19.12.2013 - 21.12.2013 15 °C
I could have lounged languidly in Lijiang or even shilly-shallied in Shangri La but, well, they are even further away from Kunming, and the 8 hours each way to Dali was enough, given I could only stay a night. As it happens, Dali proved to be a fantastic way to end my time in China. Of course, Kunming had to do one last thing to me - I was on a day train, so wanted a soft seat: the train clerk misunderstod this and sold me a much more expensive soft sleeper. But then the tentacles of the Dali magic took over: I had the compartment all to myself the whole way. Being an older, single track line it was a slow journey but through pictaresque country so I was happy.
Dali was the capital city for the ancient kingdom of the Bai people (more than a thousand years ago) - the old walled city is still there (albeit rebuilt in 1400), about 10 km north of the mdern city (in which I spent no time, except to catch a bus), east of a line of mountains which still had quite a covering of snow and west of Lake Erhai (which is apparently quite special but I never saw it). It is close to the so-called Tea Horse Road, a hugely important trade route for the distribution of tea into both India and Eastern China - Pu'er is an important source of tea in the Yunnan mountains. I would have loved to have spent some time exploring that aspect of Dali and its environs, but just looking at the city itself took all my time. It currently has around 40,000 residents, so is tiny compared with anywhere else I have been, but has maintained its traditional importance as a travellers town, so that there are many bars, restaurants, hostels - making this a very cool place to hang out even if the cooler crowd has moved on.
As I got off the bus in the Old Town, it was about the first time since I arrived in China that I was conscious of blue sky and actual, discrete clouds. It took me a little while to find it, but once I did, the Yinfeng Hotel proved to be a great find: huge wooden floored rooms, balconies on the upper floors (it only has three) and very close to the centre of town - I reckon I could live here.
Walking around in the evening, I could immediately see why it is so popular among travellers - a bit like Kathmandu, but without the chaos and dirt and beggars and just the two scammers (both wanting to shine my shoes, but I sensed there was something dodgy about them, and it is reported that they actually hold your shoes to ransom, demanding about 200 yuan before you get to see them again). One of the core streets is Foreigner Street, so called because about a hundred years ago, it housed the only hotel permitted to lodge foreigners, and so a bunch of related businesess sprung up around it - the restaurants with their English menus and western food are still there
but it is by no means the only place to eat - every street in Dali seems to have its share, including restaurants where you just pick what you want them to cook (I nearly tried one in Kunming, but the chicken I picked was still frozen, which did not augur well).
I ended up in a rather odd place, which didn't know if it was a Japanese restaurant or aritisinal art place: the only other occupants were a group of Chinese businessmen who seemed to be in the process of getting seriously drunk. Unfortunately, I could not eat my meal - the chicken was still rather raw on the inside. I did better for my other meals - a rather delicious pork and pepper concoction
and for my final meal in China, I did what is compulsory in Dali and ate yak steak (I have a photo, but for some reason the chips have become very prominent and then there is a nondescript piece of meat). This was pretty good - the chips were fresh to the point I had seen the cook peel the spuds, and the steak had had to be given a stern lesson with a hammer in order to be edible.
I basically spent the evening and the whole of the next day (except for an hour or so where I sat in a cafe with a pot of the local coffee, some chocolate cake and my book) just wandering the streets of old Dali, from North Gate to South, amused by the various actors - not exactly sure which period in history they are representing.
There is a museum which I investigated, but didn't find very interesting - unlike the Dali Rural Film History Museum, in a recreation of the former Dali Cinema, which was first established 110 years ago and was rather rudimentary: the second photo says it all. Basically, the screen was set up, and people would just gather round. The intent behind the museum is to show off Dali's connection with film (several have been made here) and the more general social connections between people and movies (which it did by having a room devoted to film posters, presumably of films which have a local importance.
Dali is very much on the circuit of places visited by Chinese bus tour groups - they basically get dropped off at one gate, walked through the main street and collected from the other gate, or they ride around on 12 seater golf carts. At one point I was just sitting idly, watching the world go by, noticed one fellow go behind me while another took a cheeky photo of me (and I guess his mate behind me). This seemed to give an entire group of these Chinese tourists the same idea: they abandoned thier guide and took it in turn to have their photo taken with me - slightly insane but curiously gratifying.
I did take a wee walk outside the walls, along from the south gate - the next couple of blocks was given over to woodworkers at their trade - making a mixture of modern furniture and various building fixtures in traditional style
Back in the old town proper, I basically took lots of pictures of what I saw - including a machine for making walnut cakes, some schoolkids in the local uniform, a brush seller
and a whole bunch of random shots. I really liked Dali and would not be surprised if I am back here (I see Tiger flies direct from Singapore to Lijiang, which is just two hours north). The last photo is of some people playing a game a bit like tennis, in that they hit a ball backwards and forwards, but they do not use a racquet. Instead, they have to catch the ball in the paddle thingey, and it propels the ball back
My departure from Dali was yet another occasion for the locals to demonstrate their kindness. I was waiting for the bus back to the railway station, at the stop my hotel had told me was correct. This was not only wrong but the only bus this stop did serve had stopped for the night. Waiting with me were a bloke about my age and two young women: the bloke got a bit agitated about the lack of a bus (even I could work this out) and started talking to the young women. They were evidently agreeing to take a taxi. Eventually, I worked out that the bloke was talking to me as well, although in Chinese only - he was able to create three ideas: this stop was for local buses only, they were finished and "follow me" They took me in their taxi and dropped me at the right place for my bus (I could show him my train ticket, so he knew what I wanted) before carrying on to where they were going.