The Many Faces of Dali

We leave Shaxi reluctantly, wishing we could just rent a house and stay forever. As we make our way out of the valley and towards Dali, however, we must register that change is coming soon. An express highway is already being built. Soon delicate bridges like this one will stand next to a concrete colossus.

I’ve noticed that recently we’ve been moving in quite different rhythms: Jon has made a habit of grabbing the tail of passing trucks, for fast climbs to the top. I pedal furiously behind. Having just recently acquired the ability to not fall of the bike, I am too afraid to hang on to moving vehicles. But instead of being pissed at myself, I am growing angry with poor Jon. He’s cheating, isn’t he! When I find him fixing a flat tyre I immediately blush. Perhaps he knows that I’ve been green with envy? Have my evil thoughts caused him to fail?

Jon appears blissfully happy, so I hide my face behind the camera. Here villagers still till, plant, and harvest rice by hand, with the occasional help of a strong water buffalo. South East Asia is no longer too far away.

We sleep in a quiet village. Breakfast is had as the morning fog thaws away, at the mum and pup store across the street where Mao’s portrait is proudly displayed on the wall.

When we hit the upper slopes curling towards Da Li, we get separated from each other yet again. This time I have no idea who is behind and who is in front. I am also hungry, carry no money or map, and my mobile phone is discharged. I cuss my stupidity and Jon’s manic penchant for speed. As the afternoon progresses I come to peace with the terms. I push on, hoping that the logograms on the roadsigns say Dali and not some other thing.
By sunset I am stuck in city traffic. The highway splits in two. I follow the “Old Town” sign and 20 minutes later I find myself on the main drag. My plan is to locate one of the hostels we’ve considered. I ask around for the name I’m most certain of. A couple of backpackers from Israel point me to the right spot, after a bunch of Chinese students refuse to engage, either too weary of my trodden look, or, as I’ve learned to accept, too shy to speak to foreigners.

Unfortunately Jon’s bike is not be seen at the Jade Emu International Guest House, and noone has seen him there. I email him from the staff computer, drink some water from the showers and wait. The yard is filled with westerners clad in the best apparel. There are several overlander bikes parked inside. I see Rohloff speedhubs and I am told by one of the owners about the other stuff adorning his ride, which cost as much as a new motorbike. Not that there’s any of my business, but as I am bored and worried, and there’s nothing else to do…
To my relief, Jon arrives another hour later. We hug. Resentments are forgotten. He tells me that he has been approached by the same Israeli couple and told to come meet me here. This requires celebrating.

As we discover the next day, old Dali is beautiful and has loads of amazing food: steamed, fried, stuffed. Among all of these we even find cheese on a stick! The area’s distinctive cow’s-milk cheese is rolled into thin sheets, then toasted over small grills set up at on the sidewalk and topped with rose petal jam.

Not all parts of town are quaint, though. Thousands of domestic tourists flock to Dali every year, bringing mainstream culture with them. The main street through old town has its share of tacky souvenir shops selling locally manufactured tie-dye, alongside mass-produced trinkets, fake tiger pelts and the generic items one can buy nowadays from either Goa, Phuket, Machu Picchu or Boracay. Some crowd ‘entertainers’ walk decked out in outfits that wouldn’t look out of place in a circus. All this is balanced by the stunning natural background.

Dali is the capital of the Bai Autonomous Region which spans a deep and fertile valley. We spend a day exploring the banks of Erhai, the 40 km long and 8 km wide lake shaped like an ear (“er” means ear and “hai” is lake or sea).

In villages things seem to have changed little for centuries. Buildings have the region’s distinctive pointed eaves and blue and white decorations painted on their walls.

The Bai still forage for local herbs and greens and still thresh their rice by hand by beating armloads of stalks against enormous fluted-edged baskets. The Bai women, particularly, continue to proudly wear the traditional blue apron and the elaborate headdresses.

At lunch we devour both the savory and the sweet varieties of the ‘Xizhou baba’ pie, then I pose next to the charming bridge with a birthday wish for my dad.

Back to town we cycle past the Three Pagodas that rise at the foot of Mt. Cangshan. At almost 70 meters, the middle one is considered one of the highest of the Tang Dynasty.

The many beautiful faces of Dali, spotted at the local market. And the delicious food available: slowly braised pork and cabbage; sausage; stinky tofu; cured ham and many more.

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