By Alifiya Calcuttawala
Exploring Yunnan, the gem of China
Part 1: Kunming and Dali
19 Oct: I hate late night flights. Gives me the proverbial red-eye. Specially a 2:40 am departure from Kolkata. The China Eastern flight lands softly at 7:30am into Kunming- the spring city. It’s drizzling, though this time of the year it’s not supposed to. Blame that on my travel-jinx.
It’s my first trip to China. I am excited. My itinerary includes Kunming, Dali and Lijiang. At the airport the sheer size of the population amazes me. And I am an Indian! Have to wait for over an hour to clear immigration.
The journey begins: Kunming – Green Park lake.
On another day, I would have walked along the small lake, and then chill at the lakeside cafes. But not today as its drizzling, so I head towards the Yauntong Temple- the largest Buddhist complex in Kunming and a rare and superb example of the Tang Dynasty design. It’s refreshing to wander amid a 1200 year old temple complex that still draws a fair number of pilgrims. It has a large square pond and in the centre there’s a Ming dynasty octagonal pavilion. Watch out for pickpockets. I head to the hotel as I am tired and in need of sleep. I turn in early.
Note for golfers: Kunming has Asia’s largest golf course. 36 holes and it takes just about 40 mins to reach there from the city. Also 30 mins from the city – is a team building site which corporates can hire for half a day or full day. The site has got a great obstacle course.
20 Oct: Had a comfortable sleep, a large breakfast and left the hotel by 11 am. First stop – the stone Forest. This place, 90 kms from Kunming, is a 2.7 billion year old forest made up of stone. It took under an hour to reach there. I am overwhelmed by the sheer size of these rocks which once formed the the sea bed that had been pushed when the tectonic plates ran against each other. Hence these rocks are made up of limestone and one can see fossils of corals, fish etc. The largest of these rocks reach up to the height of 80 meters. Due to oceanic currents and later due to wind and rain – the erosion of the rock surfaces have made them look like sharp swords and at some places they resemble different kind of animal shapes. This forest covers 350 sq kms (entrance to all national heritage sites across china is quite steep RMB 175 per person). I jostle through the crowds. Yes, there’s no respite from that in this forest either! One disturbing sight..I don’t see a single bird seen in the stone forest in spite of abundant greenery. 4 hours later we head back to Kunming.
Next stop.. the bird and flower market. Now don’t get taken by the name – this market has everything under the sun – as in local produce / local products/ local jewellery (did not see any birds though). I am amazed at some of the other things the Chinese produce “en-mass” ..many coffees, many cookies, many herbs, many jades, many flowers (real and artificial) many candies, many meats, many teas. Just many, many. Ah, tea. Now this is worth a mention – there is one variety of tea which does not have much value so what they do is they compress it and make it hard and they make picture frames out of it as in a frame with landscape made entirely of tea , pots, pans, books etc. so that you can gift it and keep it since it now looks beautiful. These tea “manifestations” if I may call them that, after couple of years of aging become valuable – after 30 to 40 years they are worth 1000s of RMB’s and then becomes a collector’s item. Innovation..Chinese style.
Well after this amazing experience in this market, I am escorted to a local massage joint. This massage parlour is frequented only by locals – absolutely basic, nothing fancy at all small 200 sq feet area with 5 beds . So, whats so special about this place..well its is operated by blind people who are supposed to have very keen sense of touch hence their fingers exude the right pressure. I take a full body massage. I am totally dressed and they cover me with a towel. The area that is massaged is further covered on top with another towel. Each muscle of mine is pulled apart till I groan in pain. The only place which feels relaxing are my legs (long hours of standing and walking for 2 days).
I pick up my bags and head for the railway station. I am headed for Dali up North. The station at first glance looks like an airport (Kolkata APT to be specific). The train number is mentioned on the display screens. 30 mins before departure time the steel gates open and all the the people in the platform queue up, get the tickets punched and go down one level below. Soon there’s not a single soul on the platform. The 3 tier compartment is nice and clean though there’s no air conditioning. I remember I am in the “spring city.” At 11:39 the train quietly pulls away from the platform and I climb up to the upper berth (I have paid less for the upper berth , than compared to middle and the lower which is the more expensive berth). Soon the cacophony of my Chinese fellow passengers engulfs my senses and the decibel is akin to a Durga Puja pandal on Mahastami evening. I risk a conversation by asking a co-passenger what time the train would reach Dali. I am shown the window! So much for a friendly banter. Suddenly all the lights go out – its totally dark and the voices are instantly lowered. Its kind of eerie trying to lull myself to sleep in a compartment surrounded by the sounds of a strange language.
21 Oct: 6:45 am .. I wake up to a surround sound of constant Chinese chatter. I climb down from my perch and sit near the window. I am taken back by the landscape. Mountains with floating clouds near the peaks have replaced tall concrete buildings, congested roads with traffic have been replaced by green farms- that look quite surreal in the morning mist. It’s drizzling outside. The train pulls in at Dali station. I wheel the luggage out and am pleased to see Grace standing with a placard with my name emblazoned on it. I am escorted to the car where, to my surprise, the driver is a lady. All gelled curls, black jacket over green tight fitting sweater and stilettos to complete the look.
