The next stop on the list was Dali, west of Kunming. Dali, sitting between the Cangshan mountains and Lake Erhai (China’s sixth largest) was one of the original Chinese backpacker towns, and was supposed to have a charming old town.
Our arrival didn’t bode well. We alighted from the train in Xiaguan, 30km away from Dali at the south end of the lake. Following the instructions from the hostel we’d booked at we took a bus from there to old Dali. Unfortunately the stop we were looking for never appeared. At the end of the line we disembarked and saw a queue of hundreds waiting for the return bus back to Xiaguan. We walked the whole 1km of the main street, then 2km further along the Yunnan-Tibet highway, then 2km back. All this time we were asking directions of people, getting inconclusive answers and looking for the name of the bus stop we should have got off at, which was no more helpful. As dark drew in we gave up and found a room at another place not far from the old town.
Deep fried drumsticks for sale at Dali’s San Yue Jie festival
These ill omens apparently portended further ill. We ended up spending five days in Dali, as Sarah fell ill to a stomach bug later that night, and didn’t fully recover until it was time to leave.
This meant that, despite all our time in Dali we didn’t actually DO all that much. Thus I’ll suspend the usual day by day narrative and just give you a brief synopsis of what we (primarily I) got up to:
I went for walks in the old town. The Dali old town had cobbled streets and small streams (storm sewers?) flowing through it. The buildings were constructed in old Bai style. But this was where the charm ended. The huge majority of businesses were tourist oriented: souvenir shops, restaurants, guesthouses, etc. And where they weren’t explicitly tourist oriented, they still managed to seem out of place (e.g. a Dico’s fried chicken franchise, fancy upmarket pharmacies.)
The souvenirs spilling out into the street wasn’t completely bad. These dyed cloths, especially the pretty batik ones at the back fit the character of the town nicely
I (and later we) checked out the San Yue Jie festival. Translating to the “Third Moon Fair,” this annual festival began as a horse trading meet, but has now expanded to the point that it is really just a gigantic street market, where anything and everything can be purchased. Animal parts for Chinese traditional medicine. Clothing of all sorts. More of those shammy cloth guys with headset mics and amplifiers. Pets. Books. Religious paraphenalia. Food, food and more food. It just went on and on.
When I went to have a look the first time it was so packed that there was no possibility of independent movement. You really did just have to go with the flow of the crowd. I got myself a paper tub full of noodle soup, choosing the grey coloured glass noodles over the traditional rice noodles or the pastel green ones. (We later realized that this festival was the reason our bus into town had been diverted away from the stop we’d been meant to get off at, as well as for the massive queue we saw for the bus out of town.)
The crowds of San Yue Jie
All sorts of odd animal parts for sale at a medicine stall (note the fake tiger skin hanging on the left of the photo. As I’d observed in the past, presumably people silly enough to believe that tiger parts are beneficial to human health are also silly enough to buy such obviously fake ones.)
I took a walk down to the lake. This got me out of Dali old town and into some newer parts of the city. These were actually pretty cool, and more interesting than the old town. I saw lots of lovely wild roses, and the centre of old Dali’s second major industry: stone turning. Craftsmen in a series of workshops along a 1km stretch of road used lathes to create marble or onyx vases ranging from 20cm or so up to over 2m in height. Down by the lake was the village of Caicun. While not that fascinating in its own right, it was the location of the tourist boat pier (I didn’t bother, given that the official tourist boats were expensive and several signs nearby explained that fishing boats or rafts were not allowed to take on passengers (as a side note, this sort of regulation seemed fairly common at tourist sites in China; ostensibly for public safety or some other virtuous purpose, but actually and quite transparently to ensure that someone (doubtless with connections in government) makes a lot of money.
In addition to the pier, Caicun boasted a newly created wetland park with lots of geese, coots and egrets playing amongst the reeds and duckweed.
A stone turner at work in one of old Dali’s workshops
Erhai Hu (lake) from the Caicun pier
Sarah and I checked out the local brewpub. And were terribly disappointed. I was delighted when I saw an advertisement for the Bad Monkey Brewery in our hostel. It should have been a warning that the first few times I walked past it everyone inside was drinking bottles of Tsingtao. When the two of us went they were out of their witbier, the amber ale was mediocre and the pale ale bordered on vile (it had an unpleasant sour note to it, as well as signs of more generally poor fermentation.) I could only bring myself to have a small sample of the stout. And while it was the first stout I’d had in China that had an appropriate amount of roasted malt, it had the same unpleasant sourness as the pale ale.
