(Map graphic stolen from a melodromatic but interesting asiapictorial article, where it was likely stolen from somewhere else).
Dali, Lijiang, and Shangrila (Xianggelila) are in an especially mountainous region in the northern part of Yunnan province.
Kunming is conveniently reachable by a rather expensive (USD $440 round-trip) direct flight from Chiang Mai, Thailand on that oh-so-well-known carrier, China Eastern Airlines (aka "MU"). It is also possible to go overland through Laos, but the roads in Laos are truly awful and then you must endure a 24+-hour train ride through Xishuangbanna. The scale of this country is truly daunting.
First and foremost the weather—it's awesome! it is like a perfect summer day in San Francisco, sunny with puffy clouds and a cool breeze blowing all day, max 72F, and no sign of humidity. Exactly what we need after the 99F weather and toxic air of Pai and Chiang Mai. Although the locals were bound in layers and layers of jackets at 10am, I spent the whole day in shorts and tshirt including the night and it was fine.
If the charts are to be believed, Dali should be very similar.
My guesthouse, The Hump, is better than expected: although it's positioned next to thumping nightclubs and although the entry looks very dodgy, the rooms are clean and surprisingly well-equipped. I had an ensuite room (bathroom inside) the first night and it was basically hotel-quality with a full sit toilet bathroom, hot shower, and electric blanket. Tonight I have a shared bath room and the room is still ok (the shared bath is so-so but has sit toilets and even dividers between the toilets). But the main good part is that the staff I have met are actually friendly and try to help you with reasonable English, rather than the China standard of ignoring you completely in the hopes that you will go away. There are big lockers where you can stash your expensive stuff, and there is free wifi.
Second, the language barrier. It is miles higher than in Thailand, even than in Isaan. My 100 words of Mandarin from Pimsleur's audiocourse were nearly useless (I only used the numbers and "is this so-and-so-street"). Unlike Thailand, almost nobody knows a word of English or if they do, they never own up to it and they have no cultural motivation to converse with foreigners or show off their English prowess. They will try to speak to you in Mandarin (or something) as if you understand fluent conversation. So you should assume that you will only have access to eating and other establishments where you can point, or if you get lucky maybe you can find a Mandarin speaker in the Hump lobby and go out with them. Nobody was ever aggressive in any way, but you cannot rely on friendly giggling high school and university students eagerly practicing the horrible English they learned from their teacher, as you can in Thailand.
Third, exchange and ATM. The 3 exchange booths at Chiang Mai almost never have RMB so it's a good idea to get some in Chaing Mai town (not sure where?) for your first night. ATMs all seem to work here and supposedly the China Construction Bank ATMs incur no fixed fee for BofA account holders (there is still a 1% jab plus conversion rate). There is one ATM from Bank of China in the Kunming airport terminal. In the worst case you could get the driver to stop by an ATM.
Fourth, guidebooks. Most backpackers rely on the Lonely Planet (or one of its competitors) for Asia travel, but in the case of China, the Lonely Planet (despite being dated 2007 and stamped with "updated" all over the front and back cover) hasn't been updated in any useful way since 2005 or earlier. As a result, the guidebooks (both the China one and the Southern China one) are almost completely useless: every train and bus route mentioned is wrong, advice on dodgy roads and route lengths is usually wrong, half the guesthouses have closed and many that are still open have decayed to broken-down ratholes with unfriendly owners who rely on a steady stream of duped Lonely Planet readers. There is a "new" version of the Lonely Planet coming out in April 2011 but everyone assumes it will be another window dressing release. The Amazon reviews for the guidebook are universally scathing and hundreds of disgusted buyers accuse Lonely Planet of pulling some huge scam with their "updates."
When you arrive at The Hump ~11pm from the one flight from Chiang Mai, nearly everything will be closed (except the thumping nightclubs around the guesthouse). Fortunately, there will be some tasty satay vendors and there will be a big Kunming franchise of "Brothers Jiang" right outside The Hump where you can have crossing the bridge noodles. Pay 15 RMB up front and then go to the service counters and look confused and they will show you what to do. The soup comes literally boiling hot and you put the ingredients in and let them cook before your eyes.
Generally speaking, the whole area around The Hump, while centrally located and impressively modern with big Chinese arches and Vegas style neon, seems totally devoid of any character or personality whatsoever (image stolen from web):
Everything has recently been "improved" to either mega-malls or ultra-high-rent chiq shophouses. As you will see, McDonalds and KFC and an endless series of high-end fashion clothing vendors have totally taken over and it appears that street vendors are not allowed.
Another oddity was that around many of the squares in town, especially those in the ultra-modern shopping center complexes north of The Hump, I saw multiple police SWAT vans (yes they really said SWAT), complete with plastic shields and billy clubs, poised and ready to spring into crowd control mode at any instant. What on earth were they there for? I later found out that today was national "Woman's Day," so perhaps the teams were deployed to stifle any kind of women's rights protests?
After walking for hours I was able to find a few cool places nearby the Hump, including one place that sold mantow and sarapow sticky buns along with a really good cup of what Thais call Shianghai noodles (and which I think is called "mi xian" in Mandarin) with chunks of delicious yellow tofu and nice spices—can't remember where I found that.
Also in multiple locations I found a number of vendors selling delicious deep-fried potato quarters, soaked in about 8 different tasty sauces and powders (including I'm sure MSG).
In the two north-south sois that lie to the east of The Hump and south of Jinbi Lu, I found a number of interesting family-owned shops where I found some delicious pork stir fries with whole dried chili peppers at about 8pm. Near the end of one of those sois is the high-end restaurant called "1910 La Gare Du Sud" which the Lonely Planet claims has a lot of well-prepared Yunnan specialities and an English menu. I tried to go there tonight but it looks like the whole place was occupied by a wedding party. Upon arrival there was a smattering of smartly dressed guests, some drunk, and the wait staff completely ignored me.
For food nuts like Jeff, this might be a good place in order to get past the language barrier to regain some access to the dishes you won't find sold on the street.
The only part of Kunming I discovered that had any real remaining human character to it was a tiny but interesting community that is on Yuangtong Jie right to the East of the river and before Bejing Lu. If you start at Yuantong Temple, the one big famous temple where everybody goes (6RMB entry—ok, some nice cherry blossoms), and you head East on Yuangtong Jie on the south side of the road for just a few hundred meters until you are just two feet past the river, you'll see a pedestrian stair from the overpass to ground level. Take that and continue walking East towards Bejing Lu on a narrow frontage path. It's a 200 meter strip with an unusually high number of interesting street vendors and tasty foods. Then turn around and go back through the strip, and take the first possible right (north) under the underpass. You'll get to a bizarre one-block strip where they have decided to keep the ancient decrepit brick houses rather than raze them and build shophouses. The old houses and old folks there are a trip. I also wandered around the area and found these labarynthine sois through old leaning chinese-style houses.
I visited the city's central Green Lake Park ready to be disappointed, but it was actually really cool. In addition to many winding paths around lagoons and various boats and attractions for kids, there were a lot of musical groups playing different kinds of traditional hill tribe music, chinese opera, etc. Some of these groups actually seemed to be doing it just for fun and did not have any hat for donations. In particular there was one patio that was chock full of cherry trees bursting with low-hanging blossoms (I had to duck continuously to explore the place) and several musical groups performed, including a couple doing a sappy Chinese-opera-style duet with a small amplifier that had the audience captivated and laughing and booing at strategic moments. In another area, a group of hill tribe type folks with big cylindrical stringy hats danced a circle dance that was suspiciously like the one the Lisus do in Pai, except with much more interesting music (instead of the 2 stringed instrument with 1 note, these hill tribe people skilfully played a set of Banjos/Mandolins and an Erhu). Not sure if this music in the park is a special weekend/Sunday thing or what.
I wandered around Yunnan University, which is one of the top Universities in China and has a large, verdant campus on a steep hill, but didn't see anything too exciting.
I tried to find a place called "The Loft" that has a lot of modern art museums but either had bad directions or it was closed (typical).
Tomorrow I will leave for Dali on an afternoon bus. They say there's a bus every 20 minutes for most of the day.
Oh one example of the language barrier is that I tried 5-6 different mobile shops including one adcacent to the main tourist temple in Kunming, and nobody spoke a word of English. So I will probably skip getting a SIM entirely or ask somebody's help getting one in Dali.
The whole day, outside The Hump, I saw only 3 foreigners (2 at the park and one hitting on girls at the university, presumably a teacher).
The person with the best English I met works at the Hump and she reports that for all the students at her Uni, they only have one Farang English teacher and he only spends 2 hours a week teaching. What a priority.
After a day of delicious food I experienced a whole night of Mao's revenge.
