Monday, February 18, 2013

Finding the Hippie Haven in Dali


"What is the name of the place again?" I asked from across the bonfire.

"Dali," Sarah says. "It's this hippie town in Yunnan, China. When it gets hot here after the cool season, I think I'll go there." Sarah, as with many others gathered around the fire with us, was an American expat who spent the last few months here in Pai, Northern Thailand's own hippie town. For hippies, Sarah and the others who have made a home in Pai seemed very well dressed and cleaned up. Perhaps it was the remarkably cold weather, which had us donning all of our clothing in our tropically packed backpacks.

It was my first time in Pai but having been here for only three days, and despite the town's growing tourist kitsch, I understood why Sarah and the others stayed as long and why she was searching for another cool and laid-back hippie haven like this.

It was not the first time though that I was hearing about Dali. The province of Yunnan, China has always been in my radar for a number of reasons and Dali, in my hippie wannabe aspirations, is an obligatory stopover. Back when the Banana Pancake Trail of Southeast Asia used to be a hippie trail, as all backpacker trails began, Dali formed part of it.

Gate to the Old Town, Dali, Yunnan, China
Gates to the Old Town of Dali

I reckon I was the only foreigner sitting in the bus that day a couple of months later as it made its way from the outskirts of the capital of Yunnan province, Kunming, along China's immaculately maintained motorways, passing by small villages with mud walls and terra cotta rooftops.

I was currently learning the harsh lesson that you do not want to sit right behind a bus driver in China. Smoking here is prevalent and very much tolerated. Everywhere is fair game, including a vehicle, a closed moving vehicle. The window beside me opened only a quarter of the way and truth be told, that was probably for the best, too. The cold wind is already blasting my cold face numb.


The White Houses

A few hours ahead, houses with white walls began lining the highway. I knew I was close.

Dali is home to the Bai, one of the many ethnic minorities who reside in Yunnan province in China's Southwest. Bai means "white" in the local language as well as in Mandarin. The Bai people are known for their distinct architecture. Their houses are usually small, one or two storeys tall. Dwellings surround a courtyard and walls are painted white, decorated with clean, crisp, and exquisite depictions of Yunnanese landscapes: falls, rivers, mountains and lush forests.

Acres of villages and paddy fields dotted with the white houses of the Bai make up what is Dali in Central Yunnan. Those and the unbelievably beautiful combination of the snow-clad Cang Shan (Green Mountains) on one side and the perpetually serene Erhai Hu (Ear-shaped Lake) on the other.

Dali, Yunnan, China
Erhai Hu and the Old Town viewed from the slopes of Cang Shan

Old Town, Dali, Yunnan, China Old Town, Dali, Yunnan, China
The white houses of the Bai lining the narrow lanes of the Old Town

The cab dropped me off at a small uphill street which juts off from the Tibet-Yunnan Highway, right outside the high fortifications of Dali Old Town. This is where I am to shack up in the next few days. This is where later on I am to meet people with whom I would bond over exhausting mountain hikes in Dali and with whom I would keep in touch many months later.

The Jade Roo and Jade Emu International Hostels, sister properties obviously, have a very laid-back Aussie vibe, again obviously, which apparently works well with the traditional Bai designs of the buildings and the courtyards. Inside each hostel is a reception desk which serves as the snack and drinks bar. Tables and chairs are laid out at the courtyards and hostel guests are free to challenge Dave, the owner, who hails from Australia at a pool game for a free beer. Dave, who has settled permanently in Dali with his lovely wife of Chinese descent and their very bilingual toddler, always wins.


Dull Colors, Lively Vibe

Settled in and camera at the ready, it did not take long before I found myself walking along the narrow lanes of the Old Town. Dali architecture uses the very neutral, some would say dull, colors of white and gray. The vibe, however, was far from neutral or dull. Visitors descend upon the pedestrianized parts of the lovely Old Town each day. The same narrow lanes fill to the brim with travelers and tourists of all types, many of them Chinese. Some of them in big hordes, involving banners, megaphones and, bizarrely enough, tour group ID cards prominently displayed on their chests. You can always count on the Chinese to industrialize fun.