We ate more mogu. Once Sarah was feeling a bit better we went out for dinner in town and had some Chashugu: tea tree mushrooms, which only grow at the base of tea trees and actually do seem to take on a bit of the flavour of their hosts. They were long, stringy mushrooms, kind of like enokis, but with larger, brown caps. We also had “Happy cry” which was a sweet/salty/sour and tremendously spicy salad featuring cucumber green onion and seaweed. Mmm!
Many restaurants in China don’t actually have menus. They just have a display cabinet (often refrigerated) where their ingredients are on display. Customers just tell the staff what they want to eat (or point to it in our case) and the chefs whip it up to order
The highlight of our time in Dali was clearly the walk on the new lakeshore road we took on our last day there when Sarah was almost completely recovered. We took the bus back down to Caicun village. We followed the road out of town and followed it through perhaps half a dozen villages, all featuring some fine examples of Bai architecture. Bai buildings are the elaborate entrance arches and the whitewashed fascias on the ends of buildings that are then painted with elaborate designs in the area near the roof. In between the villages were lush fields where the villagers were hard at work tending to a wide variety of crops whose only common feature was that I could identify virtually none of them. About 8km down the shore we turned back inland and caught a bus back to town, arriving in time to see the late afternoon sun on the city garden in old Dali, which, with its brilliant walls, manicured beds and few cute kids games was probably the most pleasant and enjoyable part of the old town.
Farm fields and dramatic skies near the shores of Erhai Hu
Loading up produce from those same fields
Not a photo OF anything in particular. I just liked the look of it when we walked past
Piglets in one of the lakeside villages. These things were crazy… They couldn’t decide whether we were going to feed them or eat them. As a consequence they were constantly running around their pen trying to get nearer to or to escape from us, to the point of climbing on top of each other at times
The town garden back in Dali
It’s true that Dali had many more attractions that we didn’t get around to (hiking on Cangshan, several temples and nearby village markets.) But really by the time Sarah’s illness had passed it felt as though we’d spent more than enough time in Dali and we were ready to head north to the town of Lijiang.
Instead of going through all the trouble of going back south to Xiaguan we just caught a bus from Dali old town, and were in the city of Lijiang in about three hours.
In an odd counterpoint to our hostel-locating experience in Dali, the directions to our place in Lijiang were actually incorrect, but we managed to find it with little trouble anyway. We took two buses, saw a whole lot of the new city, took a walk downhill into the old town, and were clever enough to divine that when they said to turn right they actually meant left. Good thing we figured it out too, because the Garden Inn was a beautiful place. Tucked away in an as-yet undeveloped corner of Lijiang old town (and that’s saying something… pretty much ALL of Lijiang old town is developed) it had a shaded courtyard with wisteria flowers on trellises, a swing chair, a pool table, and some of the most helpful staff we’d yet encountered in China.
Lijiang new city was fairly typical of the small Chinese cities we’d seen. Though perhaps a bit more prosperous because of the burgeoning tourist industry, and with much clearer air because of the high altitude and lack of heavy industry nearby (Lijiang was actually the culmination of a series of clear-air revalation towns, which started with Kunming, improved with Dali and reached its zenith up in northern Yunnan.)
Our first look at old Lijiang, on the afternoon we arrived, was rather confusing. It was far more touristed than even Dali. Lijiang sees over 10 million visiting tourists a year, and virtually all of them are there for the old town. But somehow it managed to maintain its character much better than Dali had. I think it was primarily because of the narrow streets. This meant that the shops had to stay inside the shops, rather than spilling out on to the street as they had done in Dali. The streets were all built from big grey cobbles. The shops were a combination of wooden frames and occasional stone or whitewashed plaster facades, topped off with ancient looking grey tile roofs. I’m sure that pretty much all of them had been reconstructed recently, but they still captured the feel of an old Bai town well.
It was also obvious what a popular spot Lijiang was with Chinese tourists. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a town with so many hotels. If there were less than a hundred in the 600m by 600m old town I’d be quite surprised. We also ran across a film crew shooting a movie about the Chinese civil war (or so we guessed by the costumes/uniforms of many of the actors.)