My supply of Imodium was running low and I wandered around trying to find anything that worked, using only the characters for "diarrhea" from my Chinese-English dictionary. One pharmacy I visited adamantly pitched a certain medicine whose Chinese-strewn box she was waving before me. I bought it in desperation and found one word of English inside. The Wiki page showed that it was an old antibiotic known to cause side effects of muscle strain and even torn muscles, and with none of the beneficial effects of Imodium. Great.
Finally, I discovered this absolutely critical tip that Imodium has in fact been available for several years, despite the fact that no pharmacist has ever heard the word "loperamide" (or "diarrhea" for that matter):
The local herbs and pills and magic potions used for diarrhea apparently are quite gentle, and therefore useless.
So I spent another day in Kunming, sponsored by Immodium.
Today it's like a SF winter day. Overcast cool & nice.
I walked around to an area that the dubious Lonely Planet said has a bunch of modern art galleries. I found only one gallery, which had been converted to a nearly customerless Australian wine shop with some paintings on the wall. It looks like the loft of that place might be still used for art events sometimes, but there were no English speakers to ask and no English on any sign, which is totally the norm for here.
On the other side of the courtyard there was a tiny Chinese-English sign for an art place on "3rd floor of entrance 2," pointing into a dark, post-nuclear-holocaust alley with towering thick concrete-block walls and a hive-like row of locked metal cages where people double-locked their electric motorbikes like zoo animals and fed them with power strips hanging from above. At the mouth of the alley was a curious old Chinese man behind a desk who would just stare as I wandered in and out, looking at the sign, then looking at the Escher-esque rickety stairs leading up, over, and out in every direction. The most obvious up stairway dead-ended at a vile public men's bathroom where there was little, if any distinction between the pee trough and the shit trough, and where there were no dividers for you as you do your business. I wandered around endlessly looking for what the sign might refer to and finally found a sub-path leading to a building that had an entrance 2. I entered and climbed up a narrow concrete winding stairway, looking straight out of a NY tenement, passing door after door between walls completely and totally plastered with bumperstickers that were covered with giant 6-8 digit numbers. What on earth are these stickers and why would they possibly waste so much time to stick them on every wall, floor to ceiling, for 4 stories? Were they past winning lottery numbers?
3 Apr 2010 Update: on a later trip to Er Yuan, Yunnan, a Chinese friend points out similar numbers that are graffitied all over the walls of every building in a slighty dodgy part of town. He informs me that these are mobile phone numbers that lead you to people who can make you all sorts of fake credentials, including IDs and driver licenses. The industry is so big that it is worth their time to spam the whole town with thousands of copies of their number (and of course they have to keep changing their number to evade capture). Apparently, real government credentials must be quite expensive and time-consuming to obtain. So the numbers in the Kunming tenement may have been the same.
Each locked door had a little duty checklist of some kind on the wall, as if someone actually cared about maintaining this hallway. Perhaps the checklist related to paying the rent? Anyway I reached the third floor and it was just like the others with no sign of life. Strike out. Guess the artists have all gone somewhere else, or been jailed.
I hung out with some of the expats at the Hump's rooftop bar, which has a fantastic view of Jinbi square and the steel-and-glass, lifeless corporate metropolitan paradise behind it. Since saw almost zero farangs in town, I suspect that a lot of these expats spend their whole time in Kunming at the Hump eating farang food and drinking beer. One of the guys I met was a South African dude with an especially foul mouth who had spent several months of time in Pai a few years back, some of it in jail. He ostensibly came to Pai to volunteer in a teaching program, but within the first two weeks some buddies of his took him to a guesthouse near the waterfall with good opium and it was all over after that. Pure class, but he was very entertaining. He's apparently got a teaching job in Kunming, and after a weeks-long trip to Hong Kong on the university's dime to get a visa, he will be working 17 hours a week for around 7500 RMB/month, which is pretty good (nice 2-bedroom apartment is 1500 RMB/month). Hope this teaching gig works out better.
When I said I live in Thailand, his first comment was "so how many girlfriends do you have there?" That's apparently the reputation that Thailand expats have according to China expats. This particular guy gives all the local Chinese a miss and instead spends most of his copious spare time chasing after farang backpacker chicks because, as he expressed even less subtly than this, he can't be bothered to mount an expedition through all that bush.
Interestingly, some China expats report that the government pretty much leaves farangs alone as long as they are keeping to themselves (even smoking). But big problems arise when the farangs (particularly smoking) attempt to cross into Chinese circles. Quite different from Pai.
I wandered a bit south of The Hump to an area with two old pagodas. The path between them has been converted into a long promenade with high-end restaurants with exaggeratedly tall windows and ceilings (a la Santana Row in San Jose), fashion shops and overpriced antique trinket shops. Obviously, Kunming has recently had an outbreak of virulent infectious yuppie-itis and this is where the lesions are most visible. There was even a 5-story mall called "OUTLETS;" perhaps someone had gone to California to collect all the key signs of incurable yuppiedom and bring them to Kunming.
The sun had gone down and it was a chilly 48F evening. Past yuppie alley, right underneath one of the pagodas, there was a storm of activity. A huge flat marble square was full of 3-4 different mass aerobics groups, each with their own leader, their own speakers, and of course their own beat. Somehow the huge groups, arranged in neat rectangles, managed to concentrate on their leader and ignore the conflicting beats from either side. Different groups seemed to spontaneously form in perfect rectangles for a few songs then disappear just as instantly. Not sure who the speakers belonged to. The largest group was led by a tall, ecstatic, white-draped ladyboy, the first I'd seen in China. The participants were mostly middle-aged women but in fact nearly every age group was represented, including several blue-capped old men shaking their legs to the beat on the concrete park benches at the very edge of the square. Kids on LED blinking rollerblades zoomed and swished in and out of the dancing crowds. In the corner was a large circle of traditional-clad hill-tribe-type dancers practicing some kind of orchestrated number where they held small drums in their hand and, as they followed complex footsteps to keep moving around in the circle, they also swung their arms up, down, left, and right in rhythm, hitting the drum multiple times in each path to maintain a complex rhythm, as the leader kept the beat with a giant set of cymbals. They reminded me of the Lisu circle dances we see every year in Pai. Finally there was a set of miniature cones set up where a man with a fisher-price sound system was barking orders to a long line of tiny kids with blinking rollerblades, trying to get them to skate straight without hitting the cones. I wonder if rollerblades are a new thing here and the rollerblade company is trying to drum up business with the public lessons. Hasn't your son got them yet?
The whole "evening exercise" scene struck me as so odd (as it does in Thailand) because how long ago were most of these people doing real work, where they wouldn't need an exercise supplement? Was this "evening exercise" some government scheme to reduce obesity, now that so many people have desk jobs and eat KFC? Later, I was to see "evening exercise" all over Yunnan. In some cases (like Shangrila) there are indications that there may have been some long-running tradition to dance in the evening for the pleasure of it or as a social occasion, dating back to when people did real work and didn't eat KFC, so maybe there is some historical basis too.
Oh well, they all did seem to be having a good time and at least externally nobody seemed to be ordering them to exercise. And there were no SWAT vans either.
I decided to splurge for dinner and go to the very old, high-end "1910 Gare du Sud" restaurant for a 110RMB (500B, $16) meal. This is definitely a place for Jeff the Chef to go ASAP, if for no other reason to look at the gorgeous full picture menu with probably 100 different entrees with meaningful English descriptions. You'll probably go there every night if you stay more than one. They have both traditional Yunnan dishes and fusion food. I had:
I'm sure items 1, 2, and maybe 4 are available on the street at 1/50th the price but I wouldn't have found them otherwise.
Movements allowing, I will take the 5 hour bus ride to Dali tomorrow morning.Pai, Thailand, where I have lived for many years, vs. my more general Thai Journal website, I will use a descriptive format here for Dali instead of a day-to-day format. I have a few more journal entries about a week-long side trip I took to Lijiang, Tiger Leaping Gorge, and Shangrila below.
Dali, like Pai, is a mountain town that is popular with local and foreign tourists. Unlike Pai, Dali is at 2000m (6600ft) elevation and so it makes a wonderfully cold and clear-skied escape from the toxic nightmare that all of Northern Thailand has recently become every March and April. It is highly ironic that I have fled to China for better air, but there it is.
