Day Three of our trip around the province brought us to Dali, a small city that has been well-touristed for nigh on thirty years now, a very well-established backpacker stop. Four years ago when my family and I went to Lijiang (which is, incidentally, where I am now) the picture that was painted of Dali for me was pretty negative, and so I didn't have high expectations. Dali was indeed full of foreigners, but it gave off an air of being well-adjusted with its new identity as a sort of city-wide backpacker cafe. Very comfortable, very funky and colorful. There may be basically nothing left of the Bai culture that once reigned there, but the entity that has taken its place is tasteful and lacking the hoards of Chinese tourists I'm now finding in Lijiang.
Tania and I set out to see the famous Dali pagodas first. We took a taxi there but were informed that the fee for entrance was an exorbitant Y120, Y60 with our student IDs. Lu Laoshi had told us that it was pretty easy to get close to the pagodas without paying, and so we experimented, exploring the complex. It was fairly easy, indeed-- I went up to the ticket kiosks and pretended to look at a map while surreptiously taking pictures around the side of the divider. There was also a fair view of the pagodas from above the walls-- they are hundreds of feet tall and stand gorgeously formidable against a backdrop of dramatically lush mountains. It's strange to think that they've been standing that way for 1000 years. The view was powerful enough in the modernized valley. I can't imagine how they looked to travellers during the Nanzhao Kingdom era, when Dali was a major trading post. We spent the rest of the evening in Dali window/regular shopping (I got a fantastically Chinglished shirt), experimenting with Bai cuisine for dinner, and having dessert while a rain squall came through.
From Dali we drove about 5 hours to Jianchuan, through countryside dotted with lakes, traditional Bai settlements, and rolling hills. After a quick lunch, we set off up Shibaoshan, a Buddhist/Daoist mountain. The hike was only about a half an hour but it was pretty tough, as we were at yet higher elevation. The monastery was beautiful but very, very simple-- all the girls plus Mike and John slept in one room (much to the faux shock of Lu and Chen Laoshis) on simple cots and it was the first place I've ever been where people permanently live and there is no running water. There were two major distinguishing characteristics of Shibaoshan: 1) the grottos and 2) the monkeys. The entire temple complex is set on a set of cliffs, looking out on virgin-forested hills, and I spent some time with John and Tania exploring the grottos, filled with altars-- some of them very old and high up, some interestingly influenced with Indian iconography. The monkeys also added quite a bit of spice to the situation. Around dusk one showed up on the roof of the monastery and we were all very excited. Then another came, and then there was a veritable parade past the entrance to the monastery. We bought some feed for them and got quite up close and personal-- these are NOT shy monkeys. Case in point: on the way to dinner, I was walking down the stairs and suddenly felt something fly and land on the back of my thigh. My slowed-down brain registered that it was a monkey, interested in the contents of my pocket. I didn't have food in my pockets-- just a package of kleenex, but my pickpocket seemed happy to shred the contents, regardless. Lu Laoshi and John couldn't stop laughing at the face I had made when I realized there was a wild monkey hanging from my thigh.
The adventure with the monkeys went downhill from there. The monkeys got bolder and bolder-- when John, Keera, and Theresa hiked down the mountain to buy snacks they only came back with half of their purchase-- the rest had been looted by monkeys. We were all a little nervous about going to the bathroom, a small building past a path full of sleeping monkeys. John established himself as official Monkey Officer and carried a big stick and flashlight, leading group envoys to pee.
The next morning, after a very Chinese breakfast we drove to a separate part of the mountain to begin a long hike down to Shaxi valley. The hike was gorgeous, with incredible views of the verdant farmland and misty hills, but it was really hard. I fell twice, spraining one ankle, and had to go very slow-- my quads have never been so sore. But it was a very rewarding walk, regardless, and Lu Laoshi called me "Hen bang" (really excellent) for persevering, rather than giving up.
Next time: My "rural" homestay; I get flaming bai jiu (rice wine) rubbed on one body part-- guess which on!; an amazing Market