Dilly Dallying in Dali (Dali, Yunnan, China)

I came to Dali for two reasons: to wander through its ancient cobbled streets and to relax in one of the fabled backpacker hangouts of Asia.  I was disappointed on both counts.

My train arrived early in the morning and I caught a bus from the New Town to the Old Town, approximately ten kilometers away.  The bus passed through the New Town’s endless sprawl of identical buildings and swung up the west side of the 25-mile-long Lake Erhai.  The Old Town of Dali lay at the foot of the Cang Shan Mountains next to the lake and surrounded on all sides by stone walls.  Thick, white clouds hung motionless on the mountains behind the town like an avalanche suspended moments before impact.

The houses were built with earth bricks and topped with gray ceramic tiles, and the edges of the roofs curved skyward like Salvador Dali’s famous moustache…maybe that’s why the town is called Dali!  Anyways, it was beautiful, like the ancient Chinese towns you see in Kung Fu movies.  The streets were empty in the early morning, and I strolled past the beautifully painted pagodas and embraced the tranquility of solitude.

But that was eight in the morning.  By eight-fifteen all of Dali was crawling with Chinese tourists.  The shop doors opened and revealed an endless row of souvenir shops selling silver jewelry (silver-coated brass, in actuality), overpriced marble carvings, various trinkets, ethnic hilltribe handicrafts, opium pipes, and a local wind instrument, similar to a flute.  There were about twenty of these flute shops on the same street, selling the same flutes, and playing the same flute music by the same flute player. It was enough to drive a man insane.

Dali is home to the Bai people, one of China’s minority hill tribes.  Chinese tourists gawked at these locals, many of whom were selling souvenirs in their brightly colored traditional clothes.  I have never understood ethno-tourism.  Why do tourists travel to distant lands only to stare at other people?  It is like a human zoo.  I doubt the locals dress in these clothes on their days off.  I noticed the young hilltribe girls hiding their mobile phones beneath their ethnic dresses.  The old men of the village looked the most out of place; they watched from the sidelines in their baggy navy-blue suits with their mouths open in disbelief.  This was ethno-tourism, for sure.  I wonder if this is how Tibet will be in ten years now that they have built a railway connecting Lhasa and Beijing.

I felt pessimistic.  Sure, it was touristic, but so what?  The ancient buildings were amazing and a tiny river filled a system of canals that flowed through the town.  There were tons of tourists, but what character!  It was unlike anything I had ever seen!  I walked up to a beautiful ancient gazebo, surrounded by canals of fresh river water and painted all the colors of the rainbow.  I could not resist; I had to touch the thousand-year old wood to let Dali’s history flow through my fingers.

What the heck?  It wasn’t wood – it was concrete!  Painted concrete!  I looked closer at the building – it was fake!  I stepped back and examined the canals – too new to be authentic!  But…no…what about the city walls?  Surely they must be real, no?

Fake.  All fake.  This revelation turned my world upside down.  Then I heard a voice behind me say, “Everything in China is fake.”

I turned around and faced the voice.  He introduced himself as a 19-year old Chinese-American who lived in Shanghai.  He had lived in the US before, but now he was here in China, traveling around for the summer between his studies.  “What do you mean, ‘Everything in China is fake’?” I asked.

“Everything in China is fake,” he repeated.  “There’s almost nothing authentic left.  Millennia of warfare and natural disasters ruined most of it, and Mao destroyed everything else in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution.”  These words hit me like a ton of bricks.  This was China, the most ancient continuous civilization on earth.  How could nothing ancient exist?  I asked him how this could be, how could a single person destroy such a glorious history?

“It wasn’t just Mao,” he explained, “It was Mao’s Red Guard.  In the 60s, Mao recruited thousands of young people to be his henchmen.  They studied Mao’s radical doctrine in his “Little Red Book”, they wore his red armbands and they tore through the countryside destroying anything related to the past.  Because the Communist Party was officially atheist, they destroyed monasteries and temples and sent monks to work in the field.  They destroyed so much culture.  Tibet got it really bad, too, because religion was one of the so-called ‘Four Olds’.”

I was unfamiliar with the term.  “What are the Four Olds?” I asked.

“Old customs, old habits, old culture, and old thinking.  Those four terms covered a lot of things – anything related to art, science, literature, learning…all of it was destroyed.  Intellectuals were hunted down, persecuted, imprisoned or killed.  It lasted for ten years, and millions of people died.”

We spoke a while longer on this subject.  I couldn’t believe it, but it explained so much.  I had noticed that everything in China was new, but I hadn’t realized it was because so many old things had been destroyed.  “Is there anything left?” I asked.  He faced me and broke into a smile, “The Forbidden City, in Beijing.”

There were a number of old pagodas outside of Dali, but the entrance fee was about $20.  Everything in China costs something – no free pagodas, no free parks, no free caves.  By comparison, it cost $20 to visit all of the enormous city of Angkor Wat, and $17 got you into the grand Taj Mahal in India.

How could a nation have such a change of heart?  Fifty years ago, they destroyed all of their temples in the name of progress.  Now they hold them in such high regard, high enough to charge $20 to see a temple that would be free in Thailand?  If temples are so glorious, why did they destroy them in the first place?

Backpacking in China was nowhere as cool as backpacking in SE Asia.  Supposedly everything was fake and seemed impossible to escape the Chinese Package Tour Mob that was following me through all of China.  It appeared that the Chinese never went anywhere alone – always on these big tour buses, to save money, so I’m told.  I was repulsed by many of their habits – they spit, they smoke all the time, they burp, they talk really loudly, and the men walk around with their shirts rolled up and their bellies hanging out.  But then I realized that I do many of these things too.  I pulled my shirt up and walked around with my tummy out and I blended rigghhhhhttt in…

But I came to China for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  Instead I only found Hidden Charges and discovered that they killed all the Tigers and ate their penises for virility.  I was thoroughly disillusioned with tourism in China.  I needed something else.

I wandered out of this charlatanry and decided to seek out the ‘other’ Dali – the famous backpacker hangout and one of the easternmost outposts on the Hippy Trail.

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