Here is a time lapse video showing a typical Dali sunset. The video compresses about 2 hours of footage into 1 minute and 24 seconds (sped up about 85x). If you have a good internet connection, download the higher-resolution QuickTime file, which looks much nicer:
Here is another time lapse video (1 hour sped up to 42 seconds) of a Dali cloudscape. If you have a good internet connection, download the higher-resolution QuickTime file, which looks much nicer:
Dali (and most of Yunnan province) has a uniquely mild and wonderful climate that has not yet been destroyed by industry or coal-fired power plants. After I was in Yunnan province a few weeks, it suddenly occurred to me that not once did I ever put on my mosquito repellant, and that not a single ant, snake, cockroach, or beetle entered my room. Contrast this with Thailand, which constantly reminds us that we are guests of nature as we must constantly build shields for both our bodies and our food.
Dali is also much bigger than Pai. The Dali "old town" where I live is mostly concentrated inside an ancient square city wall about 1.5km (0.9 mile) on a side, and it is situated next to Lake Erhai, which also hosts a variety of other towns and one major city (Dali New Town or Xia Guan), which comes complete with giant malls, traffic, and even a WAL-MART.
Dali Old Town is marked as "Ancient Town of Dali" on this map, stolen from China Odyssey Tours. The place marked "Dali" is Dali New Town:
And because the entire town is located on a gentle slope from the foothills of the 13,415ft (4089m) Cang mountain range to the 6,437ft (1961m) Lake Erhai, they are able to keep water flowing continuously through a seemingly endless network of channels that line many of the streets:
In the first part of March, the daytime weather was pleasantly sunny (70F, 21C) with blue skies dotted by amazing ever-changing cloudscapes:
In later March we got some unseasonably cold, rainy weather, stretching my Thailand-based wardrobe to the limit, but that also gave us some nice vistas of clouds and very nice fog which creeps over the snow-capped mountains:
For example, nearly every building in Dali Old Town and its vicinity, whether it be a house or a business, is built and decorated in this style:
Marble and stones in general seem available in infinite supply here, and they are used to create ubiquitous cobblestone streets, paths, and thick, impressive, 10-foot-tall-or-higher stone fortress walls that surround nearly everyone's house and yard. Typically, your front door will consist of a heavy metal gate, festooned with red Chinese writing and leading into an inner courtyard:
In parts of Dali Old Town and in the nearby villages I have bicycled around, the walls of each person's house are often separated by only a few feet, and so the village actually consists of only one or two real "streets," with the rest of the village being a maze of long, curving, narrow pathways that fork and dead-end and eventually reach around blind corners to everyone's front door. One gets a feeling of mystery exploring one of these quiet villages, as you can never see what lies more than 10-20 feet ahead of you.
In many spots, we can see that the walls are largely made of stone with a thin stucco:
This astounding collection of stone pieces (the ones in front are about 3ft/1m long), stored in a small empty lot behind my guesthouse, is actually just a teensy pile compared the huge factories and warehouses that dot the entire town:
In this stockpile, we can also see the standard roof tiles everyone uses:
Although Dali has some paved streets (which gives bike riders great relief), the majority of the Old Town is either bumpy cobblestone streets, or streets made entirely of flat stone slabs, which are put together like legos to form the surface and water channels:
Even patio furniture is made from great blocks that would break the bank anywhere else:
Including these urns towering taller than a person:
Factories dot the entire lake area, and you can drop by nearby factories to see the workers lugging person-sized boulders with crowbars (about 15 inches at a time, with 20-minute smoking breaks inbetween):
and then winching the massive stones up to room-sized electric lathes that slowly and very noisily carve out the inside and/or outside of the urn-to-be:
In the last photo, the worker is painting some liquid onto the cracks in the material. Not sure whether this is to smooth out the surface before polishing, or perhaps it is to emphasize the color contrasts around the cracks before polishing.
Here are some medium-sized ones (with blades about 10 feet and 6 feet in diameter), again positioned in a shed right in the middle of a crowded residential district. They must wake up the entire neighborhood when it's time to cut stone!
I finally was able to catch a medium-sized saw in use. It's pretty impressive, and the guy doesn't seem to be the least bit scared of it. If you have a good internet connection, download the higher-resolution QuickTime file, which looks much nicer:
(warning: it's really freaking loud. this is like the actual experience).
On a trip to our local Shaolin Kung Fu temple (seriously), I found one collection of marble factories and one guy had created this completely awesome custom saw that is able to make about 25 cuts at once, shown here slicing an absolutely gorgeous purple-and-brown piece of marble:
Here is the contraption in action. If you have a good internet connection, download the higher-resolution QuickTime file, which looks much nicer:
(warning: it's really freaking loud. this is like the actual experience).
Day after day, the streets of town are utterly filled with Chinese tourists who arrive in huge tour buses (they seem to mostly come on day trips or overnight in the Dali New Town) to walk up and down and buy trinkety tourist junk at the hundreds and hundreds of shops that have sprung up specifically for them.
Most of the Chinese tourists are in groups of 20–150 who walk down the street with one or another dorky uniform (typically a day-glo hat or t-shirt) with their tour leader brandishing a tall flag and a megaphone at the lead.
For smaller Chinese tour groups and individual families, there are Chinese tour maps specifically instructing them what they "must do" and what they "must buy" in order for their Dali trip to be legitimate.
There is a single, large French-Chinese-owned tourism company which has invested vast sums and now owns all of the major tourist attractions in Dali. With the support of the Chinese government, they have built both a European-style gondola and a chairlift to transport the tourist livestock to an almost entirely flat concrete path about halfway up the Cang mountain range (for a fee of 80RMB/$12 for entry and one lift ticket, plus more for the lift down). They are currently constructing a third gondola (all three lifts are within a distance of not more than 10miles/15km of each other) that will go all the way up to one of the Cang mountain range's snowy peaks. There is no skiing here: this is just so the tourists can gawk at the piles of snow. If you just want to enter the Cang mountain area, even if you plan to hike all the way up and down using your own lungs and muscles, you still must pay them a 30RMB/$4.50 entry each time.
One of the main landmarks of Dali is a compound with lagoons and three ancient pagodas which the company has developed and for which the company now charges both Chinese and foreigners more than 120RMB/$18 entry. This is a ridiculously high fee; one can eat a large meal for 20RMB.
Fortunately, it is pretty easy to avoid the dubious company tourism zones. There are plenty of other places to hike around that are not within the control zone, and in fact the tourism spots have the helpful effect of concentrating the tourists away from more interesting parts of town.
Furthermore, since Dali Old Town is so large, there is (unlike Pai) still plenty of room within the city walls for family-owned, local-oriented shops, schools, residences, and also artsy/eclectic businesses run by eccentric Chinese and foreign expats. These business are not located on the main drags, which have been entirely crusted over and suffocated by the tourism fungus, but they are nearby.
Contrast this with Lijiang, Yunnan, a superficially similar town with stone streets and water channels just like Dali, but where all spirit, soul, inspiration, and creativity has been completely snuffed out by the tourist fungus, so that it now consists of 100% tourist-oriented, copy-cat trinket junk shops. I hope it will take Dali a nice long time before it too reaches this point of total inspirational starvation.
As there is no English whatsoever (typical), it's not clear to me whether this was a real ancient palace or whether the whole place is a set built for TV/Movies and/or for the tourists.hot season, is to check out the many food options available in the Dali area, including not only Yunnan and Bai food but also food from other provinces of China.
In general, the food seems utterly loaded with MSG (every single morning I have woken up with my throat seriously parched) and it doesn't seem to make a difference even if you know how to say "I don't want MSG" in Mandarin. This is just a fact of life you have to accept if you want to visit here.
Another fact of life (Thai readers, please brace yourself for a shock) is that all vegetables are always cooked, all the time. Chinese here do not ever eat raw vegetables. You cannot get Thai som tam (papaya salad) nor can you get yam. If you are a raw foodie or if you love those California all-sprout restaurants, stay away from Dali and perhaps away from China in general.
Everything here has oil. Lots of it. Doesn't matter if it's stir-fried or soup or even the delicious round flat breads; it glistens with oil. You have to get used to that too. And fat is considered good as well. And they aren't afraid of giving you lots of thick, delicious meat either. This is not a place for vegans.
Ok, with those disclaimers out of the way, there are many delicious options available.
Many of the restaurants attract you by showing off the fresh vegetable and (in some cases) meat ingredients they will use to make your dish:
Unfortuanately (assuming that we ignore the obviously foreigner-oriented restaurants, which are mostly overpriced and mostly serve inferior quality Chinese food) only a few of the local restaurants have a useful English menu, and the English selection is always limited. Typically, the English "menu" consists of printouts of arbitrary lists of Chinese foods from the Internet, with the dishes they don't serve crossed out and none of the restaurant's specials included.
Fortunately, the town is blessed with a large collection of Chinese expats and locals with astoundingly good English, so if you can befriend one, it can unlock a vast range of new food experiences, before you yourself have spent the years needed to learn to order in Mandarin.
