Dali's Ancient Outsider Spirit Endures | Traveling China's Tea Horse Road (Part III)

Culture, Travel | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: December 10th, 2010 | Updated: August 15th, 2014 | Comments

Dali Sun In part 4 of a series (see part 1 here, part 2 here and part 3 here), Sascha delves into how and why Dali has maintained an reputation of "realness" among backpackers and savvy expats despite the millions of tourists who have come through over the years. Turns out that it has something to do with Monk-Kings, herb-slinging grannies, English pubs and...good family living >>> Dali just won't give in. For years people have been pouring into the town and setting up shop, bringing their friends in and spreading the word that it's one of the coolest places in China to spend a week or four. You would think that over time the town would be a trinket-happy kitsch-fest with all of the local culture drained away. But somehow Dali has managed to keep it real. Sure, "Foreigner Street" is a circus with no clowns, but any street off of that short strip provides solace. Just 20 meters east of Foreigner Street, toward Erhai Lake, is a local market that is still ruled by the same old ladies that have hawked bok-choi and oranges there since...well, since the Mongols were thrown out of here by the Ming 500 years ago. And past the market is a silent cobblestone street leading all the way down to the lake; a street with mixture of hippy cafes, Anglo-Saxon pubs, rock-n-roll hangouts, Muslim meat vendors and local Bai minority holes-in-the-wall that charge pennies for a breakfast of fresh yogurt and hot bread. The debate over which spot is "more real" in Yunnan—Lijiang or Dali—is one that started about five years ago when Lijiang truly blew up with domestic Chinese tourists, but will probably never end (even though it should). Travelers who help to drain the essence out of a town only stay for as long as their paid vacation will let them, so they rarely, if ever, venture out of the proverbial circle of comfort without a guide. For those of you with a little extra time and/or the inclination, you can ignore the masses the way you would anything that disturbs the view, and sink comfortably into one of the greatest backpacker towns out there. And if we take history as our guide,  Dali will remain independent and cheeky no matter how many tour groups and weekend worriers pour through.... Dali was born a rebel. Back when Gyalam) and after whipping the Tang armies twice in the 8th century, expanded north as far as Chengdu, giving them outright control of the route and threatening the heart of the Tang Dynasty, the great capital of Chang'An (present day Xi'an). Of course, they were driven back and eventually defeated and replaced by the Kingdom of Dali. The Bird Bar Dali The Kingdom of Dali as a multicultural outpost For 500 years, the Duan family ruled the lands around Dali. Along with everyone else in China, they were eventually overrun by the Mongols, who had been defeated twice before by the kingdom's armies before a legendary traitor showed them the way over the Canshang Mountains into the valley where Dali lies. Some historians get a kick out of sipping tea and debating whether or not Dali (and for that matter Yunnan) would have maintained its independence into modern times had the Mongols not been so persistent in their attacks. Then again, the progeny of Genghis Khan managed to swallow up most of Asia and a chunk of Europe before succumbing to internecine squabbling, so perhaps the city's resistance would have, ultimately, been for naught. Regardless, Dali to this day maintains a strong independent streak. The people are a mixture of Mai, Yi, Muslim, Tibetan, Han and other southwestern peoples like the Tai, the Hani and the Burmese Shan people. Throughout history Dali was linked not just to the Chinese heartland to the north, but also to the southeast Asian cultures of Thailand and Burma and through them to India. Just a few hours to the northwest are the Tibetans and the Naxi. Such a degree of multiculturalism is quite unique in China, and the effect its had on the region is unmistakable. The Kingdom of Dali was at the crossroads of at least a dozen different peoples, and in the Ancient Trade Route's heyday, there were few areas as cosmopolitan, with traders, priests and mercenaries passing through going, perhaps, south to the jungles of Xishuangbanna, or maybe north through Sichuan to that province's capital, or west to brave the desolate Himalayas on the way to Lhasa. But it wasn't just the people that made this place special. The land here and the location of the city make it one of those places that could float up into the clouds at any moment and be self-sustaining. The hills to the west and the lake to the east make the route through the valley where the old city stands a vital path and when the sun comes up over the hills to strike the town and the lake below, you can understand not only why kings