China Travels #3: Dali

Monday 1st June

We stayed at the Jade Emu Hostel which is one of the best hostels I have stayed in terms of their food, services and facilities. The Happy Dragon Hostel in Beijing is still probably better yet Jade Emu was still good quality. I had booked for us to stay in an eight bed dormitory however when we were showed to the room, we chose to change. Well, mainly I did. This was because I can’t sleep in the light so I need it to be as dark as possible. One side of the whole room was completely glass so there was a high chance of me waking up around sunrise every morning. Hence we changed to a four bed room. The added benefit was that it had an ensuite bathroom too! When we moved in there was already a young Chinese guy staying there called Mâjūn. He was very friendly and chatty which was lovely! He was staying at the hostel because he was playing guitar as entertainment on weekends and going around Dali in the daytime to earn money. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening walking around 大理古镇 – Dali Old Town. First priority was feeding a starving Lisa, then we proceeded to try a variety of local food and snacks (which were going to write about). Dali really surprised us. We were expecting quite a simple, typical Chinese town where they only sell a few souvenirs and have a lot of street food. But no, it was a vibrant, loud and colourful scene. There is a lot of western influence. We’re a bit baffled as to how a small city in the far west of untouched, poorer China can be so ‘in the know’ about western food and some bits and bobs. Nevertheless it was fantastic. Nor does the western overpower the Chinese culture, but rather they merge together in a form of harmony.

There are lots of shop vendors selling clothing, embroidery, jewellery etc. as well as people on the street selling handmade gifts, postcards, airbrush tattoos and food. The Chinese style buildings remind you you’re in China still but I don’t mean this to say that we felt like we weren’t, but rather it made it feel that extra special and beautiful. Lisa found it a too western for her liking at first however she started to warm to it and after an hour (and some delicious snacks) I’d say she embraced it. Many of the locals wear traditional embroidered outfits, use baskets strapped on like backpacks to carry food, items or tools around. This part of Yunnan is meant to house the Bai culture but we couldn’t tell exactly what this is… So my assumption is that it is a culture mix of Tibet and China. Many of the locals are very tanned, work the land and don’t live in the material world at all. I am glad we saw another dimension to China because it is definitely not a country to take for face value. It is a very happy, chilled and energetic place. I can definitely see why it has been named one of the most beautiful places in China, and why 1,600 hostels or guest houses have been opened in the area in the past year and a half. We walked to both the East and South Gates, walking along an old part of the wall for one bit, and once it grew dark we headed back to our beds. And welcomed a long earned nights sleep.

Tuesday 2nd June

Having had the best nights sleep in a while, we started the day in slow motion. I had an amazing breakfast: a proper real salmon and cream cheese baguette. Lisa had two poached eggs and a bread roll. At eleven o’clock we finally made tracks to go up 苍山 ‘cangshan mountain’. The hostel told us that a taxi would only cost about twenty to thirty kuai which would save us a bus ride and a thirty minute extra walk in the heat. We headed off to the West Gate of the Old Town to flag down a taxi and ended up getting an unofficial one. This isn’t a *really* dodgy thug to do on China as there are so many people who do it to make that extra cash, you just have to be careful of pricing and make sure you size them up before you even agree to get in their vehicle. It took us about forty five minutes when it should have taken twenty. Firstly because the hostel wasn’t clear in telling us there were three ways to go up the mountain and which was the side we should ascend. So we had a long discussion with the taxi driver about where to go. We decided to go to the one that was cheapest – as he was telling us one would cost two hundred kuai to go on – and realised it was the chairlift that we wanted to come back down. So for a few extra kuai he took us to the right cable car and soon enough, up we went. The reasons we didn’t walk were 1. We were still shattered from the gorge and 2. The path is very unclear and more of a nuisance than a pleasure to climb. The walk along the mountain was very easy because it was flat and paved well the entire twelve kilometres. It took us three hours because we just wandered slowly and chatted. Plus the view back over Dali and the 洱海湖 ‘ErHai Lake’ was great however there were so many tall trees we only caught glimpses of it as we followed the trail. Towards the end of the trail we ran into Glenn and Frank! The two Californians we had met in the Gorge. They offered to meet for a drink down in the old town and it would be rude to refuse so we happily accepted. We planned to meet at half past seven because Lisa and I were aiming to get to the Three Pagodas after the mountain. 

