Loving life in China-lite. Dali, Yunnan, China

December 16, 2009 at 2:00 pm 1 comment

Sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure that this isn’t a dream – that this is actually my life. This week alone my disbelief has resulted in three dead arms and a dead leg, most of which were Gary’s. Here are some snapshots from the last few days – me dancing on a bar in jeans and runners with my new best friends; Gary having to get off his bike and stare, open-mouthed at the sight of an old woman hunched over at work, dwarfed by a never-ending patchwork of rice paddies; the two of us devouring delicious Tibetan yak and goat’s cheese goulash; dozens of kids in canary yellow caps screaming “Hello! I love you!” at us and then running away giggling uncontrollably. I repeat, this is my life. Mine. Not Bruce Parry’s or David Attenborough’s (although I’m not convinced that the local Chinese boys would be as impressed by his ass waggling on a bar), just mine and Gary’s lives for the next 11 months.

More to the point, this is Dali – miraculous, sunny, westernised Dali. According to my guidebook Dali is “China-lite” – still China but in theme-park mode, with everything the average starry-eyed backpacker or bohemian expat needs to survive. From what I can see this means more western toilets, more souvenier stands, more english menus, more neon lights, more burger bars, more English pubs, more cobbled streets and far more pale skin. Put simply, Dali has everything that most travellers will spend every day trying to avoid but will begin to crave once night falls on another food-poisoned, isolated day and with the risk of incurring the scorn of seasoned travellers and Lonely Planet devotees worldwide, we love it. After feeling like fish out of water thus far in China, the familiarity of the city and its residents emboldened us to try more new food and befriend a lot more locals than we did anywhere else. Hell, we even attempted a three day, 150km cycle without a map. China-lite or no China-lite, Dali is China with training wheels – perfect for backpackers still a little wet behind the ears.

It has to be said that a lot of our Dali experience centred around the city’s focal point, or as Daniel so eloquently put it “the point around which the world turns” – Bad Monkey bar on Remin Lu. Owned by two english expats, Bad Monkey is a bit of a hippy haunt with great live music (ranging from Chinese numbers to Johnny Cash when JP and the lovely Nicole are knocking about town with their guitars) and epic burgers. I’m not sure whether it was our excitement at meeting so many like-minded Aussies, Brits, Kiwis, Canadians and Americans or the fact that it was such a great atmosphere in which to chat to locals or debate the price of cooking oil, but what started out as one drink and an early night on our first day in Dali quickly became a nightly event and then an all-day affair. There’s just something about walking down the street and seeing a big group of dread-lock headed people sitting in a beer garden playing the guitar that is incredibly attractive on a sunny day. It always makes you think “oh wow, I wish I was one of them!” and for a few brilliant, painfully relaxed days, we were.

I had expected this to happen in Vietnam, Thailand or Brazil. In my wildest dreams I even imagined finding a special corner of the world in Cambodia but in none of my musings did I ever see us finding home in China – awkward, dirty, smelly China. But we did and it changed everything. One minute we couldn’t wait to get to Hong Kong and the next we were talking about cancelling our reservation for a five-star room in favour of Christmas in Bad Monkey. It’s not just Dali though, I think Yunnan is different from the rest of China – friendlier, more accepting and more colourful. Where you saw a hawker in Beijing there is a Bai woman in traditional dress selling fruit and whispering a conspiratorial “You smoka the ganga?” as you wander past.

Of course there is always a catch and in Dali it is that the beautiful winding alleys, traditional architecture, grand stone walls and imposing gates are not, as you would like to believe, hundreds of years old. The town is a concoction by the tourism board much like Lijiang and Shangri-la, built recently with western tourists and their deep pockets in mind. This might taint it for a lot of people but Dali certainly shouldn’t be ruled out for this reason alone as it’s not all make believe – parts of the town are as old as the hills and it’s perfect location nestled among the mountains next to the scenic Er Hai lake is very real. The town also offers some great opportunities for day trips like our attempted journey around the lake (post on the wonderful and agonising results to follow).

Anyway, who says that travelling always has to be about the most authentic experiences, the most out-of-the-way towns and the hardest-earned meals? Dali is beautiful and laid back and in my opinion, just as valid a destination as that rural town in remote Sichuan that took you three days to reach by donkey and cattle truck. If it makes you smile, it makes you smile and I dare you not to smile as Carl lords over his bar roaring in his thick London accent “Cooking oil! That’s where the money is. We’ll close Bad Mokey and go into the cooking oil business. This country f***ing runs on cooking oil! They paint the walls with it, they paint the f***ing chef’s hair with it! How many litres of cooking oil do you think we could fit in here? We could get at least eight barrels under that pool table!” I’d bet that pretty soon your planned one-day stopover will start looking more like a week-long stay too.

More pictures from Dali are available in the gallery

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Converted in Chengdu, China Beaten, broken and violated in Er Hai, Dali.

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