Asia | China | Yunnan Province | Dali – Dali country
We met up with Mom in Kunming and headed to Dali. It’s the first time I’ve traveled with the whole family since high school, except this time I’m the one looking after them instead of the other way around. It should be an interesting experience.
The arid landscape was rather depressing compared to the verdant tapestry I was accustomed to in Gejiu, but the emergence of Cangshan Mountain softened the image somewhat as we approached Dali. We got conned by a taxi driver and hotel team right after getting off the bus, and took the 100 yuan loss with stride and protested by marching over to a hostel next door, which impressed with me its tasteful layout. Their receptionists actually smiled. That was a first in China.
Dali reminded me of a salad bowl culture where each piece of its character is kept separate but altogether harmonious. We got the ultimate tourist experience walking down the pedestrian street in the center of town, and window-shopped the local specialties ranging from batik cloth and marble products to preserved plums. The locals still based their social life around the center of town, too. Young parents were taking their after-dinner strolls with their toddlers, and some older kids played badminton right in front of the heavy red doors of a mansion that used to belong to a local general. In the community cultural center, we watched some older men playing chess, read newspaper in the local library, and saw a high school girl’s basketball game from the 3rd floor balcony. It wasn’t hard at all to understand why everyone who’s been to Dali at one point wanted to stay.
The charm of old town Dali soon erased memory of the initial unpleansant encounter. Dali after all had been the capital of the Dali Kingdom for over 500 years, and has maintained a strong hold on its own Bai nationality culture after hundreds of years of Chinese occupation and amidst the western cultural infusion brought by tourism. The typical Bai house has concave gray tile roofs and white walls adorned with black ink painting. A pair of couplet (two phrases that rhyme and correspond in meaning) hung by the doorframe of each of these houses in town, a Chinese practice abandoned in bigger cities. Yet on every street corner, we saw English signs for cafes, tourist agencies, and bookstores.
We walked into such a bookstore, and found ‘Soul Mountain’, the first Chinese language book to win a Nobel prize. The owner, and erudite young man, was busy translating an English book from his desk. When we asked him whether the government had banned ‘Soul Mountain’, he gave us a sly smile and said, ‘Not here.’ I told him how impressive the collection in the store was, and he showed us his private collection shelf, including the original edition of ‘The Forgotten Kingdom’. He then told us that he’s a native of Dali, and studied engineering in Shanghai. But his true passion was books, so he opened a cafe down the road to support himself, and just lately this bookstore. ‘It’s not a job,’ he told me. Indeed, he seemed untroubled by the lack of business during our hour-long chat.