When arranging this holiday, I nodded absentmindedly when Matt told me we would be travelling from Kunming to Dali on an overnight sleeper train and then didn’t give it much thought until we were stood on the platform at 10pm. It was safe to say the prospect of spending the next 10 hours without being able to shower was making me a little grumpy. The situation called for a peaty single malt, but we had to make do with a bad, bad coffee.
We had booked the most expensive carriage, a ‘soft sleeper’ (150rmb, about £15), essentially a small compartment containing two bunk-beds separated by a small table. A young Korean couple occupied the opposite bunk; they spoke good English and appeared to be nice… thank heavens for small mercies. I won’t go into detail about the bedding and toilets as you may be reading this over breakfast, but my close friends will be giggling right now at the thought of my reaction to this state of affairs.
We arrived at Dali in the hazy light of 6am; tired, dirty and hungry, and pushed past the cacophony of touting taxi-drivers to our waiting car. It was too early to check-in to our hotel, so we dropped off our bags and freshened up as best we could before heading out to look for food.
At this point I started to cheer up because Dali Old Town, before most people wake, is incredibly beautiful and calm; just us, the market-goers and the street-food sellers in the early morning light (notice it’s the women doing the heavy lifting!!).
Given there was no-one around to judge, we decided to have three breakfasts;
- a light pizzary dough mixed with herbs and baked in a charred oven at the side of the street – delicious!
- a bean-curd soup with spices and fresh herbs – which tasted much better than it looked – served by the lady in the photo below
- a grilled rice pancake stuffed with some kind of fluffy pastry and a red spicy sauce
If only coffee was as easy to come by as high-calorie street food (in the end we made do with the Golden Arches). Stomachs full, we began our tourist checklist…
The Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Monastery
Three Pagodas sit at the foot of the Cangshan Mountains, a short car ride from Dali Old Town. The three elegant towers – made from brick and covered with mud – stand salient against a backdrop of green mountains and white ‘Jade Belt’ cloud. Dating from the 9th Century, the pagodas have withstood many large earthquakes which devastated the surrounding buildings of Dali; their resilience makes the middle pagoda (the tallest, at 16 stories) one of China’s best preserved buildings from the Tang dynasty.
We learned that the pagodas were built to provide refuge to the presiding King should the village be flooded; also that when a King died, his ears would be cut off (Why? because the nearby lake was shaped like an ear) , sealed in a jar and preserved in the depths of the central pagoda – however, I’ve not found anything on Google to back this up so maybe take it with a pinch of salt?!
By this point the sun was scorching so we hitched a ride in a (surprisingly fast) buggy up to the Chongsheng monastery, one of the largest Buddhist centers in SE Asia.
In my last blog I mentioned that during our time in Yunnan we met some of the different Chinese ethnic minorities that live in the area. Dali is home to 80% of the 190k Bai people, the rest of whom are scattered in neighboring provinces.
Sarina, our tour guide, explained that the Bai are Buddhists and very spiritual people. As we walked round the temples she told us stories about the different Buddhas; Buddahsattva with a tower of faces (one real face and ten faces of suffering)… Fat Buddah with his big forehead (intelligence), big feet (strength) and big belly (kindness)… Buddhas for the past… Buddhas for the present… other Buddhas who stood on evil spirits!
At one point, Sarina asked me – in all seriousness – if I believed in ghosts and I almost wanted to say that I did! But instead I spent the morning captivated by her wonderful stories while we walked around the monastery buildings with their burnt gold roof tiles, brightly painted eaves and carved wooden interiors.
Dali Old Town
After the monastery, we headed back to Dali Old Town for lunch and a wander. The streets we had stood in a few hours earlier were transformed by lively bustling locals selling handcrafts and delicious looking grilled foods… This guy was making a type of sweet, using a somewhat unorthodox methodology…
In Chinese language ‘Bai’ means ‘white’, and walking around the town I fell in love with the Bai houses: each one painted bright white with beautiful hand-painted patterns below the tiled rooftops..
Every 5th shop we walked past sold silver and we stood watching the men who sit outside in the heat, hammering patterns into solid silver bracelets (it would have been rude not to buy one, right?!)
Sarina told us about a tradition in Dali, for a couple to exchange silver bracelets one month before their wedding day. It was originally believed that silver was a tell-tale sign of whether you were in good or poor health and so if, at the end of the month, your prospective partner’s bracelet was tarnished then you may choose not to marry!
Cruel as that might be, the Dali boys do seem to have an easier job when it comes to finding a girl… For Shanghainese lads a good job, stack of cash and flash car are non-negotiable pre-requisites, but in Dali all you need is a chicken, a bottle of wine, and the skills to turn them into a delicious meal for your fiance’s parents: Brilliant!
Our second day in Dali started with a trip to the food market, where Bai women in the distinctive traditional ethnic dress bent over baskets of fresh vegetables and herbs. I’ve been to some impressive food markets in the UK and Europe, but never seen anything like this; it was so authentic and unpretentious. The market itself was constructed of a blue plastic canopy over long lines of trestle tables, but it seemed equally acceptable to pitch up on the floor and get on with it!
It goes that in Shanghai: “time is money”; in Beijing: “time is business opportunity”, and in Dali: “time is life!”. However, looking at these photos I can’t help but notice that it’s the women grafting grafting away while the men sit back with a cig and count their profits!
Lunch, Erhai Lake & Jinsuo Island
After some locals had taken some photos of me (I’m like a minor celebrity in rural China!), we ate lunch which included fish soup, tree bark, and some green leafy vegetables mixed with soft tofu. Matt was in his element as you can see.
We then hopped on a river-taxi for a 45minute ride across Erhai Lake to Jinsuo Island. The crossing was choppy and we got drenched more than once, but were assured that the little boats had survived worse weather (not that we had many options by that point!).
On Jinsuo island we saw where Matt’s fish soup had started the day… and had a breezy walk round the docks.
Next stop – Lijiang (to which we travelled by car, so no moany travel anecdotes, I promise)