Lining the narrow lanes are shops after shops of tourist trinkets, clothing, tea leaves, coffee beans, and all sorts of snacks. There are deep-fried potatoes and hotdogs (very western) liberally sprinkled with a dry mix of spicy peppers and very pungent herbs (very Chinese). The ever-present jiaozi or steamed dumplings served with a condiment of soy sauce and vinegar are here, too. The dish I fell in love with, however, the dish that sustained me day in and day out, the dish that I would yearn for again and again after I leave, is jīdòu líangfěn.

Jīdòu líangfěn is a bowl of noodles and is actually made from mung beans or monggo. Starch from the beans is extracted and set aside to form a cold gelatinous blob. Round and flat noodles are shaved off from this gelatinous blob and then mixed with a potent combination of spices, chilies, oils, and nuts making for one bowl of something good. At five kwai a bowl, jīdòu líangfěn became my go-to meal. It grew on me that this bowl of noodles was actually cold.

Old Town, Dali, Yunnan, China
Tourist descend upon the Old Town of Dali day in and day out.

Old Town, Dali, Yunnan, China Dali Old Town, Yunnan, China
The pedestrianized walking street of the Old Town, oddly with only a few tourists.

Jidou Liangfen in Old Town, Dali, Yunnan, China
Jīdòu líangfěn or mung bean noodles. It's eaten cold and usually a little bit too spicy, and I love it.


Between a Rock and a Serene Lake

Tummy full of jīdòu líangfěn, I hopped on the electric motorbike I rented at Jade Roo International Hostel and headed down to the lake. Crowds actually thin out and streets get wider along the way. People and houses then give way to paddy fields as far as the eye can see. A few minutes ahead and I reached a dock by the water.

Situated at almost 2,000 meters above sea level, Erhai Hu is an alpine lake in Central Yunnan on the western banks of which the Old Town of Dali is found. It is quiet and serene out here. To the distance, you might see Bai fishermen practicing an ancient form of fishing. The Bai fishermen train cormorants, which are medium to large seabirds, to swoop down to the water and catch fish. On the way back, you might see the setting sun hidden by the clouds perfectly creating crepuscular rays. Stunning is the word.

Scenes near Erhai Lake, Dali, Yunnan, China
Scenes at Erhai Hu in Dali. A big can of crepuscular rays.

In the quest of more stunning sights, I headed out early the next morning to what may be considered Dali's main tourist attraction. To many including myself, the entrance fee to the Three Pagodas Temple complex at 121 kwai seems a bit too much. Then I thought I was here anyway, so I might as well cough up the hefty fee.

Almost the exclusive iconic symbol of Dali the city and the county, the Three Pagodas Temple complex features one tower with 16 tiers rising to 70 meters and two towers with 10 tiers rising to 42 meters. Things get unbelievably picturesque as the pagodas as well as the large gateways behind the pagodas are set against the backdrop of the snow-clad Cang Shan, which rise up more than 3,500 meters above sea level.

Three Pagodas Complex, Dali, Yunnan, China
Unbelievably picturesque. The Three Pagodas Temple in Dali.

The Three Pagodas Temple complex is huge and takes a bit of an effort to explore. The grounds hug the slopes of Cang Shan so that it gradually rises as you go deeper into the courtyards.

Tired from all the walking, I took a breather on one of the steps fronting a large gate. I realized that the hippie haven I actually came to Dali for is no longer here, or at least, it would take a bit more digging to find it. Foreigner Street, the hippie enclave in the Old Town, still exists, only more gentrified these days with bars, shops, and restaurants.

I cannot be disappointed, however. Looking at the Dali from here, I see the beautiful Erhai Hu and the white houses of the Old Town from afar. I turn around and I see towering pagodas, imposing arches, and Cang Shan behind them. I understood why hippies would like it here. I can see myself living here.

Back at the hostel, I saw posters for special offers for long-term guests as well as brochures for Chinese language classes. I entertained the idea. The hippie in me smiled and thought, "One day. Maybe. Just Maybe."


*A ton more photos of Dali in Central Yunnan in my Flickr sets:
China: Dali, Yunnan
China: Sights in Dali, Yunnan


Which destinations in the world did you find you can live in?


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