Part 2: DaliClick on any thumbnail to see a full-size version of the photo. All image files are smaller than 65K.
Dali lies 400 km to the northwest of Kunming. There is only one way to get there, and that is to take the old Burma Road which served as a vital supply line to China during World War II. The road had been repaved recently by the Chinese, and is in excellent shape, smooth and well-maintained. Even so, it is quite narrow and winds tortuously up and down through mountain passes. Even on straight, flat sections, top speed is restricted by the rickety construction of the buses, which threaten to shake themselves to pieces at speeds higher than thirty miles an hour. Travel time to Dali is about twelve hours. The four of us piled onto a sleeper bus, which was equipped with double-decker rows of bunks. Most of our companions were young Hong Kong tourists, boisterous and friendly. It seemed comforting to have them on board. Of the three "Chinas", the Hong Kongers strike me as the most Westernized. The traveling students could be easily mistaken for Americans, sporting colorful T-shirts and backpacks and the confident, rolling walk that young Westerners employ.
I'm not sure why or how I got any sleep that night. The beds were fairly comfortable, to be sure, but the ride was anything but. The bus seemed to be held together by chewing gum, and that only in a few places. The rattling noises were so pervasive they blended into a continual hum, and my body was kept vibrating at a high frequency throughout the trip. After a few hours my internal organs felt nicely blended, like a James Bond martini. Whenever the bus hit an incline, the upper half of my body would slide into the gravitational well, while my downward-side skin stayed glued to the vinyl mattress, causing a severe symmetrical imbalance. When we arrived at our destination, I was unable to locate my shoes. They had migrated several rows up toward the front of the bus during the night.
We arrived in Dali in yellowish-grey pre-dawn light. We entered through a small gate in the intact city wall, an impressive stone structure that gave me a sensation of great age and preservation. Most Chinese cities and towns were once walled, but very few have left their walls intact as they've grown. We walked down the narrow streets toward our hotel, the still quiet air vibrating gently in anticipation of the coming dawn. Most all the buildings, hazy and grey, were of stone construction, with traditional Chinese-style curved tile roofs. We felt as if we had entered a different era altogether. Occasionally a narrow alley opened to our left, and through it we glimpsed an amazing vista of snow-capped cliffs. Dali is located in a valley, with a large lake to the east, and a tall massif of sheer black rock to the west, peaked in white all year round. The town has two hotels: Guest House #1 and Guest House #2. We stayed in the latter, which is somewhat cheaper.
Yunnan is known, among other things, for its high concentration of non-Chinese minority peoples. Dali was once the capital of a large Bai kingdom, and those people still make up the majority of the residents. They speak their own non-Chinese languages and maintain a fair amount of their traditional dress and customs, though inevitably diluted through assimilation with Han Chinese. Despite Dali's proud history, it remains to this day a small, intimate, unassuming place. Its charm apparently has wide appeal, as a large number of backpacking tourists enjoy hanging out there for days or even weeks at a time. Our guidebook suggested it might become the "next Kathmandu"; I've never been there, but the street just outside our hotel did remind me of a nascent Khao Sarng Road, Bangkok. A large number of small Western cafes dominated the strip, serving up bowls of meusli and reggae music. Batik and jewelry sellers filled in the spaces between, and beggars, money-changers, and hangers-about roamed up and down looking for foreigners. One enterprising young man insistently tried to interest us all in having our sneakers shined; how much business he was able to drum up I'm not sure, since I never did spot anybody wearing dress shoes.
As the sun came up the imposing natural beauty of the surrounding area became apparent. The weather was perfect, a crisp, dry, sunny 75 degrees. Light blue sky, dark blue lake, dark indigo cliffs and craggy white peaks. We decided to rent bikes, take them on a boat ride across the lake to the small Bai town of Wase (pronounced Wah-SUH), and then bike home from there in a loop around the lakeshore. The bike trip looked to be about 50 kilometers, which the renter assured us we should be able to do in about four hours.
In Wase a bustling Bai vegetable market was in full swing. Young women, doubled-over, carried fifty-pound sacks of rice around on their backs. Pigs roamed the area. The Bai like to dress in bright pink, and they sport amazingly intricate headware. No two Bai women seemed to have the same kind of hat. We sat in a small restaurant for lunch, and spent the whole meal hat-watching as people walked by outside. "My God, did you see that one!" Although the town was small and primitive, it was fully electrified. Nevertheless, our lunch was prepared over a wood stove. As we ordered, the stove was fired up in preparation. Just after we ordered the proprietor disappeared out the front door. "Going to buy ingredients!" We had ordered some kind of fish, which turned out to be loaches, small squirmy eel-like things. They were purchased live from a small water-filled bucket just around the corner from the restaurant.
Just outside the restaurant a personal computer, the only sign of high technology, or indeed any technology, to be seen in the town, had been set up under a large umbrella, running a medical diagnosis program. Larissa decided to try it out. A small sensor was placed over the pulse on her wrist; thirty seconds later, the printer spit out a detailed analysis of all of Larissa's physical and mental problems. (Diagnosing from the pulse is standard in traditional Chinese medicine.)
By mid-afternoon we forced ourselves away from Wase to begin our bike ride back to Dali. Unfortunately the road was not paved; it was a narrow, bumpy dirt path that wound up and down the hills along the lakeside. The going was slow and hot. It took us two hours to bike the first ten kilometers to Shuanglang, and it soon became clear we weren't going to make it all the way around. Shuanglang was a tiny town, just a cluster of homes, with a single market. Hot and thirsty, we stopped to buy soda at the market, and drank it outside. A small crowd of curious adults and children gathered around us. Wase had been fairly large, and traders must frequently come from some distance away; tourists are probably seen with some regularity. But these little towns along the small road on the east of the lake probably saw few visitors.
Soon after leaving Shuanglong Cathy flagged down one of the motorized vehicles churning its way along the road, and hitched us a ride.
This device was basically an exposed tractor engine, on one wheel, attached to a wheeled cart. Vehicles like this were extremely common all over Yunnan. There were two main designs; in the first, there was a normal steering wheel inside a driver's cabin. In the second, the engine antennaed out into an incredibly long set of handlebars, complete with hand brakes. By pushing the bars left or right, the entire engine and front wheel complex could be maneuvered into facing the desired direction of travel. This particular machine's cargo area was piled high with giant burlap sacks full of lake snails; a young woman was perched on top of them. Our bicycles were thrown up on top as well, and then we clambered aboard. During the entire trip we were surrounded by buzzing flies attracted by the scent of dead mollusks. I could barely understand the young woman's heavily accented Chinese, but Cathy managed to communicate with her fairly well.
We took this peculiar form of transport up around the north corner of the lake until we met the main road on the west side. Dan and Larissa decided to take a bus back to Dali. There were a few hours of daylight left, and the smooth paved road, heading slightly downhill, seemed easily navigable after the rutted paths we'd been on, so Cathy and I decided to continue biking. We had underestimated the distance, however, and after a while darkness began to fall, and we decided we had to get a bus as well. This turned out to be a problem; most bus drivers didn't want to deal with our bikes. We finally found one who would let us bring them on for an additional fee. This bus soon became so crowded that Cathy and I were separated from our vehicles by the press of people, who kept coming on even though the bus as so full we were sure it couldn't possibly hold anyone else.
This page last modified January 13, 1998.
Zev Handel / zev_web#namkung.com