Thursday, April 16, 2009

Dali Days

I met Stefan at a hostel in Kunming and together we headed to Dali to make it in time for the San yue jie, a festival that brings together villagers from various ethnic backgrounds. We arrived at the bus station and were assured by people that we were going to Dali even though the ticket had a different name. We were going to arrive to the newer city about 20k south of Dali's old city. As we waited for our bus to leave a man selling newspapers walked on the bus and slowly passed each passenger showing them the newspaper. He was trying to entice us to buy a newspaper with a huge front page photo of a bus perched on the side of a mountain; an accident that had occurred early that week. Not exactly what you want to see before taking off on a six hour bus ride.

Once in the new city we took a shuttle bus to the old city and were dropped off just outside the city's old wall and across from the bustling festival market. We wound our way past vendors and eventually settled on the International Guest House away from the crowded tourist area. Dali is a rare place in China as many old and new generation hippies have settled in the laid-back city and walking the streets you'll see handicrafts from the local Bai women as well as handmade jewelry from hippie westerners.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are displayed in front of most restaurants and waiters stand in front luring people inside. Mushrooms in several varieties are native around Dali and on our first night we joined a young Swiss student for a meal consisting of about five different mushrooms in different dishes.

I loved taking walks through the old streets around our guesthouse where there are still signs of old Bai style architecture and many families live behind large wooden doors leading into courtyards.

On our second day, Stefan and I went to wander through the festival market. At the start we felt like we were walking through a sidewalk sale with vendors standing on ladders or wearing signs to advertise discounts on clothing, shoes and household goods. Further up the hill we came across the huge food area with makeshift restaurants lined up under tents. Gigantic woks cooked rice while other cooks prepared countless chickens.

Very popular booths were dedicated to Chinese and Tibetan medicines. Tables were stacked high with dried plants, insects, turtle shells, roots, bark, animal parts and other unidentifiable items. At one booth a Tibetan woman called to us to join her for a rest. We spent the next hour chatting with her in my broken Chinese. She was a patient with my limited vocabulary and we learned that she and her husband make the long journey from Lhasa, Tibet each year for the festival. They live in the tent, sleeping in small beds that were tucked in the back corner. Yak hair hung from the top of the tent and as I talked with her about my ailing back I kept brushing up against it. My Tibetan doctor took my pulse and prescribed some medicine that I know comes from a bear in the Himalayas. I found out later from a Scottish researcher that it's likely bile from the bear's gallbladder. Mixed in tea and taken twice a day were my instructions. She also gave me some liquid to apply and she made it clear that it was not for eating. The medicine was wretched and it took a lot to choke it down. I have to say that it has helped!

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