A bit of an anachronism if this bit were on film. Unless, of course, it was an alternate history film where the Chinese communists all have working mobile phones and due to their superior communications network, manage to easily drive the Japanese out, and defeat the nationalists before the beginning of the second world war, thus establishing the People’s Republic 20 years early and becoming the 20th century’s lone superpower in the process
A typical laneway in Old Lijiang
Old Lijiang’s Snack Street. We had some of the pale green things on sticks, which were a glutinous rice based casing filled with a brown sugar and (nut? sesame? I’m not sure) filling
That evening we met up with Keith, a couchsurfing host who we’d asked to stay with, but who had a full house at the time. We’d actually had some trouble getting hold of him as our mobile phone had stopped working, but fortunately, despite having no idea where we were staying, he happened to be coming by our hostel to meet one of the staff! I read the e-mail explaining this and moments later saw a likely prospect walking out the front door, so I ran after them down the street in my bare feet and just caught them before they turned the corner.
We had dinner at a halal restaurant (the Hui, a group of muslims who spread out all over China are particularly well represented in Yunnan) and then went to check out an art exhibition just outside of the old town. The exhibition was smallish and we didn’t actually get to see all that much of it, but the courtyard building it was housed in was very nice, as was the fire out in the courtyard and the company of an eclectic range of Lijiang visitors and residents alike.
I don’t the photo quite does it justice, but this simple arrangement of chicken wire and a movie projector looked really, really cool
The next day we started with a visit to a noodle shop that turned out to be the only place we ate meals in Lijiang from then on. There wasn’t a hint of an English menu, but I pointed at what someone else was having and got a delicious bowl of wheat noodles topped with meat, coriander, peanuts, green onion and a spicy sauce. Mmmm…
We spent the rest of the day investigating the old town a bit more fully. We headed to the main square, just on the edge, which was packed with tourists, and with vendors offering such experiences as photos sitting on horses, photos in old Bai dress, photos with eagles perched on your arm, or just photos in front of the huge old waterwheels that were the focal point of the square. We wandered up a willow-lined stream away from the old town, then headed back and climbed up a hill to get the bird’s eye view.
A later meal at our noodle shop. This one had wonderful lactobacillus fermented pickled cabbage on top!
This eagle really didn’t seem to like being bathed by his handler
The waterwheels of Lijiang (Norias! [that was what the beautiful waterwheels of Hama, Syria were called])
We stopped at a cafe and had a couple of juices and looked out over the old town, also just catching a glimpse of the huge, jagge, snow covered peaks of Yulong Shan (Jade Dragon Mountain.) (The juices, were fun varieties: watermelon and pear. They were a bit expensive, but you were paying for the view really, as almost all spots with a view were occupied by cafes or guesthouses.) After nursing our juices for a while we headed back down the hillside steps to the old town and Sifan square, the “second square” of Dali old town and the one located right in its centre. It was a brilliantly sunny day and lots of visitors crowded the square, milling about the shaded parts of the square or by the banks of the stream that flowed through it, dealing with the (additional) souvenir photo salespeople who set up shop there.
Lijiang old town from above
Visitors strolling along the restaurant-lined waterways of Lijiang
We took off in a random direction paying little heed to which turns we took as we wandered the labyrinthine alleys of the old town. Sarah stopped to check out a pair of hand made embroidered Bai silk shoes. She’d been looking for a pair for a while and this seemed as good a place as any to purchase a pair. The lady in the shop began with an asking price of 600RMB (about NZ$120.) After a fair bit of bargaining this fell to 250. We’ve still no idea if this was actually a reasonable price but Sarah liked them, so out went the cash and on went the shoes. Especially given how fond she was of them, it was more than a bit disappointing when after another 20 minutes of wandering round the newer parts of old town (more whitewashed plaster, less stone and wood) the stitching on one of the toes split.
We headed back to Sifang square and, to both of our surprise, managed to find the shop where we’d bought them on our first attempt. Ideally we would have returned them and got a refund, but since they’d been worn (and, doubtless since she had the cash in hand) the shopkeeper would have none of it. She did, however re-stitch the toe of one shoe and reinforce the other. Let’s hope they stand up to further wear, because they really are very pretty.