In addition to the "show me the vegetables" restaurants above, there are a huge variety of noodle shops with specialties from different provinces, clay-pot shops where you can get soups or tasty "over-rice" dishes, barbecue stands which will cook meat and veggies on a stick and sprinkle red pepper spices over the top, Muslim-owned shops serving the most incredibly delicious, fat, oily beef stews and soups, and even one vegetarian restaurant (but everything's cooked).
This is similar in taste to cōng yóubǐng 葱油饼, the green onion pancakes found in Taiwan and other parts of China, but the method of cooking is quite different.
I discovered that each town around Yunnan has their own kind of bābā 粑 粑/bǐng 饼, including Lijiang and the Naxi hill tribe and Shangrila. But the best one is clearly the xǐ zhōu bābā 喜州粑粑, native to the village of Xǐ Zhōu 喜州 just a 20 minute drive north of Dali Old Town.
One day, I bicycled up to Xǐ zhōu and got some of the incredibly tasty original:
In Xǐ Zhōu 喜州, the better vendors slather a generous quantity of ground pork on top of and inside the salty bābā variety (top), and also make a sweet bābā variety (bottom) with various types of black sugar pastes inside. Some vendors in Xǐ zhōu 喜州 also place one or two eggs on top of the bread before placing it in the oven.
Quality in Xǐ zhōu 喜州 varies widely between different vendors in the old town's central market and along the highway, so be sure to check out your options and pay particular attention to which vendors have long lines waiting for their bābā!
Vendors in Dali mostly use little metal-box ovens with short, wide slots (see above), but vendors in Xǐ zhōu 喜州 use coal-fired rigs like this, supercharged with dusty gray electric fans that assure that everything and everyone in the market is evenly coated with a post-volcanic layer of ash:
The vendor places the oily, uncooked bābā on the big griddle and then lifts the heated lid assembly (shown here with a tea kettle on top) to cover the griddle and provide nice even heat for both sides of the bābā. Thanks to this cooking method, the bābā in Xǐ zhōu 喜州 has a crispier outside than in Dali.
The street vendor slices you off some chubby noodles (often 1/2" by 1/2" square and a few inches long) and serves it cold in a bowl with some delicous sauces, vegetables, and sometimes meats. In Thailand (or at least in Pai), this ingredient is often deep-fried to make delicious soy-based potato chips and served with a soy sauce, spice, and vinegar sauce.
all the while retaining the perfect coating of flour around each strand so that it can later be separated from the braid:
The vendor lets the dough rest for a short time and then begins step 2, where, with only a few intricate cat's-cradle stretches, the 1/4"-thick cords within the braid become fine threads of noodles, ready to throw in the boiling pot:
A short time later, you have a bowl chock-full of fresh, tasty noodles which instantly fill you up for an unbelievably low 5 RMB!
Another delicious type of noodle that comes with a performance is dāo xuē miàn 刀削面 ("whittled noodles"). Making something incredibly difficult look incredibly easy, the vendor uses what amounts to a putty knife to slice "noodles" off of a huge log of dough right into the boiling pot:
resulting in a thicker, chewy noodle dish:
One final tasty noodle dish commonly available in Dali, served with a thick sauce and a generous topping of peanuts, is dàn dan miàn 担担面 ("street vendor's noodles / carry-on-a-shoulder-pole noodles"):
In addition to the ordinary restaurant table tea, there seem to be hundreds of varieties of fancy tea such as Pu'Er. I am not big on tea anyway and don't really see the point, but some of these teas can fetch hundreds of RMB per kilo.
The fruit selection is notably more limited than Thailand, however the apples, oranges and pears are far superior in taste:
I am gradually figuring out what these things are:
Most of them are noodles of some sort. The green stuff here is spinach based, although there are also seaweed-based noodles. Some of the items are shaved soy products, beans, lotus root cross-sections, and a huge variety of interesting mushrooms including the crunchy "tree ear" or "mouse-ear fungus."
Dried goods are equally mysterious:
but include chili powder, star anise, Sichuan Peppercorns, beans, peanuts, noodles of almost endless variety, and, er, eggs:
The Chinese like to do strange things to their eggs, as in the above picture at the left where we see eggs completely encased in a shell of salt, which vastly alters their flavor into something, well, inedible.
A step up from that is the "black-skin" eggs (on the right, I think), which when served have a micro-thin black egg skin (not the shell), a completely transparent egg white, and a day-glo yellow egg yolk. These are delicious if you can get past the appearance. They are related to the totally black "1000-year-old" eggs (aka "horse piss eggs") found in Thailand, but not the same. Finally, there are other kinds of chicken eggs in the market that I have not yet identified, in addition to goose and duck eggs.
Speaking of chickens, in one corner of the market is a couple of rooms that are completely and totally covered with chicken feathers, including all the electrical wiring and all the giant odd machines shaking and spinning and spewing steam as they yank feathers off of regular and exotic black chickens:
This is the chicken plucking area, and the locals have come up with an incredible technique whereby each chicken is literally tarred and (de-)feathered. This process apparently removes the pesky pinfeathers which are normally left behind when chicken meat is sold. The most amazing part is that the tar can be immediately re-used and dropped back into the cauldron (warning: this video is not for vegetarians):
Remember I said that you have to expect lots of oil with all your food? Well somebody's gotta make it, and dotted all over town you will find shops with these groovy oil making machines:
I'm not yet sure what the source material for the oil is.
including not only the lug-it-yourself basket-backpack (lower right corner), the bicycle, and the gas motorbike (with some very high-quality woven side-saddles) but also electic motorbikes, which vastly outnumber the gas-powered variety all over Dali and Kunming and perhaps all over China. It is probably a good thing that nearly everyone rides electric, since it probably helps the air, but unfortunately the bikes are totally silent so that people constantly lean on the horn when anyone appears to maybe be thinking about perhaps crossing their path sometime in the future. Actually, in general, although driving here is more sane than Thailand, the Chinese really love to hold down their incredibly loud horns all the time and the net result is a highly unpleasant cacophony around any street that is quite a bit louder than in Thailand.
Finally, at the top, we see China's version of a Thai tuk-tuk which is generally used only for transporting goods.
These cylinders are manufactured locally in really cool mom-and-pop yards:
They start with raw chunks of coal and run it through some kind of pulverizing machine. Then, they take the pile of coal dust and, in an amazingly effortless process, instantly form it into the honeycombs using a simple stamp tool:
Everything in the yard is totally black. The black tools sit on the pile of black coal over the totally black ground as the head-to-toe black owner gestures in black to his black wife and black children to be careful of the pulverizer, so black it almost cannot be seen, as he uses the black stamp to stamp the black cylinders for delivery in a blackened motorbike.
It's in stark contrast to the totally white marble and stone works that are generally right next door, sending plumes of fine white marble powder in every direction and staining the ground, operators, and local rivers totally milk-white.
The cylinders are then delivered throughout town on hybrid motorcycle carts:
When the cylinders of coal are all spent, they look like this:
and they can be seen piled high in all the local dumpsters.
is so famous for its excellent water that people come with pushcarts of water bottles from kilometers away to gather its water for drinking. My guesthouse makes it available to foreigners for free in office-style water coolers and nobody seems to get sick.
These tractors chug down the road at incredible speeds, often towing overflowing 8-foot-tall loads of stones. These classic Chinese engines, which we often see in Thailand too, are totally budget. They have no radiator per se. Instead, you pour water into the large reservoir at the top, which sort of more or less surrounds the top half of the engine, and as the engine runs the water begins to boil so these tractors always have steam spewing out the top. After not too many hours of operation, the water has all boiled away, so you have to carry replacement water and top it up before your engine overheats.
The chart is an artifact of China's campaign for total central control of production (culminating with the highly oxymoronic "Great Leap Forward" of 1958–1961). It lists the name of each local citizen, their social status (a combination of their occupation and their level of wealth), their head of houseold, and, divided up into months and tallied for the whole year, the exact number of hours of work they did. Based on these work results, on the far left of the chart it says how much rice, cash, and other resources that citizen will get from the government.
The amazing thing about this chart is that it is dated 1964, just a few years before the 1966 beginning of the disastrous Cultural Revolution, in which anyone deemed to be too "educated" or "bourgeoisie" or "un-socialist" was killed or sent to re-education camps, and there are entries in the chart identifying certain citizens as "businessmen" or "wealthy farmers:"
These titles and statistics would certainly have opened these people up for persecution just a few years later.
Whoever created the chart seems to have lost enthusiasm around April–May 1964; perhaps some of the new Cultural Revolution policies had already began in Xǐ Zhōu 喜州?
One of these days, I will try to find someone who speaks the local dialect and who can help me ask some old folks of Xǐ Zhōu 喜州 if they are on the chart or know anyone who is. I suspect they won't want to talk about it, though.