wanted this as their fortress-capital, but also why ten out thirteen Duan kings abdicated in favor of monkhood ... Dali Bad Monkey Modern-day rebel town Where else in China could two crazy Englishman with dreads down to their knees take a dark one-story hovel and turn it into one of the most popular drinking holes on the Horse and Tea Trade Route? People from all over the world step into the Quebecois folk music...and, on at least one occasion, ending the night in a broken bottle stand-off with local gangsters out in the street. Where else could this briefly notorious fool right here print out namecards advertising his drug dealing business while hiding out from the Feds back in the USA? (Yes, it's not only the mountains that are high in Dali, but the emperor isn't that far away, so any who choose to take their Bob Marley & Manu Chao in a properly stony state of mind should be mindful that they're in a state where you really, really, really don't want to get busted). Foolish foreign trafficking follies aside, people from the world over find Dali a primo spot to party in places like the Bird Bar, where you can sink into comfy cushions among new-found friends, sip Vietnamese coffee or local tea and, perhaps, end the night sharing a friendly smoke with a band of Japanese rockers and some Bai girls. And though there are actually a few other places in China where backpackers and their ilk can get their Cheech and/or Chong on, only in Dali can you wake up at dawn and watch the Cangshan Mountains glow from behind as the sun rises, slowly illuminating the lake. By the time the sun and lake meet, you might just be finishing up some of Dali's famed banana pancakes and coffee, ready to hop on a bike and chase sunbeams around Erhai Hu into villages that have yet to feel the heavy hand of mass tourism. That's what helps keep this place real. Those tourists I mention above, the ones who stick to the crossroads where the Bank of China is on Foreigner Street? They don't have time to bike all the way around the lake and find out what's going on out there. They don't have time to take the slow bumpy bus to Shaxi or spend a few nights in a farmer's hut where the old woman will pull out a hand-made embroidered Bai minority skirt and try and sell it to you for a few hundred yuan. A knockoff of the same thing, made in a factory, goes for 1000 yuan on Foreigner Street...but all you have to do is wake up early, pack a bag lunch and hop on a bike and ride... and you can get yourself more than just a 50% discount on an authentic skirt, you can get the kind of authentic experience that is increasingly rare, no matter where you go. Dali Dinner Keeping it real Dali is the type of place I would want to raise my family, despite the drunken Irishmen, hair-trigger gangsters and herb-slinging Bai ladies that are part of the social fabric. After all, the relatively wild element of town is centered around two or three streets, and if you take a walk up to the foothills of the mountains or down toward the lakeside a bit, you'll see little half-French half-Han kids playing with some half-Bai half-Muslim kids, all watched over by a consortium of moms holding multihued babies and talking about the rock climbing school that just opened or the cute little guest house that just started up down the street or that great bread spot with cheap, fresh yogurt. You have businesses here—like the Green Lodge, the Bad Monkey and others—that are in it for the long run. I've watched them grow and  put down roots, helping make Dali a town where you can educate your children, get into a travel-related business, buy a home (admittedly far more expensive than they used to be) and, if and when you feel the need, go have a smoke and listen to reggae with some backpackers. In other words, for those looking to leave the big city and "get back to nature" yet still maintain a connection with the outside world, Dali has a lot to offer. And despite all efforts by outsiders to push them out, the locals, too, have managed to cash in. Its amazing to see Bai and Muslim farmers and traders walking around in the same style of clothing their ancestors wore way back when the only laowai to come here were Buddhist pilgrims. They might head back to traditional homes to visit older parents or grandparents, then head to a newly built Dali-style palace complete with Internet and cable TV. Its not all peaches and cream, of course, and in the next installment in this series, I'll talk to Chris Taylor, author of Harvest Season, a novel based on life in Dali that explores the darker side of living on a trade route where any and all can come and do their thing. Still, considering all good alongside the bad and occasionally ugly, this Yunnan mountain town remains a place where the real things in life—the pleasures of unmediated friendship, life lived largely outdoors, and a strong sense of tight-knit community—endure. Cat and Dog in Dali

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