Wednesday, June 15, 2011


As diverse as Yunnan was -- one region having almost no similarities to its neighbors -- one thing was common: there were cats everywhere.

In Beijing, most of the cats I cross paths with are strays, living outdoors and hissing whenever we meet. The few indoor cats I've seen belong to foreigners.

My Chinese colleagues explained that since ancient times cats have been revered for their hunting skills -- they keep rodents out of houses and can pretty much take care of themselves -- but also feared since they are believed to sometimes be possessed by evils spirits. They can also detect evil spirits, so I guess that's a plus too.

In Yunnan, rats and mice were few, so these feline guardians must have been doing their jobs.

CAT IN KUNMING: Our hostel in Kunming had three cats, two of which volunteered to help eat my cheeseburger at dinner

CAT PERSON: Our guesthouse in Lijiang also had a cat, which quickly discovered that I was a cat person and promptly plopped down on my lap

CAT NAP: I woke this cat up from a mid-afternoon nap in Jinghong

MOUNTAIN CAT: Our guesthouse in the Tiger Leaping Gorge had two cats and two dogs -- and no rodents

TEMPLE CAT: At one of the Tibet temples in Shangri-la this little grey watched over the temple grounds

BUDDHIST CAT: The Tibettan family we visited didn't have much in terms of furniture, but they had a cat to keep out pests

MONK IN TRAINING? At Songzanlin Temple in Shangri-la we ran into this grey cat, a rather plump fellow. My guess is that if the temple had any mice or rats, that problem had now been solved

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Days 8-10: I Dream of Dali

FRIDAY, April 29 - SUNDAY, May 1

Dali: Where dreams come true. The local government of Dali should get a move on copyrighting that slogan, or simply copying it from whoever has a similar saying (I think Disney has something involving the words “dreams come true”).

At least for me, this was the part of the trip I’d been waiting for and dreading at the same time. Dali is the first stop for most backpackers once they move outside Kunming, the provincial capital, so naturally it’s a land of tourist traps and Chinese chicanery. The local sightseeing spots would be overpriced, large groups of Chinese and foreigners visiting the area with travel companies would be a given, and every vendor and cab driver would be looking for a way to screw Layla, my travel partner, and myself out of as much yuan as possible. My predictions would all hold true.

Despite these three factors that all but guaranteed a disappointing stay, Dali turned out to be the highpoint of the trip for one main reason: the locals. Yes, most of Dali catered to Western travelers’ needs for burgers, beer and comfortable lodging, but a quick bus ride outside the old city center showed a different picture. Fields of wheat and water logged rice paddies spread out all around Dali, each area filled with people tending the crops or knee deep in mud. From sun up to sun down, they worked. This was what I wanted to see: people at work in the fields and farms.

MANUAL LABOR: Despite Dali’s massive tourist industry, most people still make a living by living off the land. In the other parts of Yunnan we’d visited, Layla and I saw few people doing any type of physical labor – most of the people in the old cities and towns we visited were more focused on begging us for money or trying to peddle worthless junk on us.

LUNCH BREAK: Finally, someone wearing those iconic saucer-shaped Asian field working hats besides tourists at the Great Wall.

RICE PADDIES GALORE: I’ve lived in China for more than two years now and have eaten countless bowls of rice. Until visiting Dali I had yet to see where the bland white pieces of grain that accompany every meal were grown.

SAY “QIE ZI”: The people in the fields were al l smiles whenever they saw me taking photos – a farcry from people in other areas of Yunnan who refused to let me take photos of them or their property. In China, instead of saying “cheese”, they use the word “qie zi”, which means eggplant. Saying qiezi (pronounced chee-eh-dzuh) causing your mouth to form a small smile in the same way that saying cheese does

WORKING FOR GLORIOUS NATION: Small paths allowed me to walk among the people as they worked. This was what I’d been waiting for the whole trip since I wanted to test out different features on my new camera involving the zoom, aperture and shutter speed functions.

LOCAL ARCHITECTURE: The buildings in the villages around the main city Dali featured white walls, some with interesting Chinese paintings on them. The cleanliness of the villages was impressive – most communities I’d seen on other parts of the trip fell well within the category of “third world”.

HELPING HAND OR IGNORANT FOREIGNER?: Nothing says “Yeah, I’m a tourist” like walking across someone’s field uninvited for a quick photo. Note the redness of my face: the after effect of two days in ozone-lacking Shangri-la.

HARVESTING…SOMETHING: Not exactly sure what these farmers are harvesting.

NO RULES ON THESE ROAD: Almost every backcountry truck I saw looked like this: no hood, or front of the vehicle for that matter, and engine visibly revving.

