CHINA: Hello Dali Again
Oct 5, 2004
David Rich 1000 Words
CHINA: H e l l o D a l i A g a i n
You can't go home again or to the same city in China twice because China is changing faster than autumn leaves. I'd first seen Dali in 2001, then a charming little town with one street of tourist shops, a few Western tourists and a few little old ladies hawking hookers and herb. This time around Dali had exploded with wall-to-wall emporiums and streets crammed with what seemed China's entire population during its annual October holidays. Dali no longer felt like the 9th Century terminus of the Burma Road, the capitol of North Burma an unchanged millennia ago.
I skipped the things I'd enjoyed those short years ago: walking the reconstructed city walls, circling the three most classic skyscraper pagodas in China or taking a cable car up to the.13,000 feet high Canshan Mountains. But I did get a telephoto shot of the tallest pagoda towering 230 feet above ground next to "Reflection Park" though I missed walking the spellbinding eleven-mile "Cloud Trail" above waterfalls and precipices in the Canshan Mountains overlooking the lake next to Dali.
This time I explored the little towns around Dali's gorgeously clear and clean Erhai Lake, twenty-five miles long stretched out like an ear bordered with lovely exotic temples framing frescos of enraged black Buddhas, colorful local markets and dance troupes, houses of antique wood, cormorant fishing and locals pursuing their daily business in inimitable fashion.
I sampled a dance troupe in ethnic dress, the ladies wearing hats covered with red etched roses, diamonds, rubies, emeralds and gold beads while the guys preened in long white swirly pants. The group fancied themselves world-class stars as evidenced by their shades and ultra-cool demeanor.
Then I happened onto a fancy architect's house built on five levels with a glass-covered catwalk extending over the lake and cutesy nooks with surprises like an old wooden boat in which floated a miniature wooden boat. This extravaganza of aluminum, weathered woods and glass had been built for a famous Chinese ballerina who was away for the day thus allowing me to nosily survey the joint from stem to stern. This modern emporium contrasted sharply with a later meander through an old Chinese house with burnt-red balustrades and oval windows overlooking a column of red balloons and doors of fancy brocade.
At a local market I snapped a precocious kid in yellow pants clutching an orange muffin and, next door, an old lady shucking yellow corn while surrounded by the stuff. The batik section of the market was flanked by iridescent vats of bubbling dye, clothes pulled from foaming vats of indigo and sold by brilliantly dressed salesladies in ethnic costumes. Tables of tongs and piles of small, medium and gangly teeth sat outside where a dentist with blood dripping down his arm offered handy sidewalk extractions of troublesome teeth sans anesthetic.
Dali is famous for marble boasting startling patterns that look like craggy mountains for sale in every other shop. In fact Dali is the Chinese word for marble. This market offered more utilitarian playing marbles in piles with agate swirls of red, blue, green, white, crystal and orange.
The market transitioned from marbles to meats of dead and red to live and oinking. Cackling chickens were stuffed six to a sack with a sextet of red-combed heads taking a nearly last look around. Perhaps they saw the artfully stacked exotic fruits intermixed with chartreuse and purple vegetables over which towered a garishly painted Chinese temple. Local monks played Chinese checkers on barbeque island where my Dali-bound boat moored a half hour for the passengers to sample seafood kabobs, whole fish and giant prawns on skewers from charcoal hibachis for fabulous feasts.
As the boat to Dali neared shore we passed small fishing boats rigged with lopsided lateen sails and rowboats lined with cormorants. I jumped onto a rowboat, the cormorants necks tied for fishing. The half-choked birds would splash overboard, gulp a fish and flap back onto the boat to be relieved of their catch, urping it into the bottom of the boat. Fresh fish anyone? When the bottom of the rowboat was full of fish each cormorant would be rewarded with the release of its neck-tie and a tossed fish which they could finally swallow. Tourists were given a pole to balance with two cormorants on the ends, wings outstretched while the rest of us clicked away
It was great to scramble ashore to the dozens of Dali restaurants with 16-page menus in English offering everything from pizza and burritos to tiramisu and cappuccinos. But beware of Dali's contribution to culture, its aggressive hawkers who jump in your face when you're chowing down on lasagna and lattes at outdoor restaurants. The solution is to always keep your camera handy to shove into hawkers' faces when they shove theirs into thine. You cop great open-eyed shots of quaintly dressed locals backing hastily away.
I'd been told Dali offered the herbal alternative to cheap Chinese beer, that you can pick it from the side of the road or buy it for ten bucks a pound (up from two dollars from three years ago) already cured by the little old ladies selling knickknacks along foreigner's street. I decided to see if it was really true. When I first heard the call, "Hey, would you like a nice souvenir, maybe some marble or a postcard?", I gave it a go.
I focused in on the classic little old Chinese lady with a box of stuff, special price for you today. "How about some of that famous Dali weed?", I asked.
Instead of a horrified shriek she cackled and said, "Quick, follow me." I laughed and followed her around the corner up a flight of stairs past two little girls into a room stacked with tourist doo-dads and a big sack of herb. She reached inside, pulled out a clump and said, "Only 1000 Yuan."
It was my turn to be horrified. 1000 Yuan was $125. As I backed hurriedly away she called after my retreating back, "How about a cute girl....?"
Some things never change. Hello Dali, again.