Day 3, Xizhou, and we meet Hom, our Bai guide for the next three days. He takes us to the market, where we get our first glimpse of Bai women in their national dress, selling all kinds of magnificent fruit – huge green mangoes with bright orange flesh, bayberries, redcurrants, mulberries, large crisp red apples, nectarines and peaches, as well as all the greens – pak choi, choi sum, kai lan, cabbages of all shapes and sizes, red and green spinach, spring onions and chives all shapes and sizes,the list is endless. Plus the more revolting sights of a woman beheading chickens, fly-blown meat, fish, eels and frogs in tanks – we are in China, after all.
Our supposed two-hour sojourn on the lake, to partake of its ‘tranquility’ turns out to be a quick row out to where a grumpy fisherman is demonstrating fishing with cormorants. We are just one boat of about five, full of Chinese tourists, but luckily we have our boat to ourselves. It is a sign of things to come…We watch with fascinated repulsion as the cormorant catches a big carp, which the fisherman extricates out of his crop…several times.
We are glad to be on our way to visit Dali old town at last. Our young German friend told us that Dali used to be a backpacker haven in the 80s as marijuana grows wild here; artistic hippy communities sprung up as people gravitated towards their own version of Shangri-La. The Chinese were intrigued by this phenomenon of poor westerners so they started to visit Dali too. As China woke up to internal tourism as a source of revenue, the old was renovated to make way for the new: this meant knocking everything down and recreating it in a faux charmant olde worlde style. Now there are over 2000 hotels and not enough people to fill them: the locals believed this to be a get-rich-quick plan. And the ribbon development is a mass of half-finished buildings.
So this is the ancient Kingdom of Dali, which was sacked by Kublai Khan in 1252, and only incorporated into China thereafter as part of the Yuan dynasty. It fell into a lawless and bandit state, with the tea caravans being lucrative targets, until the war with the Japanese in the 1930s catapulted it into back into importance as a critical supply route to relieve the Kuomintang Army, via the building of the Burma Road and the help of American airdrops.
Dali is heaving with Chinese visitors of all shapes and sizes when we arrive. Floral headdresses are for sale everywhere, and the ladies snap them up. Chinese women tourists are always dressed up to the nines – in an array of flowing, chiffon-style robes, lacy shorts, big colourful straw hats and, invariably, high heels, not at all practical for the cobbled streets. Selfies are de-rigeur here, and we come across a couple of wedding photo shoots by the city walls.
Later, Nini, our Lijiang guide, tells us this is because they come to such places specially to have beautiful holiday snaps, so they must always look their best. We are underwhelmed by the hundreds of tacky souvenir shops and restaurants serving spaghetti and hamburgers (Chinese tourists love western food, especially Pizza Hut), but impressed that the Catholic Cathedral survived the Cultural Revolution. Both Islam and Christianity have been quite strong here in the past, and continue to be so. We do like the Union Jack scooters that are everywhere.
After lunch (not too exciting: local spring rolls, stir-fried beef and vegetables) we visit the city’s most famous monument – the Three Pagodas. They are meant to reflect in the ornamental pools, but the wind is too strong. We bump into some young girls, one of whom insists on lending me her floral headdress for communal photos (see above). In the evening we are treated to a concert of traditional Bai music at the Linden Centre, and Ferdinand, the son of some friends, joins us. He has settled in Dali: no, not as a hippy, but to teach Jiu Jitsu with his American girlfriend. They live in an 18-room house that costs £2000 for a three-year lease…
Day 4 dawns grey although we can just see the Cang Shang mountains, where we are headed for a 12 km hike along the Jade Belt route. We ascend in a bubble lift, then up 300 steps to the beginning of the path, which is beautifully laid in hand-hewn rocks, set out in patterns. There are signs along the route, pointing out geological features, endangered animals and plants and we are constantly exhorted not to linger due to dangers of ‘falling rock’.
We are lucky, we see a rare pheasant with huge black and white tail feathers, with a gash of burned amber, and a big ruff, some squirrels and rare butterflies. The weather brightens up and we amble along at my pace, stopping for drinks and a picnic comprising buckwheat ‘babas’ that Ross bought in the market – a pizza-like round, with egg and bacon, rather delicious.
There are vey few people out and about – Jeannie Linden tells us that Chinese on the whole on come on holiday to shop and eat (and take selfies!). A couple of young guys think they are very cool as they walk along playing Chinese pop music; they also decide we are very interesting and it takes us a while to shake them off. Finally we arrive at the temple – Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist – that marks the end of the route, and we descend by chairlift over deserted graveyards, littered with bedraggled paper money left for the ancestors.
We are sad to leave the Linden Centre but happy to be travelling onward to Shaxi for a night and then to Lijiang. Shaxi is supposed to be more off the beaten track and it is a rather sleepy town, but building work is in full swing. Our bed for the night is in an old coaching inn, the Laomadian, with planks for walls opening on to a central courtyard, filled with camellias, pomegranate, bougainvillea and orchids. Quite charming.
On the way we stop off at the ancient Shibao Shan grottos and the Shizhong Temple. set steeply into a hillside, you can only reach the temple via stone steps. By this time my rather vague headache has become insistent, and the sun is beating down; somehow I make it round the 6 sculpted caves; the last one is a carving of female genitals, one of a kind! A site for pilgrims seeking fertility we are told.
By the time we reach Shaxi, I am feeling terrible and glad to sit down in the garden of the restaurant where we are to have lunch. More snow peas with ham – but very salty – stir-fried aubergine, and Yunnan potatoes mashed with pickles and chives. Ross declares everything delicious, but I can barely eat a thing, I am feeling so rough.
I manage to rest in the guest house, and have a bit of soup for supper, before retiring to bed with a fever. I hate being ill on holiday, and can only think that it is altitude sickness, brought on by over-exertion on the walk – it was about 2400m after all – and the various stresses of my book, planning permission issues with Camden Council and my sore shoulder, which is getting WORSE!
In the morning we call in on the pharmacy, which turns out to be of the Traditional Chinese Medicine variety. The dear doctor feels my pulse, and looks at my tongue, before prescribing me a couple of sets of tablets, one of which is honeysuckle compound. I wolf them down; and miraculously after half an hour the excruciating ache in my neck and head has subsided. Onwards and upwards…
Next stop: Lijiang…