Dali is located on a fertile plateau between the Cangshan Range to the west and Erhai lake to the east. These are its main tourist attraction. It has traditionally been settled by the Bai and Yi minorities. The Erhai lake is 250 sqkm in area and its approx 30kms long. The native of Dali are the Bai people.. very colourful and everything that they wear or do have some significance attached to it. For eg, the lady wears a colourful head gear the top of which has white fur, depicting snow on the mountains followed by a white layer, depicting the moon and then embroidered flowers highlighting the ever beautiful city of Dali. Covered with flowers the headgear on the left side has a scarf. If its long, the girl is unmarried and if short then she is married. It’s forbidden for a man to touch the white scarf of the girl and if you do, you have shown the intention to marry! Dali is a beautiful town – on one side the mountains and on the other side, the vast lake. As luck would have it – it was drizzling!
The station is a 30 min drive to the hotel which is 1.5kms away from the fortified town of Old Dali. After a quick shower, I am met at the lobby by Grace, who is eager to show me her beautiful city. We head straight to a place called Xihou some 25 kms away from Dali. The journey is beautiful, and it takes us 40 mins to reach there. We pass rice fields against the back drop of the majestic green mountains which are laced with clouds. Xihou, an old town is part of Dali and is famous for its architecture. As we walk across the narrow streets what strikes me is the cleanliness of the streets. Not a single plastic packet piece of paper or rubbish is to be seen anywhere. The old houses are over 100 years old. We walk into one of the houses which have a well. Since all these old houses were made up of wood hence it was very important to have a well inside the house to douse the fire. These houses had lovely frescos (which over time were not maintained) and marble walls (Dali is known for its marble and Batik craft). Later we visit an embroidery school. I am astounded by the kind of exquisite embroidery on display. It is so fine that I think it is a printed fabric although it is embroidered with silk threads. Inside the house, there is a gallery showcasing more than 100 designs right from landscapes, animals, portraits each better than the other. I am stunned by the designs I see. We head out from this place towards the lake. At the pier, we hire a fishing boat and go boating on the Erhai lake. This vast lake is right off a fairy tale book with mountains lurking in the distance. A heavenly place.
The cormorants and the fisherman..
While I was inhaling the fresh air and admiring the beauty I hear the shrill sound of a man. He is sitting on another boat and all along the periphery of the boat are these long necked cormorants. One by one he unties the birds, catches them by the neck and throws them into the water. Within a couple of minutes the birds catch a huge fish about 2 feet long! 3 of the birds hold the fish in their beaks. The fisherman casts a huge net into the lake and scoops out the 3 birds and the fish and hauls them in. He pulls the fish from the birds and tosses it to one corner of the boat and throws the birds back into the water again. After catching 2 such fish, the man throws small pieces of fish inside the water for his “hunting” birds as a reward. All the birds cram together to get a piece. My Kodak moment arrives when I get 2 of these birds to perch on my arms and smile.
My tea story..
I walk away from the lake and go to see a 3-course tea show. Its a cultural programme by the Bai people, which is demonstrated as a dance. There is a commentary in Chinese, but of course my guide explains it to me in English. The tea depicts the life of a man. When the 1st course of tea is served – it taste bitter ( this denotes the early years as a child when they have to work hard and study); when the 2nd course is served – it tastes sweet with yak butter and honey ( denotes the life of a man when he gets married and has a job than is happy); the 3rd course of tea tastes quite strong but sweet (and denotes the wisdom the men have gained after passing the years of their youth – and now they are enjoying their old age).
We proceed to Dali’s old town. First halt, the 3 pagodas and the temple complex – the biggest pagoda is almost 1000yrs old and quite a relic (no one is allowed to go inside the pagoda)- you can roam around in the gardens and it takes approx 3-4 hours to go through the entire complex. One can hire a golf cart, too.
Dali’s old town is beautiful. A square area with the foreigner’s street being the main attraction with bars / cafes and lots of shops filled with silver/ marble/ batik etc. It is quite a surreal experience walking through the old town – impeccably clean, beautiful in its own way, weeping willows on the sides and water channels flowing through the streets, which have beautiful flowers adorning the pavements. The old city has the 4 famous gates – north, south, east & west. I pass by shops and carts selling fruits (amazingly different in size and fresh – oranges the size of grapes and pomegranates the size of a watermelon!), and meat products (beef, yak cheese, yak meat, pickles, dumplings etc). I finally reached the west gate which is a huge structure, a typical Chinese style architecture with a curved roof with pointed ends which depicts a pigeon sitting, denoting peace. Hence all houses have this structure and along with it they have a cat – to ward off evil spirits). I climb up the first level – and the sight I see takes my breath away. The old city with their alleys down below.. on one side the beautiful lake shimmering in the setting rays of the sun – giving a golden glow and on the other I see the looming mountains – with the clouds still there half way. It is quite an overwhelming scene and I sit there for a while soaking in the flavor of Dali.
I return to my hotel. Tomorrow I will be heading for Lijiang. But tonight I would bask in the beauty of Dali.