Last summer, I read an article in Traveler Magazine about a writer’s journey to Shangri-La in search of answers to his grandfather’s past. The author took me on a spiritual trip through the Yunnan Province and to a rural part of Southwest China I realized I must visit.
By plane, I traveled 3 1/2 hours from Shanghai to Dali mostly over rolling foothills and peaks and valleys. Two hours prior to landing a flight attendant came around and motioned for me to turn off my computer. Puzzled, I thought I misjudged the flight time. About 45 minutes later and no sign of a descent, I made my way to the bathroom only to be shooed away like a naughty child. When I returned to my seat, I asked the aisle passenger if he spoke English and questioned whether I was missing something. He replied, “It’s China Man! Sometimes they care and sometimes they don’t.” So much for that I guess.
Upon my arrival in Dali, my cab driver, who spoke only Mandarin, drove me through New Dali, a sprawling town with modern apartments and office space beckoning for residents. I guessed by the amount of refineries and excavating I noticed while flying here that this is an area rich in natural resources. Indeed, I am correct. Yunnan ranks first in the country in deposits of zinc, lead, tin and cadmium, to name a few.
My cabbie drove me through New Dali (I had no idea there was a difference) and around a beautiful lake until we stopped abruptly on a street corner and I seriously considered crying. In this area, no one speaks English, the signs are only in Mandarin and my Verizon cell phone registered no service. I sat patiently pondering my next move until another man settled in the driver seat and my cabbie pointed to himself and said, “me New Dali, he Old Dali” and off we drove destined for Old Dali.
After another 30-minute drive, we turned off a major rode and into some sort of land time forgot but Chinese tourists found. My cabbie dropped me in front of my hotel (picture the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movie if you have seen it), I gathered my belongings and then weaved through 200 loudly speaking and pushy, smoking tourists into an open-air lobby and again I wanted to cry. By this time, my inability to communicate left me in silence and my stomach put me on notice. I checked in, threw my crap in my room, tested out the bed (softer than Shanghai but by no means comfortable), grabbed a coat and ventured out to figure out exactly where I landed.
To my shock, this town was bustling with natives and thousands of tourists. It was dusk and the streets seemed to be coming alive. Dali is an ancient walled city occupied by the Bai people. It’s closed to cars and there are four main gates adorned with lights, paintings and true Chinese architecture, which I genuinely enjoyed having not seen much of anything authentic in Shanghai. Each street proclaimed its own identity. I took to nicknaming them for sake of retracing my route as dusk turned to night: Foreigners row (true name), Karaoke Row (50 bars with entertainment for all), Pig and Rooster Alley, Western Way, Souvenir Street, and so much more. I meandered for a few hours somewhat curious about the culture a mark contrast from Shanghai. Locals were dressed in white with colorful hats and scarves, the food to the naked Western eye not recognizable, the physical features of the locals distinct. The Bai people, one of 26 ethnic groups in the region, are Chinese but darker (brown) and probably closer in appearance to the Thai or Vietnamese people of today. It makes sense because the Yunnan Province borders Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar(Burma).
After I snapped enough pictures for the night and admitted a scarf purchase excessive, my energy turned to eating. Afraid of the cheese, I dismissed the three pizza places on foreigner row and by this time a slight panic ensued. The restaurants either lacked pictures or the menus were written in Mandarin or I deemed them not sanitary. I walked up and down the same streets several times before deciding the granola bar in my room would have to do. As I turned the corner to the street of my hotel, I recognized a supermarket and for some reason thought it would be a good idea to enter. This adventure proved to me the highlight of my night. The smell outrageous, the food absolutely disgusting and the people of all sorts of shapes, sizes and colors ruthless. After a few loops (it took me some time to decipher the labels), I accepted my fate to go to bed hungry and I bought a banana for the morning.
As I may have mentioned, the beds suck. The pillow concoction I managed to put together in Shanghai did not work so I woke up early and restless and started emailing my mother sad pictures of me. The lines on my face a sign of several sleepless nights and probably lack of food and water. After I reconnected with friends on Whatsapp and started feeling even more hopeless, I watched the sunrise over the mountains, pulled myself together and readied for the day. Today, I would need coffee and I would find it now armed with daylight and ambition. I Yahoo’d (so not the same as Google’d which is blocked here along with every site I use daily) a Western restaurant named Sweet Tooth. My hotel did provide a Chinese breakfast and a Western breakfast but seeing that I was the only Westerner they provided me cereal in a restaurant by myself. No thanks! How depressing?
I arrived at Sweet Tooth ahead of schedule and waited outside for the doors to open at 8:30 AM (like pacing on the sidewalk). The sky indicated it would be a beautiful day and my optimism slowly returned. Sweet Tooth had my name written all over it. Who likes sweets better than me? To my delight, the display contained cookies, and cakes and the menu listed items in both Mandarin and English. I pointed out the granola with yogurt and the Irish coffee. I then loaded my Chinese app and continued saying “skim milk” in Mandarin to the best of my ability. As I sometimes can get carried away, I persisted with the skim milk even at one stage going behind the counter to show the man the word on my app. He waved me off again and again and then suddenly I turned around and as if a ton of bricks fell on my held I caught the sign by the register. “The workers at Sweet Tooth are supplied by the local deaf community.” I mean really???? I already have enough trouble communicating. Regardless, he brewed one wicked latte and I scarfed down that granola like I had not eaten in days.
To be continued…