Sunday, March 28, 2010

Dilly-dallying in Dali

I'd forgotten the joys of bus travel in provincial China - the small seats, the chain-smoking men, the vomiting children and the toilet stops. Oh, how we miss the freedom of the cyclist's open-air pee. Riding the bus we are condemned to those waterless tiled hell-holes where you get to see everyone lined up in a row, squatting and squezzing. And there's always one fella on his mobile phone. Surely this is a scene no English person could ever get accustomed to? Our bus takes us through dramatic scenery, out of the Nu Jiang valley, down to the Mekong/Lancang and then climbs up once again to a high plateau where we join a Super Highway, disappear into a long tunnel and re-emerge into another huge valley, the road descending forever into the mist. Finally it reaches journey's end in Xiaguan, a shabby city, where we unload the bikes from the roofand quickly pedal up the road to Dali.

This little town used to be the capital of a kingdom governing most of Yunnan until Mr. K. Khan's Mongol hordes showed up in the 1200's and incorporatedthe area into China. In the 19th century the city was governed by a muslim sultan who rebelled against the Qing emperor. Along with many other Hui (Chinese Musilm) uprisings, this one ended in blood and tears - it's estimated up to 18 million died nationwide in such uprisings - a sign of the empire's desperate hold on power. The quiet town became a popular hangout for Western travellers in Yunnan and is now fully included in the Chinese tourists' itinerary. There's nothing particularly special about the town itself - it's walled and remains low-rise - but it's a relaxing place and is located nicely between mountains in the west and Erhai lake in the east. The area is inhabited predominantly by Bai people, one of Yunnan's minorities, and as with all touristy towns in China, traditional dress is worn by many of the female shopworkers. And, as with all touristy towns in China, there is the local speciality dish. In Dali's case it's lasagne. We're happy to indulge in some Western food and wander the streets. At last this is a place where there are comfy cafes, book exchanges and, essentially for me, a new supply of Yunnan coffee. We're also delighted to catch up with Gill and Bert who we last saw in Luang Prabang. They're heading in the same direction as us and have information on access to some of the Tibetan towns further north in Sichuan and Qinghai provinces (some have been closed to foreigners). Bert is considering buying firecrackers as a dog deterrent. I'm on the look out for a handgun.

South west China has been suffering from a serious drought and Bert & Gill have had many hazy days on their bikes. In Dali, it's sometimes cloudy and chilly and finally rains one day. We both need new rain jackets and end up in the shops selling fake North Face and Columbia gear where we make a couple of shopkeepers rather happy with our purchases. Ambling down the pedestrianised streets we are approached by smiley middle-aged ladies, some toting babies, who ask if we want to "smoke some ganja". But if we want to get high, there's always the cable car up Cang Shan (boom, boom). No, we just want to relax and sample some more lasagne. Ooops, there goes a few more days.....

No comments: