I arrive into Dali late at night and row with a cab driver but for once he's not ripping me off! Its quite a haul from Dali new town to Dali old town. I arrive at Jade Roo and its in darkness because of a power cut. There are travellers whingeing about it but half the town is in darkness so its not the hostels fault! Regardless of this as a sign of goodwill they are offering a 25% discount for the booking. My bed tonight will cost a grand total of 1 pound 80! So I make good use of it and decide to get a nice 12 hour sleep.
I'm trying to keep up my fitness regime of half an hour exercise first thing in the morning monday to friday so I decide to go for a run around the old town and its a lovely way to check out my new environment. Immediateley opposite the hostel there is a dark stone wall that runs around the old town with an archway entrance – the west gate. There follows a descending pathway split by a little waterfall and stream and flanked by weeping willows and tea houses. Intermittently Chinese signs say: beware -don't fall in the water (Chinese have a tendency to do their washing in public water features) and slightly more melo- dramatically – Beware Landslides!
At the bottom a main street crosses into the heart of the old town. Although i'm the only westerner there are lots of Chinese tourists coming for a break from their cities. Dali is home to the Bai culture. I meet another English Couple - Hannah and Nick and we go for a breakfast at a very Western cafe that has somehow got access to brown bread – I have poached eggs, toast, ham, fresh orange juice and a decent cup of Yunnan coffee (the area produces a lot of home grown Arabica coffee beans) at almost four pounds its Western prices but after coffee in a can, sugary white bread and the Rising Dragon school camp chef's hard boiled eggs it's heaven!
Dali old and new town has grown up around Er Hai Lake – literal translation – ear – shaped lake. We navigate our way down towards it via the local bus which costs a sum total of 10p and then go for a walk around. In hindsight the lake is probably best discovered by bike (although my cycling skills are are wobbly at best!) but we are on foot and its beautiful countryside to discover on foot too.
The bus drops us at the main ferry port – you can get a tourist boat around the lake for 180 RMB about 18 pounds – but if you don't want to do that then you can walk along some of its perimeter through the litle villages at its banks for free. The land leading up to the lake is divided into little patchwork squares of bright yellow corn, rice and other leafy cabbagy looking vegetables. The fields are filled with brightly coloured scare crows and farmers hard at work. Most of them seem to be women – in traditonal dark overalls and pointy straw hats. They are hoeing and tilling and carrying heavy yokes across their shoulders. Sometimes they straighten up and smile at us. As we near the water's edge we see more farmers up to their thighs in the lake – they look to be weeding or harvesting its not clear which – the lotus or lilly roots found there. The weather is warm but the sky has that bright slightly overcast light that seems to work really well for photos. The lake is large and flat and silver – standing at the edge and looking back towards town you can see the traditional white houses of Dali with their ornate curly grey roofs of slate and wood – with water colours painted on them. Behind the town are a series of risig dark green mountains ther tops shrouded in mist, immediately in front of us lies the quilt of beautifully shaded greens of the vegetable fields sunk in water - shimmering in the half light.
And then we see spiders. Lots of them. Hundreds of them! Its like something out of a hideous nightmare. Normally you only see one spider sitting at the centre of his web but the spiders of Dali appear to be sociable creatures and like to hang out together. The only saving grace is that they are obviously quite clever and build their webs high above head height. They have strewn their homes in between the branches of the willow trees that droop into the lake, between the trees and the telegraph poles and anywhere they can get a footing. They are mostly large and black with an ominous greeny yellow pattern on their back which I am assuming means they are poisonous.
After walking for some time we decide to take a path back to the main road to get a lift back to town. We walk up a muddy path in the middle of a field flanked by trees on either side and in between all of the trees and amongst the hedgrerows are even more spiders. I am not frightened of spiders normally - there are insects I like a lot less – its the slimy wriggly ones that normally give me the heebie jeebies but the hairs on my arms and neck go up and I feel genuinely a bit ill by the time we've finished picking our way through the avenue of a thousand spiders. Its like some kind of horrible endurance test or something you 'd create in Room 101 for your enemy.
We get a bus back to town and share some sizzling beef and noodles for lunch and discuss the Slovenian woman called Dao who has been living here for 3 months. Hannah has asked her what she does here and she has said:
“dance...just dance – every night.”
“I can't understand people like that!” says Hannah
“I think she's a bit crazy I mean wouldn't you get bored not doing anything but dancing, i'd go mad -i'd get so bored I feel like i'd have to work”
Hannah is twenty – and still at University.
“Oh well I say”..” “Give it ten years of working for a living and contributing to society” I say – "then you may feel more in the mood to opt out and dance for a few months!”
I hope I don't sound too bitter!
We go for a little walk around town. Farmers line the streets with yokes carrying large baskets of fruit – pomegranates, peaches, lychees and bananas. Other street sellers hawk strips of fried pancakes on sticks, rice wrapped in pandan leaves and sticks of bbq ready to be fried in chili oil. The main streets are lined with touristy little shops that sell specialities of the region from jade jewellery, cashmere pashminas and silk scarves and crystalised sugar fruits. Shop assistants are sometimes dressed up in traditional Bai costume – large multi coloured round shaped hats lined with white fur and white trousers. Local restaurants display their fresh mountain vegetables -different strange curly shaped fungi and large purply roots as well as sea life from the lake outside their shopfronts in bowls. You can take your pick down to the last tomato for what goes in your dish - and choose from small lake snails, baby crabs, or wriggling eels. None of it looks particularly appetising alive ! and i've stayed clear of fish and shellfish my entire time in china – I don't really trust the cleanliness of the water they are sourced in shall we say.
Dark green wooly mountains surround the town and you can get a view that looks out to them and over the hustle and bustle of the main streets from the Wuha building. You have to pay a surly looking shopkeeper 2 Yuan for the privelege but when you get to the top and look through the pastel coloured flags and hanging red lanterns they've decorated the buildings with to the misty mountains and down below its worth the 20p entry!
We go down one of the main streets for dinner and end up away from the tourists at a place called The Fragrance Inn – packed with Chinese people and a Chinese only menu. It looks promising but we have no idea how to order – and just taking pot luck and pointing at random items on the menu is not something you want to chance in China. I think back to the deep fried Duck's heads and all the gizzards and dangly bits i've seen; the Beijing night market with its scorpions and centipedes on sticks... I know in some parts of the country they eat cockroaches – and to make their wines more potent they marinate rats' babies and snakes in them. Apparently the Chinese have a saying: “If its evolved to walk on all fours on the earth then it can be eaten...”
Its also a self service restaurant so you are supposed to go and tell Chef yourself what you want then help yourself to beers from the fridge.
Nope - we need a translator. To be honest at this point I would have just given up and walked out – but fair play to the young and enthusiastic – Hanna a jolly, toothy blonde and Nick -her cuddly, swarthy companion are miming frantically to some stunned diners. In the end a call goes round “does anyone speak English?” and a man comes forward and helps translate. They order the Chef's recommendations for us. We enjoy aubergine (or eggplant as they insist on translating it here) and pork in a sweet and spicy sauce...shredded beef and potato slices and the local mushroom deep fried in a salty spicy batter.
“I've never had KFC but I imagine this is what it would be like” says Hannah holding up a curly fungi tendril in batter.
Its delicious – at almost 6 pounds each for the meal and drinks its expensive by Chinese standards and I have a feeling we are being charged tourist rates. But hey - its worth it.