Next to this labor chart was a rice farming quota chart:
again listing citizen's names along with their montly quotas and actual yield. Based on the numbers it looks like either it was a very hard year, or (more likely) the quotas were highly unrealistic.
This table beseeches citizens to, among other things,
and in the 3rd row, 3rd column, it tells the local citizens to live modestly, foregoing any unnecessary luxuries.
However, plastered right next to the sign, ripped up in an unkempt, disrespectful manner, are two full-color advertising posters for 29,990 RMB (USD $4,600) 65-inch 3-D HDTV LED Big-Screen TVs!
Quite a contrast, and quite symbolic of what is going on in China right now.so many websites that I can no longer find its source):
Qīng míng (清明, pure brightness festival), meaning clear and bright, is the day for mourning the dead. It falls in early April every year and this year it is on April 5.Interestingly, while the Chinese government still supports this form of ancestor worship, they have launched a large campaign to try and calm down the Qīng míng ceremonies a little bit, because graves are generally sited on forested hillsides and the firecrackers and other burning pose an extreme fire hazard!
The Chinese conception of ancestor worship is born of a belief that spirit survives the body after death and remains in the tomb, keeping abreast of the conduct of those left behind. To the Chinese mind, the spirit's power, for good or for will, are superior to both man and nature. Perhaps in their anxiety to pacify these supernatural beings lies in the origin of the annual ceremonies based around the gravesite at the "rebirth" of nature.
Immediately after breakfast on Qīng míng entire famlilies, hoe and other tools in hand, would start arriving the foothill outside their villages, where they would commence to diligently tidy up the area around the family's tomb. Yellow ribbons were placed on the end of a bamboo stick or kept in place by a stone on top of the tomb so as to stave off wandering ghosts. These malevolent spirits perhaps had been neglected by their descendants or, alternatively, may have died in such a fashion as to make the recovey of the body impossible, thus being doomed to eternal wandering. Innumerable Chinese tales revolves around these homeless ghosts' capacity for mischief.
Those things done in Qīng míng at the tomb is also called "grave-sweeping" (扫墓 sǎo mù). When the famlily arrives at the tomb, which is usually dominated by a semi-circular alter standing in the foreground, they would place offering of food, tea, and wine together with candles on each side ot the alter or before the gravestone, an incense burner claims pride of place at the alter. The burning of incense and candles signals the beginning of the ceremony. Each male member of the household performs in turn to kowtow—the ritual of three prostrations and three bows, accompanied by the explosions of firecrackers. A libation of wine is sprinkled over burning paper money, and the cup is refllled and put back in place. Next follows, a repetiton of kowtow. The offering of food may either be consumed then and there or taken home. The ceremony comes to an end as more firecrackers are set off. Back at home, they make offerings again before the family's ancestral tablet of food, candles, incense and a few evergreen sprigs or head of wheat, all arranged neatly on a platter. It was believed that, by burning paper money, the living could assure the departed of an income in the next world. In the old China the children of a deceased man of wealth would even send him gold and silver ingots, servants, horses, and sedan-chairs, all in paper imitation, to secure welfare.
Qīng míng ceremonies do happen in Dali, but around the beginning of May, there is a much bigger ancestor worship ceremony that originates from the local Bai culture (the local Bai people have their own language that is totally different from any dialect of Chinese, their own cuisine, and many of their own traditions).
On the designated day, hundreds of locals gather to eat food and burn paper likenesses of shoes, clothing, and other items that may be useful for their deceased relatives:
near the end of the ceremony, the scene kind of resembled a war zone:
one kind of Prisoner-esque but cool thing was these groups of old ladies with chimes who would sit in two rows and clink the chimes in an exact rhythm for hours on end (apologies for high bandwidth; any less and the picture is totally unintelligible):
Those colorful twisted strands you see everywhere? No, those aren't for decoration—those are power cords! And when you need to extend your cord, why, just shove it on in there! The main difference from Thailand here is that rather than just letting the bare wire ends lean flaccidly into the plug's holes, from which they can easily slip out, the local Chinese have been clever enough to shove in two wooden sticks to keep them securely in place.
There's an unbelievable amount of construction going on in Dali, most of it to make new tourist junk shops. There's some pretty amusing warning signs around those areas:
Dali (and probably all of China) is also a place that would make health inspectors faint. Here is a completely typical scene, shot sitting at the bar of a popular local restaurant. We can see the kitchen in the background, the kegs and other drinks in the foreground, and in the narrow hallway between, two giant, furry dogs whom the small-bodied waiters must lift their leg and step over each time they deliver food to your table:
Dogs can also be found mating everywhere in the street, as well as faithfully accompanying their owners in the halls and procedure rooms of local hospitals.
I love the way you can just slap "HD" on an old flaky tube TV to make it into an HDTV.
Strangely though, in this inexpensive hotel room with its fake HD TV and no hot water, there were two extremely high-tech boxes delivering both a separate channel of Wi-Fi internet and streaming, on-demand video to every room, complete with an interactive TV menu. Quite a bit more high-tech than what you typically find in a Motel 6.
Vast swathes of the population, mostly but not entirely male, are totally addicted to cigarettes, and people smoke packs and packs a day, everywhere.
No restaurant I have seen has a non-smoking section and it is virtually impossible to enjoy a meal at any shop without having one's air poisoned from one, or often multiple directions. The chefs at restaurants often keep a cigarette lit as they prepare your food. People smoke in guesthouse/hotel rooms, any public hallways, public buildings including government buildings, and (my favorite) anywhere they want in hospitals, including hospital elevators.
It is a paradise for the young European tourists, who can share their addiction in an uncritical environment with billions of local addicts.
I saw a Chinese man at one shop bent down almost to table level, hurriedly slurping down a bowl of noodle soup (the louder the better, in this country) whilst at the same time holding his lit cigarette above his head, desperate to keep the fag alive so he could get another puff when the soup was all gone (or hey, why not before?).
This country is so badly addicted that they can probably solve their overpopulation problem just from the hundreds of millions of lung cancer cases they will be seeing in the next few decades. Unfortunately, the medical costs will probably also bankrupt the country.
There have been some small steps in this area. Luckily for me, they recently banned smoking on long-term bus trips, so I didn't have to breathe in the toxic stench for the 5-hour journey from Kunming. And I hear they are soon going to get around to banning smoking in hospitals and certain other public buildings. But it will take decades for public opinion to begin to admit that smoking is impolite, or that it kills both 1st- and 2nd-hand recipients.
On a short side-trip to see a few more sites in Yunnan before settling in Dali, I visit Lijiang with some Chinese volunteer employees of my Dali guesthouse who have just gotten off work and who also want to travel. None of us have been to Lijiang before and we have heard it has gotten "kind of commercial."
This turns out to be a vast understatement. It is a town with such astounding potential, with a promising maze of old cobblestone streets and even more water channels than Dali, but the tourist fungus there is so epidemic that it has completely and utterly snuffed out all spirit, soul, inspiration, and creativity. This, in turn, seems to have soured the mood of virtually everyone who lives and works there.
Imagine trying to find your way or retrace your steps through a life-size, square-mile-large maze whose walls are covered with "hints" (shops), except that there are only really 5–6 kinds of shops and shops of each kind display exactly identical merchandise laid out in exactly the same way. "Was that the corner with the stupid hat shop, followed by the djembe shop run by the charlatan who puts up Bob Marley posters to make you think he likes reggae so you buy his drums, followed by the overpriced restaurant with rude waiters, or was it the corner with the djembe shop first then the restaurant then the stupid hat shop?"
Add to this the fact that any distinguishing marks for each shop (e.g. business names) and any and all maps and other markings that may help you navigate, including the giant 44" LCD display touch-screen interactive computerized maps, are all in Chinese characters that you cannot read, and the fact that amongst the hundreds of actual streets, there are really only 4-5 actual street names even if you can read Chinese, and the fact that the house numbers assigned to each business along each "street" do not come in any particular order (6, then 102, then 52, then 49, ...).
Throw in the fact that the bumpy, tripping, disorienting cobblestone streets and bridges are all a claustrophobic 8 feet wide, as opposed to the mostly wide promenades of Dali Old Town, preventing you from getting any kind of wide view or indeed see more than 10 feet in any direction.
Finally, top that off with the fact that the streets are overcrowded with tourists (mostly Chinese, some foreign, all confused) wandering in every direction, loudly dragging ill-suited roller-luggage over the impossible cobblestone surfaces, kids screaming, touty marijuana vendors popping up in your face left and right, and private cars and motorized mini-rickshaws careening by with horns blaring as they nearly force you into the water ditches.
