In the mornings, the weather is fresh yet crisp and I bundle up in layers before the sunshine takes hold of the day and I dare say the temperature turns warm. Today, I celebrated many firsts. I gorged myself on my first omlette since leaving the states, I survived the fresh meat and produce market without vomiting, I met with two local farming families and I devoured local street food.
The first family I visited with produces cheese. They have two cows and each morning the cows are milked to supply enough cheese for the entire village. A young woman churns the milk for about 10 minutes before stringing it along two polls of bamboo where it will dry for 24 hours. When offered the raw cheese, I hesitated for a moment but feeling quite fearless, I tasted it. My first bite tasted like a very bland mozzarella but then a prodding man motioned for me to dip it into white sugar. I actually preferred it plain but I do see why one might need the sugar. The 24-hour aged cheese I sampled tasted like biting into a hard piece of wax and required multiple chews to swallow. Perhaps I am missing something but even five bites later, I couldn’t quite determine what I was eating. Cheese is not something Chinese normally consume but in this area where there is a significant Muslim population cheese is more prevalent.
The architecture in this area is representative of the Bai people. Their homes consist of three buildings forming a U and a fourth wall acts as a screen depicting various religious influences. The middle courtyard is open and the home is build of traditional stone and wood. The wealthier people may have several courtyards and the home may occupy two to three floors. The cheese making family lives in a two-story, one courtyard home split by two brothers who no longer speak. Can you imagine the looks they must give each other when passing through the open areas? The Bai homes utilize typical Chinese architecture as it relates to this region.
The other family I had an opportunity to meet produces rice biscuits, noodles and other products. The raw rice is steamed, placed into some sort of suction machine where a type of sticky dough is created. From there, it is thinned into two feet sheets and dried on racks. Nine people worked on this process taking about 15 minutes from start to finish. I took a mouthful of the processed rice dough and tasted it. Again, my taste buds did not awaken.
The people in this area are farmers and fisherman. In the rainy summer season, rice, tobacco and corn are harvested and in the winter varieties of lettuce, garlic and scallions. I took a bike ride along Lake Ehrai to check out the various farms and to catch a glimpse of the fisherman in action. “Ehrai” means Ear Shaped Lake and it’s sandwiched between the mountains and the city of Dali.
My bike ride took me along the lake and through many small villages each emphasizing an individual identity. Several farmers worked the fields and some fisherman lounged in their boats taking a nap in the sunshine, while others busied themselves with nets. In this area, trained cormorants (type of bird) catch the fish and bring them back to the fishmongers. The birds do not swallow the fish because they are fixed with a ring around their neck. It’s fascinating. The rustic and fall colored trees decorated the water’s shoreline and I enjoyed a sense of peacefulness as I watched nature do its thing.
After tolerating lots of Chinese tourists waving H-E-Y -L-O and smiling at me, I decided I didn’t want to venture farther and risk being lost. I huffed it back to Xizhou and into town for lunch. I earned a decent meal after a four hour bike ride and this time I was ready. On my tour, I learned the lard looking yellow blocks on the food stands are actually noodles (my mistake) and the white noodle bowl dish with red specs I guessed to be inedible is actually a house favorite noodle, pickle, radish combination dish. I really wanted to try something with noodles but the locals serve it cold and I thought I needed hot to ward of the germs. I took a deep breath, rounded the main street and focused my attention on the coal burning “pizzas.” Armed with my nose, I started smelling each ingredient (no one speaks English and they humored me) and I made an impulsive purchase before I could give it further thought. It’s called Ba Ba and it’s a pizza like dish filled with a thick prune sauce. The more popular version of Ba Ba is filled with lard, pork and scallions and for obviously reasons I skipped it. I confess. It was delicious and I inhaled half of it before considering the dinner I would also be eating in less than three hours.
Finally, I thought you might like to know about the amazing couple who founded Linden Center where I am staying in Xizhou. It took them several years working with the Chinese government to be granted permission to renovate and preserve this national relic once owned by a wealthy family. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the incredible hospitality of the English speaking staff. The “home” itself welcomes a weary traveler. I’ve occupied the roof terrace for reading in the afternoon and the bar for ginger tea drinking at night. Their beds are soft, the water warm and the food appetizing.
Here is their story:
Inspired by years of collecting antiques and contemporary artwork in China, Wisconsin residents Brian (he is from Jefferson Park, Chicago) and Jeanee Linden moved directly to the source and opened the Linden Centre in the southern province of Yunnan. Using a restored inn as a base, they’ve created a series of programs to introduce travelers to the region’s art, architecture, culture, and food. Guests at the restored historic mansion can participate in 10-day to three-week-long painting, writing, and culinary-arts programs, attend a local wedding, or even help carry sedan chairs during a temple celebration. The Linden Centre has helped persuade skeptical officials of the importance of preserving the heritage of China’s rural areas, and the owners are now adapting their model for two more historic buildings in Yunnan.
*As an added note, their oldest son is a freshman and UW-Madison for my big 10 and UW fans.