The pagodas are different to others in China because they are made of stone. They are impressive because they have stood for almost two thousand years (from about 600AD) and have never called down or crumbled despite the amount of earthquakes that Yunnan province has suffered over that period of time! But, sigh, we didn’t make it. We went into the maze of the old town to get a late lunch and ended up staying there. We were at the Tibetan Café an hour early to meet Glenn and Frank because we were hot and (somehow) quite exhausted. Whilst passing the time I spotted a couple we had met in Lijiang, Jane and we’ve forgotten the guy’s name… and we called out to them. They came and sat with us for a bit and we had a friendly chat for a while. They told us what they had got up to in Dali and recommended a Mexican place called the Blue Gecko. Soon enough they were off to pack for leaving the next day. Glenn and Frank arrived on time and we had a good chat, sharing our travels so far and the future ones. We ended up in the Blue Gecko for dinner and it was fantastic! I had a huge food baby at the end of it but man it was luxury. I had a Mexican beef enchilada and a banana and chocolate pancake. Lisa just had a pancake as she was quite full from lunch and the mango shake she had at the café. A few people have commented that I don’t eat a lot on this her abroad but seriously: I do. After a fantastic meal and good company, we parted ways and said goodbye. I was very happy to find myself in bed half an hour later. 

Wednesday 3rd June

Today we were the opposite to what we were the day before: we were up early and out to catch a bus to 喜洲 ‘Xizhou’ to go to a morning market in that ancient town. For the first hour both Lisa and I were a bit out of it as good quality sleep had avoided us during the night. Plus, a new dorm member – a middle aged Chinese man – moved in and guess what? He snores. 

The bus dropped us and we walked into the village. The little square was small but pretty. We asked where the market was and followed the ladys instructions to find a street teeming with people carrying various items around. The market was standard, selling many fruits, vegetables and meats. However it seems that these markets also provide what a supermarket would for us back home. There were stalls full of household items, clothes, hats, tools etc. half an hour passed and we found that there wasn’t much else to see. So we wandered through other parts of the small town and found ourselves back in the centre square. This is when we decided to brave it and rent an e-bike for a day! It was only fifty kuai (£5). We were told that it could go fifty kilometres before needing to be charged. The designs on the bikes are not too varied. We had the choice of the American flag, French flag, American dollar bills, skulls or a pink Hello Kitty. You’ll be glad to know we chose the pink one! It felt the most appropriate and through my time in China I’ve seemed to pick a lot of pink things. XD so we took the keys and off we went. Well, we practiced first and almost crashed into various innocent people, other ebikes and lamp posts. With fear in bystanders’ eyes, I took the first turn driving out of the village.. We survived! And it was fantasssssstic. We were just so happy. The sun was glowing in the sky, we were driving along the side of a glittering lake, the wind blowing making us feel like we’re in a movie. We travelled up to 桃源码头 ‘Taoyuan Port’ to watch the locals use cormorant birds  to catch fish. It was quite pricey but we were able to go on a row boat out onto the lake which was really relaxing. We also had a go at rowing but were not as good as the boatman at all! Once back on dry land we still had an afternoon to kill so we headed to another small town called 周成 ‘ZhouCheng’ which was basically, just a town. Although I did give myself a bit of a challenge driving down the narrow and pretty bumpy streets. There were quite a few tight corners to navigate! The locals were probably thinking: “Silly Laowai”. But I was successful in not driving us into a wall or into a drain! Once back out on the safer lakeside road, Lisa had a try at driving. Safe to say we were almost down in the ditch, marsh or in a field but after a few tries she was a natural. I think that as I’m heavier it may have affected the balance of the bike thus harder for her to get started… Nevertheless we were off again! We drove for a while until we reached a road with cars where we swapped again as I am more confident with traffic. This is when we got a bit over confident and chose to try and get to Dali Old Town because we didn’t want to return the bike yet. We only travelled about ten kilometres until the bike started to slow a litre and barely accelerated when I turned the throttle. So we had to leave at a petrol station to charge! How hilarious that we had got ourselves slightly stranded. We walked a little along the main road hoping to find a small set of houses to find shelter from the burning sun but alas, no, we were surrounded by fields. One of the great things about China is some local buses (not the big ones with numbers but ones that are going from one place to another) will stop and pick you up anywhere along the route. This is exactly what we did. By this point I was getting pretty sunburnt (as usual) despite the application of sun cream! 

