traffic to disturb the silence and few pedestrians. I ask a passer-by for directions to one of the 2 temples and, despite the hot afternoon sun, he obliges by taking me there. It is a small temple with several large wooden statues of guardian gods with bulging staring eyes, sooty from age and the incense. The two nuns are pleased to see visitors. We chat for a while and I leave a small donation after lighting joss sticks to my ancestors in Trinidad. Perhaps they will intercede with my Chinese ancestors on my behalf to safeguard me on my way to Tibet.
The Sichuan-Tibet Highway: The Northern Route | North-west China : The Silk Road | China : The Centre of the World
Journey to Shangri La: Yunnan | Journey to Shangri La: Dali | Journey to Shangri La: Lijiang
Journey to Shangri La: Zhongdian & Deqin | The Year of the Dragon