[These "Travel Notes" are just raw brain-dumps, collected whenever I had a chance to sit down and type during the trip. See December's various topics for more reader-friendly post-trip writing.]
Dali, Sat Nov 13: Actually got here yesterday... very strong impression... too much to experience to sit down and write.
Now it's Saturday night, just past 10pm. A light rain picked up again, scattering the few still playing in the old town. Stream of consciousness follows....
I'm at the Old Wooden House on Foreigners' Street, an outside table under eaves with a dozen red lanterns... chairs made of woven bamboo, tablecloth of red silk brocade upon rough-woven red and natural hemp. Two 500ml bottles of local Feng Hua Xue Yue beer (Wind, Flower, Snow, Moon beer), 3.5% alcohol, crisp Pilsner style, lightly hoppy and clean... plates of Dali-style fried potatoes and cheese to come.
Dali Walled City... history is expansive, I can't cover. The current walls and gates were built in Ming Dynasty, 1400s. The city is much older... some of the large pagodas are from the 800s, and the city was a center of power long before that.
The physical setting... very heavy. We're seven thousand feet or so up, with the type of silences possible I've recalled from Taos or the Canadian Rockies. There's a large lake, seventh-largest in China, curving north to south in the shape of an ear... they call it Erhai, "ear sea". Along its west side, for scores of miles, is the Cangshan mountain range, "ocean blue" or "azure"... no idea how tall, but if the sun would set at 6pm, then this mountains just west of town would block it by 4pm. Clouds and fogs hide the middle while peaks show through. Eighteen brooks ripple down to the lake, west to east, villages upon each. Roadways along each side, ferries crossing the lake for trade. To the east Erhai is a smaller north/south stretch of mountains, ruddier red in color.
A walled city, giant gates on each side, maybe a mile square... imposing Cangshan mountains to the west, anchoring... stretching downhill from mountain, to city, to fields, to lake. Never seen anything like it; certainly makes an impression.
(The Dali Fried Cheese arrived. Famous dish. Goat milk, turned to cheese, very thin sheets maybe 8" x 10". These are then fried until bubbly and crisp, then arrive, dried. Not heavy like other fried cheese... tangy, slightly sour, aromatic. The Dali French Fries are potatoes, julienne cut, mixed with batter to very rough-shaped croquettes, fried. Look like little crabs, all spiky, four inches long, but you can chew the whole thing.) (The food here is a big experience, by the way... I'm working through the menu of Bai specialities.)
Dali is a marble town. The tectonic pressures produce high mountains, deep river gorges, and dense, striated marble. It reminds me of Hualien on Taiwan's east coast... their Taroko Gorge matches Yunnan's Tiger Leaping Gorge... Hualien is a beach town, while Dali is a lake town, but both are very laid-back. Dali is famous throughout China, and through Asia, for its marble... the Chinese word for marble itself is Dali Shi, Dali Stone.
The streets are rough-cut cobblestones of marble, one foot by three, irregular surface providing good footing even in the rain. Marble is used casually for construction, walls, ornaments, seating, bridges, balustrades. One of the town's specialties are thin placques of striated marble which resemble landscapes, cloudscapes, rivers, faces, scenes... stunning, but won't fit in my luggage. Shops sell large vases of lathed marble... eye-popping.
Orientation around town is easy... the mountains are to the west, the land slopes down to the lake in the east, the sun is to the south. Streets are a grid system, north to south. Street signage is plentiful, in characters and English.
This street is called Foreigners Street. It has two meanings. A few decades ago Dali was a stop on the Hippie Trail, one of the easiest cities in China to escape the pressures of larger cities, a laid-back multicultural atmosphere, stunning natural beauty, and a heritage of using hemp fabrics. Many settled and set up shop here. As the city became more popular the hippies dropped off, and China tourism took over. Now it's more a place to see foreigners. I'm part of a zoo act... think I can handle it.
Kenny G is street-sent from a neighboring restaurant... battling a heavy techno beat the next block over. Really bad. But at least it's not as bad as the blaring karaoke singers from a Chinese bar street a few blocks south... nice real estate, but their loud music is a detriment to me, not an attraction. So much other good music in the world.... :(
Eleven PM, no crowds, but no signs of the place shutting either... tables of people playing cards, talking, seem like friends of the owners. I may be the only paying customer among four tables, not sure. No pressure.
I've found a new tobacco. Exact same packaging as that (presumed) Yuxi angel-hair that I picked up in Kunming. This is a darker brown, still ribbon-cut but thicker... acts like a good English ribbon-cut Virginia, not quite as rough as Esoterica's Dunbar. Not sure of the price because I bought a few other things at the same time.
Yunnan Coffee, had some this morning. I think both crops were brought in by the British, when they had an outpost in Yunnan. Dark, thick... served with cubes of rough sugar, steamed milk which I think came from a cow. Took a bit of preparation... almost reminded me of Vietnamese Coffee in taste, although it didn't have the little French presser.