WHAT THE…?: Based on the mixed reactions from a few of the locals I ran into, I got the distinct feeling foreigners didn’t venture through their villages too often. Such was the case with a few of the kids – the one above just couldn’t seem to figure out where this white-skinned, camera totting being had come from.

THESE OLD ALLEYS: Walking through the villages away from the hordes of tourists was relaxing, despite having to cover a good mile or so to get from the main freeway from Dali to said village.

BOILING THE ZAZA: One of the hot tourist items in the Dali area are zazas, tie-dyed cloths with white embroidery. The cloths are boiled in large vats of molten dye and then set out to dry.

PREPARING THE ZAZA: Layla and I stopped by a small shop where the zazas are made. Huge piles were littered about, waiting to have fish, insects or birds stitched in.

SELLING THE ZAZA: The owner of the shop shows one of the completed zazas. She wanted 600RMB (about $90) for this one, but I opted to buy a smaller, cheaper one. The owner said it usually takes one person up to a day to stitch one of the larger zazas.

OF COURSE, A TEMPLE: No Chinese city is without a temple or pagoda of some sort. Dali had both. Congshen Temple and Three Pagodas sit at the base of the Cangshan mountains to Dali’s west.

FAMILIAR LOOK: The Congshen Temple resembled Beijing’s Forbidden City, the roofs orange and the architecture traditional and angular. The backdrop of the Chongshen Temple is much more appealing than the Forbidden City – instead of clouds of smog, Dali only had natural clouds swirling around the mountain’s peak.

FEED ME: The ponds at the Congshen temple were filled with hungry fish.

DIN, DIN: Layla feeds the fish.

SEEING DOUBLE: Close up of a statue near the main building at the temple.

PLACE OF WORSHIP: Throughout the temple, tourists stopped to bow and worship certain statues to the gods or ancient prophets and historical figures.

MAIN WORSHIP HALL: Congshen temple slowly works its way up the base of the mountain, with each section at a higher elevation than the previous.

OFFERS OF INCENSE: Sticks of incense burn at the main temple hall.

UP INTO THE MOUNTAINS: Congshen temple extends up into the Cangshan mountains.

THREE PAGODAS: These three pagodas built in the Tang Dynasty are about 1,200 years old.

STANDARD TOURIST SHOT: The Three Pagodas and Cangshan Mountain.

WEEKEND MARKET: After walking around the Three Pagodas and temple area, Layla and I made out way back to the main road. Aside from the sounds of honking trucks and traffic, another sound had filled the air: beating drums, chimes, the shucka-shucka of maracas and banshee-like wails. The source of the cacophony was a weekend market and outdoor festivities of one of the minority groups. Alongside the main highway, people cooked food over open flames, played instruments and sang songs that I’m convinced were meant to ward off evil spirits and maybe foreigners.

WEIRD BRUNCH: I can only guess what this woman was making, but doing so may give me a stomachache.

ONE HAT, TWO HAT: A group of minority women look at hats at the market.

ANOTHER OLD VILLAGE: Not a Walmart, McDonald’s, KFC or shopping mall in sight. Perfect.

DALI: Layla and I took a chairlift into the Cangshan Mountains to get a better view of Dali Old City and the entire lake area.

MINORITY DANCE: Layla and I fell right into this tourist trap: a Bai minority group tourist attraction that had “authentic Bai dance, authentic Bai tea, authentic Bai experience.” The tea, a sweet blend of sugar and a locally grown leaves, was great (and unfortunately not for sale). The “experience”… not so great, but at least it got us out of the sun for a while.

OUT ON ERHAI: After seeing most of the major sights, visiting a few outlying villages and walking through countless fields, Layla and I decided to use our third day in Dali to take a relaxing cruise on Erhai, or Ear-shaped Lake. Erhai is one of the largest lakes in China at 24 miles long and 5 miles wide.

KIND OF LIKE “LOST”: The cruise ship stopped at two islands in Erhai to allow the tourists to shop at a few local markets and take some photos. The one island had a large statue that reminded me of the hit TV show “LOST”, although I was glad I wouldn’t be stuck on this island with the sea of Chinese tourists pushing and shoving me out of the way to get a photo.

NOTHING BUT BLUE SKIES: One of the best parts about Dali, and Yunnan in general, were the blue skies. As exciting as life in Beijing can be, the layers of smog and filth in the air are just downright depressing. But not in Dali – here, the clouds stretch off as far as the eye can see, over mountains and across Erhai.

ON THE ISLAND: The heart shaped necklace was the “ticket” for our cruise ship. Each ship gave its passengers a different colored heart so people on the island didn’t get on the wrong ship, which all went to the same final port anyway.