Eventually (ten kilometres later) we arrived in Dali and dragged ourselves from the east side to the west side in search of refreshments and shade. I bought a big floaty top to protect my skin and we found ourselves back in the Tibetan Cafe to relax. Exhaustion consumed me and I had a nap on one of the big comfy sofas. I felt bad that I did because it left Lisa having to entertain  herself however she seemed pretty happy on the wifi! It was five o’clock when I woke and had been two hours since we’d left the bike to charge. In order to get back to it we chose to catch a taxi to save time and faff. Our excitement grew again as we neared the petrol station and were happy to find it had not been stolen. To be honest, China does generally feel safe. People aren’t interested in what isn’t theirs. They may stare at you if you’re a laowai, but they’d never approach you or do anything (unless by the for chance they are a pickpocket…). Soon enough we were back on the road, me being glad I had slept so Lisa didn’t have to drive on the car filled road. It was a beautiful ride home. We had the best day. It started off slow and groggy but ended up being fantastic and sometimes those days are the best because it’s unexpected. We then caught a bus back to Dali, found dinner and eventually our beds. 

One moment we had in our dorm room which was hilarious:

“You have really long toes by the way. You know, if you have long toes you’re meant to grow really tall. So you’re in proportion.” – One of Lisa’s finest moments. 

Thursday 4th June

Today we had a train booked to Kunming at 10:16. Of course, there has to be one mishap for every trip I go on. And this was it. The train tickets were booked for the 4th May! Flipping heck… Luckily there were still seats available on the same train and on the right day. It was a slow train. The train journey is seven looooong hours sat in upright seats, music playing and no good food in sight. It is one of those journeys which is torture until you’re about to arrive and think: “well that wasn’t that bad eh?” Lisa, the serial napper, was able to get some alright quality shut eye for the first hour and a half. For the rest of it we just chatted, I read a little and we listened to her phone’s music. She introduced me to some Korean music that we sometimes here in shopping centres. ‘K-Pop’ is really massive here in China and among Asian communities. And I have to say, it’s pretty catchy! Since spending time around Sooguen and Jisoo and hearing them chat in Korean to each other, I think that it’s actually quite a pretty language and nice to listen to. My favourite song at the moment is called ‘Blue’ by Big Bang. 😋 

Eventually we arrived in Kunming and caught the bus to the hostel. It was thankfully easy to find. It is called the Kunming Cloudland Hostel and the outside was painted a mustard yellow. Something fun to look at! Once we ditched our stuff we went back to the pedestrian street 南平路 to eat dinner (and to have another fried potato snack heheheh). One of the vendors of the potato snack even recognised me! He said: 好久不见 which means “long time no see”! 😄 We had fried rice for dinner which was delicious and headed back to sleep. Unfortunately I didn’t sleep well. At one in the morning I wrote this rant: Okay. I don’t understand how so many people can tolerate sleeping in a dorm with Chinese men. I thought that it wouldn’t be a problem, that our stay in Qingdao was a one off stroke of bad luck. However I have been proved wrong. It’s always the older men (around thirty and upwards). And I’m getting closer and closer to throwing my pillow at them. I cannot wait to return to the peace of Ningbo (to collect the rest of my belongings) to a bedroom I can call my own. Our one night in Kunming is proving to be the hottest so far and the snoring hasn’t relented since the guy fell asleep around eleven. (It’s one o’clock now.) and you won’t believe it. An old (60 odd) guy in the bunk below me (who isn’t Chinese) has just started snoring. It’s as if the snoring gods are punishing me for having a little rant about it. Man alive…. But the worse I sleep, I fear I’ll get really grumpy. And no one wants that. 

The following morning was a slow one. We managed to go to Walmart so I could buy a few snacks for our flight from Kunming to Chongqing. But that was about it. We were due to fly at 16:20 and left on time! Chongqing here we come….