This morning I took a little stroll. Got a small cup of sit-down coffee (although I could have used a mug). Also some of the regional breakfast bread, "baba", a non-rising pan bread, eight inches round, three-quarters an inch thick, doughy and chewy, cooked on a griddle, 3 RMB or so. Two varieties, savory with salt, and sweet with a paste spread inside.
Walked up to the northwest of town, a Saturday market. Main area was about a block large, assigned stalls under a permanent awning. Side streets around all had people spreading out vegetables or other goods on blankets, side of sidewalk. Rows of caged chickens, scores of them, wondering if this will be the day. Fish stalls -- lake fish -- flopping in dozens of plastic pans. An installation at the back of boiling water to pluck chickens, someone to helpfully gut them for you, a man hanging onto a prepared rabbit, arguing the final points of a deal. A mushroom row... found offerings which would cost significant money in US produce markets. Herbs, dried peppers, beans both fresh and dried, kohls and cabbages and leafy greens and glistening round carrots, maybe a thousand pounds of potatoes coming from a bin. Foot traffic... well, better left unsaid. ;-) What SF's Alemany Market is to the Ferry Building Market, this is to Alemany. And I hear there are even greater markets elsewhere around the lake....
(I want every hair on Kenny G's body to be plucked, one by one. Slowly, too... draw it out. Not by me. I just want him to get some real feeling in his life.)
Dali has a big tourist contingent -- mostly PRC tour groups -- but also has real people living there too. From what I understand, this is different from Lijiang post-earthquake, which was renovated so that the old town is no longer a town. There are many lodging facilities within the Dali city walls, but most of these are smaller hotels and hostels, while the hotels able to accommodate tour groups are mostly outside the city walls, and so they are bussed in en masse. This leads to distinct times of the day for tourist hordes.
Looking at many of the retail operations, I'm not sure how they make it. Tonight was a Saturday night, although dampened by rain, and most of the restaurants still had full produce displays outside. It's possible they buy at the same time as the Saturday market, and so have a different delivery schedule than restaurants in SF. But I saw many shopkeepers, customer-less, watching TV... many fried cheese sticks left unsold at the street stalls, sausages left roasting under heater lamps. But then again, I didn't see what street business was like at the height of the tourist hour... I was walking later in the evening, after the light rain hastened tourists' return to their beyond-the-walls hotels.
But underneath the tourist trade there seems to be a strong social community, many longtime ties, a neighborhood feel. The tour groups are loud and bossy and tend to look within themselves rather than without... strange way to make a living. But maybe it's just one strange component within a larger social system. Pier 39 feels absolutely empty at night. Dali does not.
Sun Nov 14: Ended up closing the bar last night, then woke before dawn for a walk down to the lake, to the Cai Cun ferry dock. So many acres of agricultural land stretching from city to lake... brassicas, salad greens, many of the heavier crops already over. About four miles one way, then a one-kuai busfare back. A slab of sweet baba bread, a bottle of cold tea. A sitdown cup of hot Yunnan coffee, sugar and steamed milk. A visit to the Dali Museum, small in the center of town... the extensive Nanzhou kingdom here in 800AD, the later smaller Dali kingdom, wiped away by Kublai Khan, the Ming years, the Muslim Panthay Rebellion of the 1800s. Crossroads for a long time.
I'm tired, cold, damp. Socks haven't dried for three days. Figuring out my timing for the rest of the trip, which days where. Lijiang's next... higher, and colder, but more real hotels, and I hope warmer and drier. This Dali Palace hotel I'm at is pretty quiet (when the Chinese tourists aren't yelling into or out of their rooms), but it's warmer and drier outside than in; I need a change. Don't want to cut out of Dali too early though, because Lijiang might be too strange, then if Xishuangbanna is unsatisfying, I'm stuck going back to noisy Kunming until Sun Nov 28 and my scheduled plane for Hong Kong.
Dali is a beautiful place, but the interesting places I haven't visited are all a vehicle trip away, and I'm tired of traffic... don't want to support honking cabdrivers, honking busdrivers. Words cannot measure my contempt for little minibikers going nowhere in a hurry with 90-decibel interruptions to everyone else. On the fence.
There's an in-group type of arrogance to the noisemakers, the groups spreading across the sidewalk oblivious to the needs of others. San Francisco has its share of arrogant ignorants, and they drive me nuts... proportion is higher here, but it's easier to excuse because of the rapid cultural change. The volume of uncomprehending assault is a drag.
Typing at Iron Monkey Bar on People's Street. Music was innocuous when I ordered, now it's some angry young Oakland guy yelling lyrics all hyped up, measuring meaning by how many unintelligible syllables he can cram into a minute. Bad enough in Oakland; a pity it's exported around the world. Instead of taking a baseball bat to my head, how about I take one to yours, instead?