What you get is a freakish and cruel psychological experiment, a life-sized animal disorientation laboratory that is known as Lijiang, Yunnan, China.
In addition to the trinket, hat, and djembe shops, there are numerous "hiking clubs" that do not display any trail maps or any information about hiking whatsoever, except for highly overpriced package tours, and innumerable "bars" that are more like nightclubs and that all seem to play the same ear-piercing music. As you loop around looking for anything real, you find yourself passing the same bars anchored by the same horrible, out-of-tune amplified amateur guitar+mic heroes again and again.
We pretty much get the full Lijiang experience within minutes of our evening arrival at our guesthouse (Mama Naxi, unfortunately recommended by the vastly out-of-date Lonely Planet (not my choice)).
On arrival, the staid and shrewd young guesthouse employee calmly informs my traveling companions in Chinese that neither the three dorm beds nor the private room we have booked are actually available, but that instead we are welcome to overnight in a semi-private dorm and a high-end private room that are both more expensive. Most of my companions are experienced backpacker travelers in China and they have rarely seen something like this happen. What follows is a truly amazing marathon of passionate, and at times even confrontational, but always quiet-voiced, negotiation. Although I don't understand a word of it, the body language tells everything. Each of my traveling companions takes a stab at making a detailed, logical case for why we should get rooms at the price we booked. When that person eventually becomes so impassioned and angry that they might begin to raise their voice, another companion literally raises their arm to stop their friend from physically advancing on the intractable employee, and begins their own plea.
This repeats in circle-fashion for more than half an hour. I am absolutely certain that it would have continued for hours and hours (and the total price difference we are talking about here for both rooms was around 40RMB or $6) had not the aged proprietors Papa Naxi and Mama Naxi wandered onto the scene, probably wanting their young, talented employee to get back to the common area since they themselves can barely speak any English at all. Mama Naxi cuts things short by mentioning that oh yeah, guess what, it turns out there are rooms available exactly matching the rooms we have booked and they are "now" ready to occupy, at the price we booked. So it took my traveling companions more than 30 minutes and no small elevation in blood pressure either, but it seems they won this battle, through and through. Later, when I ask them what had happened, they claim it wasn't at all about the 40RMB but was a matter of principle (not face), something much more important. This initial Lijiang incident leaves them flustered, to say the least.
We get settled in our rooms and head out to the common area to inquire about dinner. As we walk through one of the guesthouse's two large stone courtyards, we are startled by the piercing screech of two tiny football dogs. We would later realize that these dogs bark at and annoy nearly every guest, and awaken all the guests whose rooms line that courtyard every single time a person walks through in the evening or night, but Mama Naxi and company just let them be all the same.
In the common area, an old Arab-looking guest is rudely and loudly making an ass of himself, perhaps drunk or perhaps demented, asking all the young Chinese girls when they will be going back to Thailand. Trying to ignore this creepy specter, we look at the dinner menu but are quickly informed that none of it is actually available, except for a mediocre fried rice dish and an elaborate and expensive 8-course Naxi hill tribe feast.
So we head down the street to a noodle soup restaurant where the owner and waiters rudely taunt my traveling companions to sit down if they really want something to eat. Although I can only see the restaurant staff's dismissive body language, and not understand their words, I can see my traveling companions straining to tolerate the abuse for the whole meal. Finally, we finish the mediocre food and go. Two of my traveling companions head off in another direction, later returning to the guesthouse, where they apparently got in another debate with the owners over the booking issue, and where one of the owners told them he doesn't give a flying frog where they stay. My traveling companions told me they have never met any proprietors this rude in all their travels around China.
Meanwhile, another traveling companion and I decide to walk around Lijiang. As we pass back by our guesthouse on the way out, we are nearly mowed over by a large red minivan barreling down the road at an insane speed, pushing us and several other pedestrians perilously close to the water ditch. Suddenly, another Chinese tourist walking near us with his girlfriend explodes in rage, screaming and yelling, and throws his plate of takeaway food against the back window of the minivan, which itself screeches to a halt. Almost as quickly, Papa Naxi rushes out of the rickety guesthouse door and belts out his own expletive-laden fighting words at the tourist, with even more passion and drunken rage. The two men continue to yell at each other, edging ever closer and closer until their faces are inches apart. We are seconds—milliseconds—away from a physical confrontation, and indeed both men's arms jerk upward as if to make the first contact in an all-out bar fight taking place in the middle of this picturesque Lijiang lane.
But it never happens. The screaming continues for minutes, which seemed like hours, as our eyes remain riveted to the spectacle and we remain frozen in place. The combatants continue to posture and threaten and puff up like oversize roosters, but they never strike. They separate for a few seconds, but one decides to recommence the verbal joust and again they are nose-to-nose. Finally, the exchanges of screaming are perforated by enough of the terrible, silent staring periods that the tourist can slowly ooze away from Papa Naxi, shooting his hateful glance back to Papa Naxi two, three, four times, just to make sure there is not a single speck of concession, not a single triumphant jerk of the head on either side, and the tourist disappears into the darkness with his girlfriend in tow.
As if this is all not surreal enough, when the tourist is out of sight and we stunned-silent onlookers are desperately trading glances with one another to try and figure out what the hell just happened, and the first of those glances falls on the face of Papa Naxi, he immediately snaps from rabid vicious dog back into warm host: like some creepy electronic glitch in the facial solenoids of a mis-programmed Disney animatronic, Papa Naxi suddenly stretches out a wide, generous, innocent smile and the bright eyes of a bunny rabbit, pulling open the door for us with a little bow, welcoming us back into his guesthouse after a pleasant evening strolling amongst the babbling streams and cherry blossoms of Lijiang, as if nothing had happened.
I have heard that Chinese put great value and self-esteem in maintaining a calm public demeanor in the face of conflict, but that when things do get confrontational, it is seriously ugly. This confirms it. I have lived in Thailand for 7 years and never seen anything like this, even amongst drunk people (even the pathetic teenage gangsters of Pai gave more ground to each other). Clearly, the incompetent minivan driver must have been a friend of Papa Naxi's, otherwise Papa Naxi would never have sacrificed so much of his face to take on this tourist stranger. Interestingly, the minivan driver never even got out of his minivan. What is it that prevented Papa Naxi and the tourist from getting physical? Certainly it wasn't their nerves. My friend suggests that perhaps both men knew that physicality is the all-important line at which the police get involved, and their fear of the police exceeds even the incredible pent-up aggression they both harbor from a lifetime of artificially and unnaturally calm behavior.
At any rate, my friend has also never seen anything like this before, let alone in a supposedly peaceful tourist town, and for her it is the final stone wall of the Chinese tomb of Lijiang being cemented into place: Lijiang officially sucked.
After that spectacle, the last thing we want to do is go back into Papa Naxi's lair, so we desperately and vainly search the winding, sometimes dark alleys for some kind of shop or food or location with any creative spark whatsoever, or at least even one iota of friendliness. We wind through identical corner after identical corner, finding nothing but the same. We are like figures trapped in some dark Escher painting, leaving one side of the canvas only to reappear on the other. Eventually, we give up. We get lost a few times but eventually we find our way back to the guesthouse, where we swear to get out of Lijiang as soon as humanly possible.
We rejoin our friends and share horror stories. We determine that it's too late to organize an escape to Tiger Leaping Gorge the very next morning, so we make arrangements for the day after that, and set ground-scrapingly low expectations for our one full day in Lijiang. That evening, as I try to sleep in my "luxury" private room, I am awakened every 20 minutes by the sound of the football dogs taunting yet another unsuspecting guest, and the belches, spits, and gargles of yet another dorm guest using the shared bathroom, whose sink turns out to be right outside my totally uninsulated room. Dali was so wonderful that it is simply stunning how quickly and completely the tide has turned.
The next day, two of our party more or less hide at the guesthouse, while another traveling companion and I rent bikes to go visit what is billed as a nearby "Naxi traditional village." The 30 minute bike ride brings us out of the Lijiang Old Town through Lijiang city, which looks like a boring metropolis like any other in China, and then out of town towards two beautiful snow-capped peaks in the distance. Soon, we find ourselves entering a gigantic crane-sprinkled development compound, almost city-sized itself, with vast tracks of condominiums, luxury resorts, a golf course and cultural centers, and to my horror I find the "Naxi traditional village" is smack dab in the middle. It is like a flashback—a waking nightmare. The village is an exact copy of the soulless labyrinth of Lijiang Old Town, complete with tour bus parking, stone paths and water channels, with exactly the same chintzy tourist crap. Disappointed, we get a meal, wander through a small park at the periphery, spend some time looking at sections of the "village" under construction (which were significantly more interesting than the finished ones) and head back.
