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I dream of Dali

  • Travel companion Layla and I visit the Three Pagodas at Dali built in the Tang Dynasty about 1,200 years ago.
    Travel companion Layla and I visit the Three Pagodas at Dali built in the Tang Dynasty about 1,200 years ago.
Published June 18. 2011 09:01AM

(This the final part of a series of articles about Taylor's recent trip to south China's Yunnan Province. More photos appear at


Standing amid a sea of yellow wheat, the tall golden grains waving ever so gently in the wind, I was just about as out of place as you could get. Wearing jeans and a fake black North Face jacket, I stood out from the Chinese workers in their iconic saucer-shaped field hats and torn pants.

I carried a sophisticated Canon camera to their outdated scythes, whicker baskets and harvesting tools. More of a giveaway was my pasty white skin, with a splash of sunburn here and there, compared to the Chinese workers' yellow and brown complexions, aged hands and wrinkled faces. And yet, despite feeling like a walking circus attraction, I was at peace.

This was relaxing, something my travel companion, Layla, and I had failed to experience on our Yunnan trip since we'd been busy "adventuring" around the province.

This was exciting, despite the serenity of my surroundings and simplicity of the work that occupied the Chinese in the fields.

This was Dali, the last stop and high point of my Yunnan trip.

The city sits on the west bank of Erhai, one of the largest lakes in China at 24 miles long and 5 miles wide. Erhai translates into "Ear-shaped Sea." I'll let you guess why. Small fishing villages and towns dotted the landscape around the lake's perimeter. Each one seemed to have a unique architectural style and diverse minority population trying to sell an equally unique and diverse array of Dali-specific souvenirs - large marble and jade statues, tie-dyed table clothes and hand stitched wall hangings - to the hordes of Chinese and foreign tourists who flock to this lakeside paradise during the travel season.

For the most part, Dali catered to the Western or modern Chinese travelers' needs for burgers, beer and comfortable lodging, but a quick bus ride outside the old city center presented a different picture - or more like a different world.

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 plucking unknown greeneries from the ground. Some would cut and pull up whatever was being harvested while others piled them into large baskets two and three times their size and hauled them away on their backs.

For the better part of a day, Layla and I trudged through these murky bogs eager to get a closer look at what the people were doing. Most of the Chinese just ignored us, working uninterrupted by our presence, but the few who looked up to see a camera pointed in their direction smiled and laughed. A few waved. They were much more receptive to having their photo taken than some of the locals elsewhere in Yunnan who put a hand in front of their face and waved me off in a "Be gone foreign devil" manner.

Most of the villages seemed all but abandoned - the majority of the people out in the fields perhaps - with the exception of a few elderly women who walked down the vacant streets, hand clasped behind their lower backs. When we did run into people, they usually gave us a single glance and went back to work. The only person who seemed interested in Layla and me was a small child who was helping his mother sweep. As we passed, he hid behind his mother's legs, peering out with curious and terrified eyes to see if we were gone.

Back near the main roadway and bus terminal, one of the local minority groups was having a weekend market and festival. Congregated around small fires, people cooked food while others sang songs and played instruments - drums and cymbals all clinging and clanging as trucks and cars whizzed past. Most of the older men and women were dressed in traditional minority garbs of light blue with colorful hats to match.

Having explored the fields and villages around Dali and wanting our shoes to dry from all the mud around them, Layla and I spent a day wandering around one of the main attractions in the area: Congshen Temple and the Three Pagodas. No Chinese city is complete without a temple or pagoda, and Dali had both sitting right at the base of the nearby Cangshan mountains. The temple and its many halls were similar to Beijing's Forbidden City in architecture and size, but against the backdrop of the mist-covered mountains as opposed to smog-covered skyscrapers, Dali's temple was more appealing.

A cruise on Erhai, with stops at a few islands on the lake, wrapped up our stay in Dali. The waters were incredibly, almost unbelievably, blue for a Chinese body of water; the skies equally so; and a cool pollution free breeze made the cruise all the more enjoyable. Not having to walk for a day of sightseeing was a definite plus, too.

And then it was over. The cruise on the lake. The stay in Dali. The trip to Yunnan. The following day Layla and I were Beijing bound.

Yunnan was everything I hoped it would be. It was relaxing and challenging. It had breath-taking scenery and simple villages. And it was a bargain of a trip. I hadn't left the province, but somehow I felt like I'd visited three different regions - jungles, mountains and gorges, and barren plateaus - of Asia. Yunnan is exactly what the guidebooks say it is - magical - and will require a second trip, once I get through all the photos I took.

Brandon Taylor is a language consultant/foreign expert for the Beijing Review, an English language weekly newsmagazine in Beijing, China. He is a former correspondent for the TIMES NEWS. Read Brandon's blog at He can be reached at

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