Sarah’s new shoes (post repair.) The hand embroidered ones weren’t nearly as neat as the machine made ones but we both agreed they had far more style.
The remainder of our time in Lijiang was spent, for the most part, out of Lijiang. One day we took a trip out of town to the village of Baisha. It supposedly has some nice frescoes, but what we really wanted was just to get out of the business (all relative of course, by Chinese standards, Lijiang was positively sedate) of the city and into the countryside.
We headed north from the bus stop along the main road, then ducked down a sideroad that headed into one of the villages. For the most part the villages themselves were an illustration of how well the tourist folks of Lijiang have done in keeping the place charming and pleasant. The villages were certainly more truly authentic, and were fun to walk around (the entrance arches in front of almost every house were almost universally ornate and beautiful.) But the amount of concrete and overhead power and telecom wires made the villages feel less ancient than Lijiang city.
The fields outside of town were another matter entirely, however. They were small fields tended by individual farmers, as we saw while we walked around, usually by hand or livestock. (Buff powered plow!) We were also much closer to Yulong Shan our here and its rugged peaks formed such a beautiful backdrop to the farmland that I had to wonder how odd it was that people grew up and lived here, completely taking the presence of the gorgeous mountain for granted.
Yulong Shan and grain fields north of Baisha village
The was probably the only moment of overt hostility towards foreigners we’d yet seen in China. As I was trying to take a photo of this viallge street, the guy in the foreground started running towards us yelling “Laowai! Laowai! and pretended to throw a rock at me. Fortunately I was too focussed on taking the photo to give him the pleasure of flinching.
Back in Lijiang we decided to check out the old town by night. We hadn’t done this before, and it was a good thing. So many of the things that made the place nice disappeared after dark. The lights came on in the shops, meaning that the interiors (full of stuff we weren’t interested in buying) were all you could see. The Chinese tourists came out in droves (I guess they must have spent the days taking trips out to Yulong Shan or elsewhere and returned to the old town at night.) And the bars got going, blasting out loud music that reminded us eerily of the ones across the river from us in Fenghuang. Lijiang by day: 8/10. Lijiang by night: 4/10.
A bridge in Sifang Square by night
This isn’t a wonderful photo, but it serves a purpose, which is to allow me to mention the fire fighting buckets that were strategically located all over old Lijiang. Sensible, given the wood construction of the majority of the buildings and the unreliable piped water supply in the area
Our final morning in the Lijiang area was again spent outside of the city, this time in Shuhe old town. Only a 15 minute bus ride from the city centre, Shuhe’s old town was reputed to be a more rustic, less touristy version of Lijiang’s. I suppose this may be true, but it still had LOTS of tourist businesses, and again it suffered from the same problems Dali had: it allowed the tourist trade to spill out into the streets, blotting out much of what made the place likable to begin with. Shuhe was much quieter than we’d ever seen Lijiang (though it’s certainly possible that this is because we were there before 09:00.) Shuhe also had lots of lovely old trees shading its streets. But all in all, and to my surprise, I think I still preferred Lijiang.
Shuhe DID have its picturesque moments
After our short (probably little more than half an hour) visit to Shuhe, we headed back to Lijiang and picked up our bags. It was with great excitement that we got on board our bus, as our destination was one of the few we’d planned with 100% certainty to visit before we arrived in China: the mighty Yangtze River’s Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Dyed chicks at the restaurant where we ate most of our meals in Dali (I’m pretty confident these were pets not food. Either way you had to feel bad for the poor things. I can’t imagine being dyed is healthy or comfortable for them.)
A street sign with the street name in three languages. “Three?” you ask? Yes. The bottom row is in the pictographic script of the Naxi people. Outside of the religious sphere, most Naxi now write in Chinese. But still with over 300,000 native Naxi speakers it must surely be the most used remaining pictographic script in the world
Doing the laundry in one of the many small waterways that flow through Lijiang. I’m not sure whether this was the laundry for a hotel, or if some shopowners live in their premises (though I wouldn’t be surprised, given how much it must cost to have a shop in old Lijiang.)
Old Lijiang in the early morning when many of the shops hadn’t even opened yet. This was probably when it was at its very best.
Tags: China, Dali, Erhai Hu, Erhai Lake, Lijiang, Llew Bardecki, Shuhe, Travel, Yunnan