Dali, Also Surreal (2013) Cang Shuan Mountains, Yunnan

Dali, Also Surreal (2013)                              Cang Shuan Mountains, Yunnan

A gurgling stream flows right down the middle of the cobbled pedestrian-only high-street. Water wheels at frequent intervals ensure that the crystal-clear water does not stagnate. Ersatz bamboo bridges arch across the stream and lead to alleyways that meander seductively through the plaza.  Not a single piece of discordant architecture – no chrome, glass or concrete monsters to mar the view. Only traditional Bai folk  structures – single-storeyed wooden buildings with sloping grey tile roofs curling at the corners and sporting quaint figurines. The shopkeepers too seem to be in tune with the ambience, probably by design;  fair Bai girls in flowing silk gowns and outrageous headgear populate the shops that sell tea, local musical instruments, batik and silver jewellery.  Even the shoppers and idle strollers are in traditional dress, as if in a pantomime.I wonder if I have strayed into a Yunnanese film set. 

Yet, in a strange juxtaposition, trendy cafes lining the street sport English menus and display Carlsberg beer. Incidentally, the high-street itself is called ‘foreigner street’ although I don’t spot any foreigner other than myself! This is Dali for you, every bit as surreal as the works of the redoubtable Spanish artist of the same name. This Dali is a picturesque town nestling in the Cang Shan mountains in Yunnan province and an important stop in the ancient tea-horse route.  Today it has its own airport and is also connected by train to Kunming, the capital of the province in southern China.  The road link from Tengchang in the west weaves through Dali to Kunming and serves up spectacular arched bridges, scary precipices, long tunnels, alpine meadows and occasional forests. Like all Chinese cities, Dali too has grown in recent times.

But the sensible Bai people who constitute the ethnic majority in these parts, decided to build the new town 30 km away while the old town retains its traditional character.  Even new Dali town makes a nodding concession to its traditional architecture, hiding its chrome and glass behind a façade of painted marble. In fact, what sets Dali apart from the rest of the towns in Yunnan province or even elsewhere in China, is its aesthetically painted marble facades on houses, offices, temples, palaces, courts and markets.   Traditional scenes from Chinese folklore, cranes, the symbol of fertility and good luck, azaleas, camellias and a host of other flowers, trees etc are painted on white marble slabs with indelible ink and cover every façade in town, including automobile workshops and factories!  Neither rain nor snow seems to have diminished their lustre.

Traditionally, Bai people flaunted their wealth by commissioning elaborate and expensive artists to paint their marble facades. Now they do it to preserve the integrity of the town’s appearance.Dali has existed from 3000 BC when it was home to the Naxi people, a tribe that predates the Chinese. But this walled town was built during the Ming dynasty around 1382 with cobbled streets, turrets, towers and ramparts. The old town has been razed to the ground many times in the past by earthquakes and fires, but has been meticulously rebuilt in the original style. Dali is jade paradise – bracelets, trinkets, necklaces, massive as well as miniature Buddhas, knick-knacks etc, all beautifully mottled and in shades of green, grey and blue jade are everywhere.

The ear-shaped Er Hai lake dominates Dali town. It is here that the townsfolk come to unwind on a breezy evening and traditional fishermen use cormorants to catch fish. The trained cormorant has a ring around its slender neck which prevents it from swallowing the big fish it catches. It dutifully hands over the big fish to its master to be fed tidbits!We drive around Erhai lake along its numerous villages where donkey-carts laden with bok choy compete for road space with the latest automobiles. We stop at the picturesque Shwanglang village for lunch.

Jacob, our American-accented interpreter (this name is only for the convenience of people like us who can’t pronounce his Chinese name), himself a Yi, the other major tribe in the region, tells me that the village is being developed into a resort after China’s most famous pop singer built her home there. Fishing boats jostle for space alongside pleasure boats while a lot of trendy cafes have sprung up on its shores. Indigo batik prints and hand-beaten copper utensils do brisk business. Many homes with expansive courtyards offer rooms and bikes on rent.

Of course, Dali’s towering attraction is the 1200 year-old three pagoda temple perched high on the slopes against the backdrop of the green ridge. Even at $30 entrance fee, the temple seems to be a big draw. The three distinctive and symmetrical pagodas are reflected faithfully by the crystal waters of Erhai lake.  We ride up the slope in a battery-operated cart to offer our incense sticks and prayers at the Chong Sheng temple with its colourful roofs, ornamental eaves and giant golden Buddhas. I offer a silent thanks to the deity for bringing me to this beautiful land.

(published in Times of India in 2013)