We are very glad we came here to relax a few days. Probably cheating a bit, as this is the place that many travellers coming the other way, and love - after already spending some time in China! And here we are, and its our first stop. Still can not complain. The place is obviously also a big hit for Chinese local tourism, and being the summer holidays, the place is packed. Being a town with large fortress walls around it, from when this was a muslim stronghold in the 19th century, it reminds us of some of the fortified towns in France and Italy, which are also packed in the summer holidays. We do wonder in a country like China, where all the tourists come from, but I reckon if you have 10-15% of the population in the upper classes, then thats between 150-200 million potential tourists!! We are hoping the masses of tourists are not with us the whole way, but have been forewarned that this is pretty much what China will be like. Not only is it hard to get away from it all, but it also drives up the costs. Our hotel is still pretty cheap, but they have signs up saying they have had to put the prices up a lot for July and August. Also may make it difficult for us just turning up and hoping to get somewhere to stay in the future.
Western tourists also love coming here. The town is great, and really is pedestrianised within the old walls, which is a blessed relief. But it is a bit twee, and the town has a recently restored look, and the old buildings are now mostly new looking shops catering for the masses of local tourists. Still the reason why westerners love it, is that as well as the great scenery around it, it has lots of great restaurants serving a lovely mix of food (not just western and Chinese, but also Tibetan, Japanese and Korean, - and it also has very cheap beer! The local beers are particularly nice, Dali beer and Lan Cang River Beer. We have also tried the standard TsingTao (Qingdao) beer and the very interestingly named Yan Jing Beer. By the way, when we have name spellings changing as above, it is because there is the old english version of the name, which is now changed officially through the Pinyin system introduced here in 1958. Hence why Peking became Beijing and why Mao Tse-tung became Mao Zedong. What is confusing is that both systems still seem to be used in some places (old traditions die hard) and then on top, there are the chinese signs and characters! Many signs we see only have the Chinese characters, which leads to much exploration of our phrasebook!
The best part of being here in Dali, apart from the eating and drinking of course, is that it has lovely cool temperatures (when it is hot, it is a dry heat which makes a big change for us) and the town is right under a massive set of mountains called Cang Shan (Jade Green Mountains) which rise magnificently above the old town at 4,000m. Makes for fantastic photos with misty clouds swirling around. On the other side of the town is Erhai Hu, 7th largest lake in China and one of the highest at altitude. We caught a cable car up to Zhonghe Temple near the top of the mountains, and had fantastic vistas from there of the town and lake, and also some wonderful hiking into the valleys and ravines. Really really lovely - see the photos. Up in the mountains is also the best place to get away from the hordes. Most local tourists go up to the temple, but are not so into the hiking part (especially in high heeled shoes!).
And our other big highlight here was we timed it very lucky for joining in with the Torch Festival which is held annually in the summer. For this we joined a group to a small town, called Zhounech near the lake. The festival was happening all over this part of Yunnan, and is a Bai people tradition. We see the Bai people around Dali as well, but they are much more prominent in this town, and the old women particularly look amazing in their traditional gear.
We were not sure what to expect in Zhounech, but we think we got the real mccoy of a festival, which is to put it mildly, absolutely nuts! Think Chinese/Tibetan people with lots of fire, bonfires, firecrackers and you get mayhem. It was amazing to watch, and mostly fun, but I think Nancy in particular was pleased when we finally got out. I have to admit, that it was like a warzone when we were retreating through the streets to get to our bus. It all started with relatively harmless light wooden torches (about six feet long), that set light very easily. But then they start waving them about - everywhere in the large crowd in the town square, singhing the hairs on the back of your neck if you get too close!, and then start combining the torches - to see who has the largest!! And this is everyone, including kids as young as five, so while you are looking out for the torches around your ears, there are little fellas around your feet burning your toes - if they can! Then when they combine the torches, they throw dust at them, that make the flames explode at the person opposite. It was so explosive that we thought it was some kind of gun powder, but turned out to be lots of very dry seed husks. The kids love to run around throwing loud fireworks at your feet as well - great fun - for them! As it got darker, it all took on the surreal look of a sacrificial altar, as the largest torch in the square, a giant totem pole of straw filled with fireworks started slowly burning down. People risk running underneath it as flaming ash falls down on them. We were just thankful that the skyrockets in the totem pole fired upwards!
We decided to finally leave when people started running through the bonfires they had created with their torches! And yes we all got out with no injuries, but felt sure that the hospitals of Yunnan must be full the next morning! Great experience, but perhaps mostly enjoyed by the mad locals!
Most of the rest of our time we relaxed in Dali town. For all those concerned with Nancy's health after northern Vietnam, she really needed the rest here, as she was fighting off a really bad cold/flu. The rest here in Dali, at these cooler temperatures has been the perfect tonic and she is now starting to feel better. The 24 hour travel to get here did not help much.
The only other thing we attempted to visit was the Three Pagodas just out of town. After walking out and getting a bit of a view of the temple, we decided that the astronomical price of $15 US each to go in was ridiculous. This is another area, where we know that we will have to pay more in China, but we will pay that for things that are worth it. Having seen several hundred pagoda/temples in SE Asia, usually for about 20-50 cents each, we did not need to see this one as well. Still got a great view of the old pagodas from up on the mountain the next day.
Dali has been as good as place as any to start our journey into China. We have been blessed with some great weather again the last two days. First two days, it rained off and on, and was pretty cloudy - perfect days for Nancy to rest. We know that there is a lot of rain north of us, and that there has been flooding there and further south and east, which has been reported in western news. We are ok so far, and just hope our great luck continues when we get into those areas. Although, again we have been told that the typhoon season here lasts quite a while.
We are now starting to enter the Tibetan part of the world. Even in Dali, we are seeing signs in the local costumes, but also in the restaurants and cafes etc. ie The Tibetan Cafe, Tibetan Lodge, and there is even Yak on the menu!
One word about those nice old ladies in Bai outfits around town, this is the only place ever where we have had old ladies ask us if we want some weed or ghanga! Really sweet old dears!
Hope all of you are well. We are now heading further into the mountains (north-west).