Once back at the guesthouse, we all set about to purchase some trail food for our upcoming hike at Tiger Leaping Gorge. We walk out of the labyrinth into Lijiang city and ask several locals where we can find the local fruit market. Our queries are met with jeers and rude responses. It is like we have suddenly been transported to the streets of New York. One of our party persists and desperately searches for some local place to buy our supplies, but eventually we give up and pop into the nearest glitzy modern supermarket, where we purchase plastic-wrapped fruits, packaged sugary snacks, and even a set of two Snickers bars, locked inside one of those irritating, unopenable hard plastic cases they use for CDs and DVDs, that inexplicably comes with two AA batteries. Go figure.
Back in town, my traveling companions reveal one of the secrets of China travel: when you have to pee, don't go to the disgusting .5RMB public squats, go to KFC! Probably the only positive contribution of the American fast food chains to China is that they come with free, usable bathrooms. Unfortunately, as we wait out on the curb for our traveling companion with the full bladder, it takes much longer than expected. It turns out she keeps waiting in line, but the local people keep cutting in front of her! Another thing she has never seen in China and another gold star for Lijiang.
Even something as simple as crossing the street in Lijiang is fraught with stress. I kid you not: the little animated man in the traffic signal who tells you when you can walk and when you cannot? He runs for his life in Lijiang! They must have made some special modification to the signal's electronics. And as if the icon is not enough, in the afternoon there is also a uniformed crossing guard lurking in the major intersection outside the old town who rudely barks "Go! Now! Move Faster! Get out of the intersection!" at all the pedestrians when the light is almost about to change.
There is something seriously wrong with this town. The people of Lijiang, as a society, seem to have gone mutually insane. The intense commercialization of the Old Town is no doubt one factor contributing to this.
The whole time in Lijiang, my traveling companions are feeling great embarrassment, knowing that this is my first time to travel in China, assuring me that most of China is not like this! I know they are right, at least for Dali and Shangrila.
Sound Advice: If you are in Dali or Shangri-la and you want to visit Tiger Leaping gorge, do not stay in Lijiang. Lijiang sucks yak's balls, as you can see from the previous section. Instead, get transport directly to the small town of Qiaotou (sounds like Chow + Toe) where there is a perfectly fine guesthouse where you can stay and walk directly to the trailhead the next morning, beating other travelers, giving you time to explore the river too, and making your day more leisurely and fun. From Dali, you can take the train to Lijiang train station and charter a taxi direct to Qiaotou (you can also take a taxi to Lijiang bus station and then take a public bus to Qiaotou, but it may end up costing the same for a group of 5-6 people). From Shangrila, you can take a public bus directly to Qiaotao or charter a taxi, which will cost about the same as the bus for a group of 5-6 people. Qiaotou is a one-horse town so you can walk everywhere easily.
Tiger Leaping Gorge is a deep river valley with steep walls leading up to snow-capped peaks on either side, and a well-marked trail that most people do in two days but which could be done in one 8.5 hour hike.
You can find oodles of great pictures of Tiger Leaping Gorge with this Google Image search.
At various points along the trail there are guesthouses where you can stop and rest for the night. Here's a kinda ok trail map stolen from the not-bad chinatrekking.com:
Note the red line confusingly labeled "High Way" on the map above is actually the technical (meaning you need to rock-climb) "Even Higher Way" that does not appear on most maps of Tiger Leaping Gorge. The red line through Naxi GH is what everyone else calls the "High Trail" and what nearly everyone takes. The double red line is the road (under heavy construction) with all the dust and cars and tour buses that is unpleasant for hikers. The blue line is the great river.
The "High Trail" that everyone takes is not at all technical; the ground is mostly flat or stones like the popular trails up from Yosemite valley and no part of the trail ascends into snow during March or April.
Some data points that I wished I could have found consolidated when I was looking for info:
Check chinatrekking.com for more useful details.
At the end of the trail (Tina's) there are some ways to hike down to the river (not sure what Tina's elevation is, but it seemed like maybe about 300-500m down).
Since we did our hike in March, this was not the high season and the trails were pretty empty except for the rare tour group. It was wonderfully cold and breezy, making even the switchback part pleasant. Our stay at Tea Horse was chilly but pleasant.
However, remember that this is the most famous hike in China and a major tourist draw (in this case, primarily for foreign tourists: Chinese do not seem to want to hike): that means touts. Our serene, natural feeling was periodically and jarringly interrupted by various scammers. When you reach the first, beautiful panoramic viewpoint about 1.5 hours into the hike from Qiaotou, you stop and most people take pictures. Then you turn around to continue your hike, only to find an 80-year-old hill tribe lady with 2 teeth has firmly planted her two feet in your way. She beckons to a sign, conveniently positioned totally out of view during your approach, which has more than 20 lines of irrelevant information in Chinese and English and at the very bottom in tiny writing says something about "3RMB per photograph." Every single tourist was enraged by this scam. The lady had stood there counting photographs, trying to charge each person 3RMB who appeared in a photograph, times the number of photographs! Some paid the scammer and some pushed the aged opportunist aside. My Chinese traveling companions were disgusted at how this spectacle, located at one of China's premiere spots for foreign tourists, causes China to so directly and utterly lose face in the view of the world. It is surprising that China does not reign this in for face reasons alone.
That was not the last scam we encountered. At other points, there were barely-toothed ladies demanding tribute for photos, some with warning and some without, and there were various points where locals demanded payment to go down other trails. It appears that all access from Tina's area to the river now goes through paywall trailheads guarded by locals claiming they get none of the stiff 52RMB park entry fee, and so must charge 10RMB for maintenance of the river trail and its associated ladders. It's very unclear what's true and what's not.
Another annoying tout scam disguised as kindness is the horses. Local men and women lead jingling, empty-saddled horses that ply up and down the trail, offering you a ride (for a stiff fee) up the tough parts to the summit. This would be a kind service, except that these touts follow you as you hike, slowly increasing the pressure bit by bit, telling you how far it is and how hard it is and how some people don't even make it up or it takes them all day. One horse tout followed us for more than an hour until he finally gave up and turned around.
And this is the low season! I can't imagine what this trail must be like in the first week of May when so many Chinese tourists have days off. Keep away during those times!
The trail is so well-marked because each guesthouse along the way has literally graffitied the rocks every 20-50m with day-glo spraypaint advertisements and arrows pointing to their place. Fortunately, there are not that many guesthouses, so all the arrows basically point you along the trail. However, this form of advertising would probably be frowned upon in the US :) We even saw some advertisements for guesthouses in the next province that were not even on the trail! After a few hours, it also occurred to us that almost all of the advertisements were in English. That shows how this is really a foreign tourist trek and that most of the Chinese tourists stick with the group tour buses down on the road.Wiki):
a fictional place described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by British author James Hilton. In the book, "Shangri-La" is a mystical, harmonious valley, gently guided from a lamasery, enclosed in the western end of the Kunlun Mountains. Shangri-La has become synonymous with any earthly paradise but particularly a mythical Himalayan utopia—a permanently happy land, isolated from the outside world. In the novel Lost Horizon, the people who live at Shangri-La are almost immortal, living years beyond the normal lifespan and only very slowly aging in appearance. The word also evokes the imagery of exoticism of the Orient.
It worked. The town exploded and now is starting to grow the same tourist trinkety junk shop fungus as Lijiang.
Fortunately, it is nowhere near Lijiang-level yet and still has some charm.
The bus ride from Dali and Lijiang winds up and up through beautiful river valleys. There are an astounding number of hydroelectric projects along the way, primarily water turbines terminating at whirring power stations. Finally, we reach a pass where there are patches of snow just above the road and, especially after spending months in roasting Thailand, we want to get out and have a mini snow fight.
Leveling out in a wide plain at 3000m (9800ft) altitude, the architecture of nearly every house suddenly changes to the style found all across Tibet, with slanted walls and high windows (this image stolen from kobucha's flickr account):
and there are frequent white shrines with Tibetan prayer flags, both in the lowlands and at peaks, as shown in this photo stolen from 4x4OverlandFromShangriLaToTibet's Picasa page (cannot post a link because f*cking Picasa doesn't let you do that without creating a "profile" and giving out your personal information...do no evil huh?):
Many people come to Shangrila to get a taste of Tibetan culture without the incredibly painful, fickle, and expensive process of getting a special travel permit for Tibet from the Chinese government, and without the multi-day train rides through the seemingly endless province.
Then we pull into town, which like Dali and Lijiang is divided up into a modern city with buildings, malls, and traffic, and a stone-and-cobblestone Old Town with touristy trinket junk shops, and we get out of our minibus and notice...It's freezing! I have a layer of thermal top and bottoms, two t-shirts, a thick cotton sweatpants and a thick down jacket and it is just barely enough to stay comfortable (except when in the sun). We would see our breath almost the whole time we were there (including in the guesthouse bathroom...brrrrr).
