Saturday, May 30, 2009
I think it will get better after the big anniversary next week, but otherwise, I'll post everything next time I'm out of China and look for a better fix.
Thursday, May 28, 2009
It's pricey and touristy, too, but if you walk away from the main strips, the charm is intoxicating. Wandering around up the hill, I found a Daoist temple perched over the city. The temple master gave me a reading (nothing too interesting: I'm very lucky, as are my parents, and I'll live for a long time), rang bells around my head, read my face and palm, gave me a cloth to stick under my pillow for good luck, etc., etc. It was kind of a scam (he asked for 200 RMB afterward, but I gave him a fraction of that), but I went with it because I wanted to see all of the traditions.
Another day, Holly and I went to see a 90-minute performance by the Naxi Orchestra, a group comprised of several 80-year-olds and younger players, who played traditional instruments and songs.
The Nature Conservancy runs a small museum in town. Everyone but me found it incredibly boring, but I liked the portion where they compared photos from the '20s (including some taken by Joseph Rock, the naturalist who lived in the region for 20-something years and wrote for National Geographic) with photos taken from the same spot recently to show changes to the environment.
If you're going: We bought bus tickets from travel agent in Dali's old town (45 RMB each). Our hotel, Wan Chun Yuan Guesthouse (70 RMB a night for a double, negotiated down from 80), was down a back alley, and—like most places in town—easy to find if you know where you're going but impossible to give directions to. It had a pretty courtyard with potted orchids and cackling caged birds that woke us up at the crack of dawn.
Thursday, May 07, 2009
Dali is charming enough, but the best parts are outside of town. Four of us rented bikes to zip around Er Hai ("Ear Lake") just outside of the city. We cut through soybean and rice fields, where farmers worked by hand and wound through narrow alleys of white buildings with black tile roofs and paintings on the walls—the white reminded me a little of the south of Spain.
We made it as far as the old city of Xizhou, but by then we were so worn out from the rock-hard rental-bike seats that I'm not sure we enjoyed the city and it's central food market enough.
The next day, we took cable cars up to the Higherland Inn, halfway up the mountain. The sprawling view of Er Hai and Dali from the cable car was somewhat marred by a loudspeaker blaring rules in Chinese and an instrumental version of Berlin's "Take my Breath Away."
According to their flier, the inn is a 10-minute hike or 150 meters up from the cable car, but learn from my pain: It is a long, steep walk (150 meters, as the crow flies, maybe, or maybe, as an American, I don't really understand what a meter is?!). Pack light or stash your backs back in Dali.
We shared the inn's family-style dinner (pumpkin soup, scrambled eggs and tomato, beef and tomatoes, some cold veggies) with other backpackers. The next morning we took an easy (flat) three-hour hike and stopped halfway to sun and swim in a waterfall, the Seven Dragon Maiden Pools.
Monday, May 04, 2009
But despite that, we didn't see a lot of backpackers—just Chinese tourists. The town was lovely and sleepy, tucked into the mountains and filled with preserved old buildings. The coffee and chocolate pancakes were tempting, but I tried to sample some of the local dishes: fried goat cheese with ham and a thick greasy scallion pancake for breakfast; Bai-style dishes including hot and sour fish, white beans, potato pancake, and fried goat cheese with ham and vegetables for dinner at Bamboo Cafe.
After dinner, we went up the block to Bad Monkey to meet a friend of my friend in Beijing. An expat in Kunming recommended the bar, as well, and it seemed to be the only bustling place in old town. Inside, we found the most obscure and reprehensible minority of all: white boys with dreadlocks.
We had a flaming drink, split through three straws in honor of my "30 days to 30" birthday. My friend's friend explained that it's hard to get things done in Dali and the town's hippie vibe can get tiresome.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons: Marijuana, apparently, grows wild in the region. As you sit around cafes, old ladies in ethnic outfits pull silver bracelets, chopstick sets, and beaded necklaces, bargaining hard to unload the local crafts. After some hustling, they lean in and whisper, "You want the ganja?" "After dinner, you smoke!"
I negotiated a ride to Dali (about 5 hours away) for 100 kuai each. I thought we were going in a car, but we ended up stacked in a minibus. In front of me, a woman sat on a stranger's lap. Four people shared the back seat. Somehow, one of my friends (Lost Girl Holly) snagged the front passenger seat.
The driver played Kenny G and classical music as we cut through the mountains and small villages. We arrived safely, but still had to take a 40 kuai cab ride from where the bus let us out to our hostel in the old city.
The Friends Guesthouse, just outside the south wall of old town, was locked up when we arrived at midnight. They let us in, but the place was completely sleepy. The next day, we checked into Koreana Guesthouse, in the more lively center of town, but there was still no one hanging around the lobby and restaurant and the doors shut at midnight. (Rooms at both places were about 70 RMB a night for doubles, if I remember correctly.)
Saturday, May 02, 2009
"I remember ten years ago I was in India, sitting in a temple built into a banyan tree. We were passing around a joint and strumming guitars. Holy cows walked by," recalled a guy we met while hiking along the Tiger Leaping Gorge.
He was nice enough, but desperate for conversation. He'd been on the road for years, collecting stories across South America and Asia, wearing shoes some Belgian guy gave him.
I meet a lot of these transient people when I'm traveling around China. They move from place to place having only the most superficial and temporary friendships and don't have any idea where they'll end up. In Xinjiang, there was a Brit en route to Pakistan who only ate Western food and cereal—he said he traveled not for the places but the fellow travelers you meet. These people always seem a little lost and needy—they want to make friends but can't have stable relationships at home.
As much as I like to travel, being on the road—and meeting people who are five, ten year veterans of overnight trains and hostel dorms—makes me appreciate having places to go back to in Beijing, New York, and Tallahassee.
Still, the people you meet along the way: A group of people stopped our bus on the way back from the gorge. Two guys, Dutch and German, got on with blue and red mini-guitars. They (kind of horribly and too loud) played love songs they wrote and things like John Mayer—when they played "Your Body Is a Wonderland" I was glad I was sitting up front so no one could see me nearly spit out the water I was drinking. They said they were doctors (unlikely) and told somewhat unbelievable stories about traveling around South Africa together.
They carried about three bags each. When we ran into the pair—who I dubbed A Night at the Roxbury—on their way out in Lijiang as we were on our way in for the night, they had gelled hair and reeked of cologne (ID'ed by Holly as Acqua di Gio)—fresh off two days of hiking!
It was fun to meet other travelers, especially since I had three friends to joke about them with, but back in Beijing, I'm happy to have my own bed and friends' parties and concerts to go to.