I finally made it to the lake for a pre-breakfast stint on the outdoor gym today – the light and the atmosphere at the lake at this time of day is lovely. There are people of every age, shape and size running and using the gym, elderly couples playing badminton and even a man with practising Tai chi type moves on the wide pavement with a selection of swords in his hands – looks just a bit risky with people running in the same space.
We had an Easter Sunday breakfast of brioche and chocolate eggs before checking out of the Lost Garden guest house which had cost just under 6000 Yuan (about £560) for all six of us, for five nights including our taxis from the airport and our day out at the Stone Forest. We would highly recommend it to any visitors, especially for the very helpful staff.
We took taxis to the station and arrived almost two hours before train was due to leave, having left plenty of time in case of traffic problems. We still had nearly 90 minutes by the time we’d gone through security and collected our tickets! Fortunately, the comfortable waiting area is more like an airport than a station and we were able to get decent bauzi and snacks to sustain us. Like the metro, the high speed trains are very impressive.
We travelled first class as Ed said it cost very little more and it was comfortable and spacious. Our route west gradually climbed through an agricultural landscape, punctuated by towns and cities. The ground still looks very dry, though the sky did look overcast today – April is generally the last month of the dry season. We saw plenty of terraced fields but most were still empty or contained last year’s stubble. Much of the agricultural land seems to be divided into small strip plots but there are also huge areas under plastic on the plains.
When we arrived at Dàli station after our two hour journey it was hectic – Ed was both surprised and concerned by the number of people pouring into the city. The station is in the more modern town but our destination was the ‘Ancient City’, a forty minute taxi ride away. We got talking to a Swiss man heading in the same direction but, unfortunately, we already filled all the seats in our taxi.
The backdrop to the old city is stunning; the 4000 m high Cāng Shān (Green mountains) loom above the Crows Inn guesthouse where we are staying and we can see Erhai lake below the old town.
The guest house is lovely – an old building set round a courtyard, with bright spacious rooms – and the staff friendly and helpful but they needed all the money for our three night stay up front, in cash. 2200 Yuan, i.e. around £260 for six of us, is not exactly breaking the bank but it did run us very short of cash and made finding a cashpoint high on our priority list. We were also all getting very hungry, it being around 3.30 pm and having missed lunch.
We crossed the main road into the old, walled city and were struck, again, by the huge number of people everywhere. Dàli is a popular destination for Chinese tourists anyway but it turns out that we’ve inadvertently arrived in the middle of an enormous festival for the local minority ethnic group, the Bai people. Today is, in theory, the final day of their Third Moon Fair, which runs from 15th to 21st April. The narrow streets inside the walls are crowded both with people and with traders selling their wares on the pavements and the inevitable electric scooters are everywhere, which makes getting around rather stressful.
The cashpoint proved easy to find but finding somewhere for a snack that Ed regarded as not too touristy was not so simple. Leaving the crowded main street we did find a dumpling house one block back, just as it started to the rain, and shared two bowls of dumplings to tide us through to dinner time. Fortunately the rain was short lived and we ventured out again to do a bit of souvenir shopping – indigo tie-dye seems to be quite a thing here and Pat bought a lovely tablecloth.
We also bought some buckwheat tea, which we’d had at lunchtime, as we have kettles but not tea in the rooms – it has a lovely nutty flavour. I want to buy some leaf tea to take home too but there are so many varieties to choose from, it’s difficult to work out which are the ones we really like.
Many of the people in the streets of Dàli are Han Chinese tourists but there is definitely more ethnic diversity on display here than in Chūngdu or Kunming. As well as the Bai, there is an obvious Muslim minority population here (the Hui Bai) and a couple of mosques in the old town.
I’m currently reading an old book about the region called Forgotten Kingdom, by Peter Goullart, which we picked up in the bookshop in Kunming. He spent the latter years of WW2 in Likiang (now called Líjiāng), about 60 miles north of here, helping set up the first industrial cooperatives in the region, initial for the wool and weaving trade. He worked primarily with the Nakhis, Tibetans and the Bai people (called the Minkia or Minjia by the Chinese, until 1949) who traded overland through the Himalayas to Lhasa, India and Myanmar for centuries. The book is of its time but provides a fascinating insight into what life was like in this area only 70 or so years ago.
The name ‘Bai’ means white people and white is the traditional colour of much Bai clothing. The dragon procession which passed us in the street was made up of women in a stylised version of this traditional clothing but Ed thinks it was just some kind of stage-managed performance rather than anything spontaneous. We did see plenty of other, mostly older women, wearing other types of traditional clothing though, including the group of grandmothers and granddaughters who ate in the same Bai restaurant as us at dinner time.
We walked right through the walled city to the opposite gate then ambled back looking at places for an early dinner. The German-run Bakery 88 was just closing but we promised Ed breakfast there as he’s more than ready for some western food. The food in the Bai restaurant where we ended up was very good and set us back all of 169 Yuan (around £20 for six of us). The food wasn’t massively different to other things we’ve eaten although less spicy than some dishes and the sauces seemed less oily. We had to try a dish called ‘Grandma’s potatoes’, which turned out to be very good – crushed potato fried with pickles – and we were also served with a flaky bread/pastry filled with rose paste, another big thing in this region.
We wandered back towards our guesthouse but, unfortunately went in the wrong direction when we came out of the gate in the dark and ended up in the thick of the festival; multiple sources of loud music, food and trinket stalls, crowds of people and lots of rubbish – a bit of an obstacle course in the dark and not much fun. We finished the day in the tea lounge at the guesthouse sampling our buckwheat tea and sharing Easter eggs with our host and her friends.