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The other Dali, also surreal


THE OTHER CHINA: A city gate of the old town of Dali leading to the market. (Below left) A Bai girl in traditional headgear. (Below right) Women in Shwanglang village busy with indigo tie-dye work

This quaint Yunnan town has managed to retain its olde worlde charm. You are unlikely to find any flaw in its design aesthetics.

Agurgling stream flows right down the middle of the cobbled pedestrianonly high-street. Water wheels at frequent intervals ensure that the crystal-clear water does not stagnate. Ersatz bamboo bridges arch across the stream and lead to alleyways that meander seductively through the plaza. Not a single piece of discordant architecture - no chrome, glass or concrete monsters to mar the view. I wonder if I have strayed into the sets of a Yunnanese film. 

All around me there are only traditional Bai folk structures - singlestoreyed wooden buildings with sloping grey tile roofs curling at the corners and sporting quaint figurines. The shopkeepers too seem to be in tune with the ambience, probably by design;there are even fair Bai girls in flowing silk gowns and outrageous headgear at shops selling tea, local musical instruments, batik and silver jewellery. Even idle strollers are in traditional dress, as if in a pantomime. This is Dali for you, every bit as surreal as the works of the redoubtable Spanish artist of the same name. It is a picturesque town nestled in the Cang Shan mountains in Yunnan in southwest China, and an important stop on the ancient tea horse route - it is an ancient mountain road, the tea counterpart of the Silk Route on which the local specialty, green tea, was an important cargo. 

What breaks the spell is the line of trendy cafês down the street, their English menus and Carlsberg beer. Incidentally, the highstreet itself is called Foreigner Street although I don't spot any foreigner other than myself! 

Dali now has its own airport and is also connected by train to Kunming, the provincial capital. The road from Tengchang in the west weaves through Dali to Kunming and serves up spectacular arched bridges, scary precipices, long tunnels, alpine meadows and occasional forests. 

Like all Chinese cities, Dali too has grown in recent times. But the sensible Bai people who constitute the ethnic majority in these parts, decided to build the new town 30 km away while the old town retains its traditional character. Even new Dali town makes a nodding concession to traditional architecture, hiding its chrome and glass behind a facade of painted marble. In fact, what sets Dali apart from other Yunnan - and Chinese towns - is the aesthetically painted marble facades on houses, offices, temples, palaces, courts and markets. 

Traditional scenes from Chinese folklore, cranes - the symbol of fertility and good luck - azaleas, camellias and a host of other flowers, trees, etc, are painted on white marble slabs with indelible ink and cover every fa?ade in town, including automobile workshops and factories! Neither rain nor snow seems to diminish their lustre. Traditionally, Bai people flaunted their wealth by commissioning expensive artists to paint elaborate marble facades. Now they do it to preserve the integrity of the town's appearance. 

Dali has existed since 3000 BC when it was home to the Naxi tribe which predates the Chinese. But this walled town was built during the Ming dynasty around 1382 with cobbled streets, turrets and ramparts. The old town has been razed to the ground many times in the past by earthquakes and fires, but has been meticulously rebuilt in the original style. 

Dali is a jade paradise - bracelets, trinkets, necklaces, massive as well as miniature Buddhas, knick-knacks - all beautifully mottled and in shades of green, grey and blue jade - are everywhere. 

The ear-shaped Er Hai lake dominates Dali town. It is here that the townsfolk come to unwind on breezy evenings. This is also where traditional fishermen practise a unique fishing technique using a cormorant. The trained cormorant has a ring tied around its slender neck which prevents it from swallowing the big fish it catches. It dutifully hands over the big fish to its master to be fed tidbits! 

We drive around Er Hai lake along its villages where donkey-carts laden with bok choy compete for road space with the latest automobiles. We stop at the picturesque Shwanglang village for lunch. Jacob, our American-accented interpreter (the name is only for the convenience of people like us who can't pronounce his Chinese name), who is a Yi, the other major tribe in the region, tells me that the village is being developed into a resort after China's most famous pop singer built her home here. Fishing boats jostle for space alongside pleasure boats while many cafês have sprung up on its shores. Indigo batik prints and hand-beaten copper utensils do brisk business. Many homes with expansive courtyards offer rooms and bikes on rent. 

Of course, Dali's towering attraction is the 1, 200 year-old three pagoda temple perched high on the slopes against the backdrop of the green ridge. Despite the $30 entrance fee, the temple seems to be a big draw. 

The three distinctive and symmetrical pagodas are reflected faithfully by the crystal waters of Er Hai lake. We ride up the slope in a battery-operated cart to offer our incense sticks and prayers at the Chong Sheng temple with its colourful roofs, ornamental eaves and giant golden Buddhas. I offer a silent thanks to the deity for bringing me to this beautiful land.

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