There isn't a whole lot to do in Shangri-la town, but it is an interesting place to wander around. At nearly 10,000 feet, you don't really have a lot of oxygen to make long journies anyway. We wander to the edge of town where there is a temple on a hill with what some claim to be the largest prayer wheel in the world (images stolen from yunnanadventure.com and another site I cannot specify, otherwise my page will be censored in China):
You can see the wheel from everywhere in town and it is definitely not just for the tourists: a seemingly endless stream of Yi hill tribe ladies and other locals show up to gleefully spin the giant wheel (it takes several people to get it started), perhaps to get some luck for an upcoming venture. There are Tibetan shrines dotting all the hilltops around town, and a wide variety of differently dressed peoples coming to visit them.
In the first image above, you can also see the sharp divide between the old and new towns.
At sundown, one square of the Old Town turns into a community dance circle, similar to the aerobics scene in Kunming but smaller much more focused on local dance styles. Locals of all ages, and some awkward foreign tourists, join in on the dancing. People are having such a good time that it is conceivable that this is actually based on some long-standing tradition of evening dancing, rather than being something new for the tourists, but it's hard to say.
We don't see much of the small children in town, because in this cold environment, they're all bundled up in inches-thick down jackets and down pants, making them look like some giant hot dog bun with a face sticking out one end and finger-ends sticking out the other.
Shangrila has an interesting food scene because it's one of the rare places in the world where meat is significantly cheaper than vegetables. There are pigs, chickens, cows, and yaks all over the place, but almost all veggies (except cabbage?) have to be imported.
We go to one local restaurant where there are four small tables and where all the guests, whether locals or tourists, instinctively join each others' conversations like it was a big family affair. The owner, while slightly curt, is friendly and enthusiastic about her fare and it is such a contrast to Lijiang.
Although I had been warned of the perils of tough, gamey yak meat, we are pleasantly surprised when we order a stewed yak hot pot. The meat is incredibly soft and tasty. We wash down the yak with a giant pot of "yak butter tea," the signature drink of Tibet, a milky-white tea with a bizarre aftertaste that can, if you can avoid thinking about certain parts of yak anatomy, be considered very tasty and refreshing in this cold climate. We also ate another form of the bābā 粑粑/bǐng 饼 round cakes, this time a Shangrila variety with added buckwheat and a dark brown color and slightly sweet taste. This was delicious dipped in the yak butter tea.
The main tourist attraction around here is the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery (aka Sungtseling, aka Guihuasi, aka Little Potala Palace, aka Shangri-La Monastery). It is from the Dalai Lama's sect of Tibetan Buddhism and is a sprawling complex of multiple temples on a hillside (image stolen from Wiki):
None of my Chinese traveling companions are interested in visiting this place, because they are insulted by the unbelievably steep 80RMB ($12) entry fee being charged at the glitzy, modern tourist processing facility that has been erected at a guard point almost 2 kilometers outside the actual monestary compound.
It is unclear what they are doing with this money, and who gets it. I have read that monks inside the temple claim that none of the money goes to the monestary, but instead it goes to the Chinese tourism company that erected the gate. Or perhaps it is an attempt by the Chinese government to extract cash and also reduce the attendance to the site of a religious sect they do not favor (this temple had been bombed extensively during the Cultural Revolution, and of course is affiliated with the Dalai Lama)? On the other hand, I have also heard that this is a crass attempt by the Dalai Lama to raise funds for his cause in Tibet, since there are a vast number of tourists coming here compared with those coming to Tibet itself. There is so much propaganda on both sides that it is hard to tell.
At any rate, my Chinese traveling companion and I are the only passengers in public bus #3 as we pull up to the ticket processing building, and the driver beckons for us to get off. The driver disappears with his bus and there is absolutely nobody around. We wander around and eventually find the entrance to the cavernous ticket hall, thousands of times bigger than it needs to be, and a hundred feet across the spotless, shiny marble floor, we spot a long row of uniformed officers with sleek modern computer gear. We are the only non-employees here, perhaps the only ones to enter the building all day, and through the echoing chamber they direct us to one smartly dressed lady with a custom-built, computer-based cash register, to whom I pay my 80RMB ransom. I turn around to find a cleaning staff of 3 or 4 ladies with a giant mop have been following me, wiping up in my tracks, making sure that this pristene palace of purchase remains as spotless and untouched as before (and my shoes were not particularly dirty either). My Chinese traveling companion, having kindly helped get me this far through the bizarre process, turns around and goes back to town. The cleaning ladies follow me again as I walk clear across the hall to the giant "entry gates" where I place my digitally printed ticket into a laser-scanning device, much more high-tech than anything seen at airport checkin counters or gates, which bleeps me through.
Now, after this strange and expensive academic exercise, I am standing on the other side of the giant building that I had entered. Still confused about this surreal scene, I finally realize that there are no fences, gates, or guards whatsoever that would have prevented me from simply walking around the building on either side. In fact it was just dumb luck that we had identified and entered the ticket building in the first place. Nor is there anything that would have prevented me from simply walking or bicyling past the whole building complex and straight onto the road leading to the temple, as a large number of locals must do all day every day to get to their homes which also lay beyond the ticket palace. I feel like I have unwittingly taken part in some kind of absurd performance art, like a communal burn platform erected in the middle of some American urban space where people toss their $20 bills just to make a statement about the true value of money.
On the other side of the building are three large yellow tour buses which, I assume, are part of this whole vastly overdesigned existentialist entry system. All three buses are totally empty except the middle bus, where the driver and some other guy, busy smoking, beckon me to the front bus. I walk to the front bus and nobody is there and absolutely nothing happens for minutes. It does not seem like there will ever be a bus (perhaps they can call it the Godot line). I give up and just start walking down the 2 kilometer road to the temple. I am passed by several public #3 buses which do not stop for me. It's all quite confusing.
I finally arrive at the temple complex to find it is one large construction zone. Nearly every structure of this monestary is surrounded by some degree of scaffolding and the main hall is a giant concrete and steel skeleton, with a towering crane lifting parts left and right. Only the shiny golden spires, visible from miles away, are in place.
There are large tour groups here with Chinese-language guides, but there is almost no information whatsoever for independent visitors. There are are a few placards in English with seemingly random historical details about certain structures, but nothing to give us any kind of historical context, despite the fact that this "temple" complex clearly now serves more than half its duty as a center for tourism.
I wander through the whole complex, visiting many large and small halls of meditation with giant buddhas and rows and rows of seating for monks with prayer flags hanging from every corner. Nearly every hall is eerily empty. During my whole visit (admittedly an afternoon visit), I see many monks carrying water, smoking, talking on mobile phones, and driving expensive SUVs, but the whole time I never see anyone praying, except in one inconsequential corner temple where I happen upon a monk deep in a throat-singing chant, with a very young novice who immediately jeers at me and shoos me away.
I wander through the construction zone where they are (re-)building the vast central temple. I come across a group of uniformed military men with machine guns and some extremely expensive remote video recording gear, busily making their way around the compound. The commander in the video truck barks orders over the radio to the young officer with the broadcast-quality wireless camera, which he aims at seemingly random objects in an artificially rushed flurry of activity. The nearby monks and local people do their best to ignore the soldiers. What on earth was this? Perhaps a little unfriendly visit from the government just to say "mind if we look around? nice little temple you got here; hate to see anything, ya know, happen to it."
In general the visit to the temple is not even close to worth 80RMB, and nobody ever checks my ticket. I end up spending most of the time watching the way they build the new structures (imagine building three-foot-thick, twenty-foot-tall rammed-earth ramparts completely by hand, with faithful gangs of lay workers who use hand tools to pock-pock-pock the soil tightly down into wall molds in time with ancient work ballads) and hiking on the hills around the temple.
The most amazing thing I see is along the concrete walkway that surrounds the temple complex (which, given the size of this complex, is several kilometers long and quite steep in places). There are some young local monks and a large number of very old hill tribe ladies doing a ritual circumnavigation, clockwise as is the religious tradition. They take just three steps forward, then fling their hands in the air in prayer, then get down and lie all the way flat on the ground, making another prayer gesture, then get up again, and repeat, again moving just three steps forward. It must take some of these ladies all day to complete the exhausting trip. Some of them even hang special rugs off their skirts to protect their clothing and knees after thousands of cycles of laying down and getting up. This seems to be an extremely important pilgramage for these people and they smile and encourage each other at every stage. At almost 10,000 feet I find myself getting winded just walking alongside them, and I am duly impressed at their feat.
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