Hello from Lijiang!
We checked out of our Dali hotel at 9:00 to see a few last sights before heading to Lijiang. Nancy, our guide, started the day by teaching us more about the Bai people and their traditions. In particular, she focused on social customs. Traditionally, young Bai people court through a singing competition in which the girls and boys compose short verses that they sing back and forth. Nancy sang a beautiful song in which men and women were compared to the sky and clouds. Apparently the suitors must not only have a beautiful singing voice, but also be very clever and quick-witted to fare well in the competition. When couples are matched, engagement is officiated with the man giving the woman a jade bangle and the woman giving the man a pair of handmade shoes, symbolizing a solid foundation. During the marriage ceremony, guests pinch the bride twice to bring happiness and longevity. As we learn more and more about these ethnic minorities, I’m stunned by the intricacy of their cultures. Every gesture of the hand and color of the dress has a fascinating history and symbolism behind it.
We got out of our van in the midst of a city just outside of Dali named Xizhou, which became a cultural center during the Cultural Revolution. Like the old sector of Dali, the buildings are all built and maintained in the traditional fashion. We walked through for a bit to see (as always) a huge array of purchasable: plastic cups of goldfish, Mao paraphernalia, cheap clothing, oranges. It seems that families often start small workshops or businesses in their homes. Walking down the road we were able to look right into a workshop that makes coffins and a what (we were a bit shocked to hear) was apparently a dentist’s office. Nancy told us that during this month, travel agencies pay the local government, which in turn distributes a small amount of money to all the families of the city. As a result, tourists are allowed to wander into any home they fancy and the owners are guaranteed to be welcoming (or at least pleasantly tolerant). We looked around a wealthy family’s house, the origins of which were 220 years old. Like most of the city, it has been heavily renovated since then, but with great care to preserve the original appearance. Inside the door was a spacious open courtyard, around which two stories wrapped in a neat square. There were three doors on each floor of each wall, and while I’m not sure if each led to a separate room, the house was clearly quite large. The next house we visited was twice as large, including two courtyards, but it belonged collectively to four families. Its original owner, a Nationalist General, fled in the 1940’s. During the Cultural Revolution the government leased it, and other lavish homes to the shared care of multiple families.
While touring the house, an older man asked to take a picture of us. He proceeded to line us up and move us around the courtyard as he took pictures. We were in his home (though he was paid to have us there), but it was still a bit uncomfortable. It’s been strange to be a picture attraction. Our past few destinations mostly attract (at least in this season) only Chinese tourists, so we’ve been garnering more and more stares. I guess to a degree it’s a taste of our own medicine, as we are also avid picture snappers. At the same time, we’re told to ask before taking pictures of local people, and if someone makes it clear that they don’t want their picture taken, we would never pursue it. We, on the other hand, rarely get this treatment. The other day we had a man literally shove his frightened-looking daughter into us and start shooting, and others have followed us when we’ve tried to move out of pictures. We’ve noted that it’s always the kids and teens who are most willing to approach us amiably and politely. I’m happy (and perhaps flattered in spite of myself) to comply when someone asks first, or at least makes eye contact and gives a smile, but occasionally people are (while I know its not their intention) surprisingly rude and… creepy. But I digress.
Two of the major agricultural products of the region are broad beans, which are very similar to lima beans, and rape seeds, which are made into cooking oil. The broad beans grow in thick patches of knee-high green shoots and the rape seeds grow on plants covered in bright yellow flowers; the resulting fields are stunning. We learned that, like many of the minorities of the South, in the Dali region the women work outside and the men work inside. Nancy said that the Bai women can always carry their husbands. We watched as a group of a couple dozen people harvested garlic, and in this case, the men dug out the garlic while the women and children cut the bulbs from the rest of the plant. Each plot is owned by just one family, but during harvest time friends and relatives all help each other and the favor is later returned. Finally, we visited a tie-dye workshop that is one of very few left to still use traditional techniques. The work was absolutely gorgeous, and we all bought some of the wonderfully intricate and colorful local craft.
Next stop was lunch! (In honor of the Olympics) Gold medal: fried pork that was very similar to the Chinese chicken fingers back home, but with thinner breading. Silver medal: soy bean fries. These get the silver medal because they were so interesting. They were almost like regular fries, but the inside was gooshy like tofu. As you will notice, there’s a LOT of fried food in this region, though these dishes are usually much lighter than their American brethren. Honorable Mention: a soup of mushrooms and a lake flower. It was mostly mushroomy but also slightly sweet. Not my favorite, but interesting.
I would describe some of the scenery during our three hour drive to Lijiang, but I was sleeping, so we’ll skip that. I love Lijiang! It’s very similar to the old part of Dali, but more compact and little quainter. The roads are cobbled in large dark stones, the houses are all traditional and low and the streets are lined in small colorful shops. Lijiang is over 800 years old its altitude is about 2400 meters. It’s a major market center of China, acting as the link between the highland (namely Tibet, Nepal, and India) and the rest of China through a path called the Tea Horse Trail. Lijiang reached its peak during WWII because air and maritime limits left the Tea Horse Trail as the best means of importing items into China. The middle-man role of Lijiang pumps the city full of everything imaginable, though there are three unique local staples: pu’er tea, snow silver (from the nearby Snow Mountain- apparently it never tarnishes), and pure goat wool scarves. We walked around the streets and got an eyeful of these, and countless other, wonderful handicrafts. We look forward exploring more thoroughly (perhaps with the wallets) now that we’ve gotten our bearings.
What happens now? Hint: it’s late… we’re hungry… dinner!! GOOD dinner! Gold medal: favorite pork dish so far (and there’s usually 2 at each meal)! Thin slices of pork (no fat) and vegetables in a fantastic thick dark chili sauce. I have no idea what was in the sauce so I can’t describe it well- nicely spicy and perfect! Silver Medal: lotus root fries. They had the taste of a potato/ sweet potato mix and the texture of a carrot, lightly fried to a hot crisp. I haven’t had a “fry” substitute that was so dense and hard, but they’re great!! Bronze Medal: sautéed sweet squash. They came in fat disks, cooked past crunchy but not yet mushy, dipped in a pleasantly spicy chili powder. Honorable Mention: meaty chicken hunks, carrots, cucumber, garlic, etc in dark red soy chili sauce (great drizzled over rice). The food keeps getting better! Mmm.
I like that dinner is at the end of the day, because I always get to finish these blogs writing about food.
Hope all is well at home. OH by the way it was beautifully warm and sunny today, probably in the 70’s midday. We thought it would be much colder here. HA Boston winter, I have escaped!
Okay. Tis all.