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Dali

Asia, Destinations

Absorbing the culture of Xizhou

November 25, 2014 • By

Today, I ate to my hearts content. Chef Pang created some culinary magic at Linden Center and I provided the assist. Fearful of my lack of kitchen skills and the nearest decent hospital a plane ride away, I sliced and diced eggplant and peppers and then handed over the meat clever looking contraption (knife?) to the chef when my imagination got the best of me. I donned an apron and paid attention to the chopping but I promised myself no injuries on this trip. The next step proved to be even more challenging. When the chef loaded a wok with half of bottle of oil and the flames shot a foot in the air, I stepped aside and allowed the master to create.

First, he crisped the mint. Next, he bathed the meat in oil and put it aside. Then, he poured out half of the oil in the wok and added the eggplant, which rapidly soaked it up. Lastly, he took the rice noodles and threw them in the wok for a few minutes and added water and then mixed in the cabbage and tomatoes. As far as ingredients, he used several tablespoons of garlic, salt and red pepper specs and a dash of pickles.

Making tie-dye knots

Making tie-dye knots

With the meal hot and ready for tasting, he presented me with three dishes that potentially could feed five people: Cured beef with mint, eggplant and red peppers cabbage and tomatoes with rice noodles all sans onions for a real treat. I powered through a 1/4 of each dish before my stomach revolted and my mind finally transmitted the do not eat anymore sensor. The mint tasted liked crispy kale; the beef I couldn’t get into and the eggplant would probably have been delicious if I had not seen all the oil it absorbed. I most appreciate the simple meals and the rice noodle with cabbage and tomato proved the winner. I dismissed myself from the feeding frenzy and darted to the terrace for an afternoon nap in the sun.

When I travel, I prefer to participate in activities where I can learn about the local culture whenever possible. It’s the best way to truly uncover the local customs and way of life. Today my friends from the hotel joined me for a visit with a Bai family known for making tie-dye pillows, tablecloths, wall hangings and scarves. Cecelly and Elmer are both age 24 and assist the guests with tours and join to help with translation where needed. The three of us sat at a small table with the older daughter of the home and her three-year-old daughter and scrutinized various designs before we selected our patterns.

Never one to claim any domestic ability other than cleaning, I required help simply threading the needle to begin. We stitched for about an hour when the daughter of the family hijacked my creation and said something in Mandarin like, “you’ve done as much as you can do” and reworked some complicated knots and we readied for the dying portion of the day. The grandfather concocted a dye of flowers and he heated up a wok type pan and added the liquid. Foolishly, I complained about the flies for a good two hours before I put two and two together. Flowers + Fragrance + heat = flies! After some swishing in the wok, my butterfly tie-dye was born in my favorite color blue. While my handkerchief work of art took a mere two hours, the ladies of this house (aunts, grandmas etc.) spend about four hours a day each day making various garments. An 8×10 tablecloth takes about two weeks depending on the intricacy of the design, number of knots color scheme. The more knots the more time.

Cecelly and Elmer both attended university far away from home and neither returned after graduation even though their parents paid the tuition. Elmer is from the north near the Russian border and is an only child. When I asked him who would take care of his parents when they turned older, he explained that his cousins could provide that service. I perceived somewhat inaccurately that in the Chinese culture children provided for their parents and that the culture honored the elderly. That is not necessary accurate as children in this generation are exposed to more and move away for more experiences and opportunities. Elmer plans to attend an international masters program in Germany in January and it’s my prediction, if given the opportunity, he will not return to China. He desires to see the world and is serious about research and study. Whenever I asked him a complicated question, he armed himself with answers upon our next meeting.

Cecelly is from a more rural area in the south of China. She speaks English as if she lived in the states. Her story is interesting. She was raised by one set of grandparents and her sister the other as her parents went off to work in the city. She described how many families are torn apart like this in China because many people are migrant workers and she wants more for herself. She also has a brother but he accompanied the parents. The family seldom reunited unless on national holidays. Cecelly plans to remain in Dali working for another year and may follow Elmer’s lead and head to Germany for a masters program.

They both explained how they feel pressured by their parents to get married. Elmer prefers to experience as much as he can and may marry around age 30 and Cecelly is certainly in no rush. She hopes to marry a non-Chinese man and aspires to live abroad so she is saving money for her journey. I enjoyed their company. It’s clear they are hardworking, smart and driven young Chinese people. They opened their hearts to me and I appreciated their willingness to share. I especially respected Cecelly because she thought it was fine I wasn’t married!

Nothing says physically fit like a decent hike. Along with a fellow American, Cecelly and Elmer, we hiked Mt. Cangshan (foothills of the Himalayas) through the tea plantations of Dali. It’s the end of tea season so our hiked involved pure exercise and scenery but the heart palpitations due to the altitude made the views all the more worth it when we reached the top. I kindly reminded Cecelly and Elmer who bolted ahead that they too would be 40 one day.

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The ranges in this area are about 11,000-13,000 feet and the mountains are known for Azalea flowers, smooth marble and tea. The Bai people are avid tea drinkers and the tea ceremony is a common event at festivals and marriages. There are three courses: a plain tea cooked in a clay pot with loose tea leaves, a sweat tea where brown sugar is added and a third type mixed with honey. I found the leafy tea to well taste like trees, the ginger tea with brown sugar divine and the honey tea to be a bit syrupy.

After a two-hour hike, I gladly accepted my last meal in Dali (Yunnan) with new found friends. We feasted on ginger chicken, ginger tofu, veggies and tea with vistas of Dali and Lake Ehrai with the mountains embracing us in the sunshine. We opted for the cable car to return giving way to breathtaking views all the way down.

As I leave this very beautiful region, it warrants saying that THIS is the real China I came to see and it’s slowly disappearing. Just like in our own countries traditions are fading and the demand for new outweighs the preservation of art, language, culture and tradition.   This presents certain sadness. To visit Yunnan is one thing; but to experience the culture and discover the heart of the people is quite another.

I’m off for Xi’an in the North and the home of the Terra Cotta Warriors.  I’ve been warned it’s cold, colder and coldest and I need to brace myself for the pollution. Sounds like I’m leaving paradise for the 1920s in New York City. I’ve sampled brown wine and it’s decent maybe even good. It may be the secret to surviving the next three weeks or it could very well be “Made In China” for the assist.

On a side note, I must be the only one with weird airplane issues but the flight attendant buckled in my book and scarf laying harmlessly on the seat next to me.  Go figure!

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Asia, Destinations

Dali to Xizhou

November 23, 2014 • By
New friends (one pic for you one for me)

New friends (one pic for you one for me)

I strolled the same streets as the evening before but this time with determination.  I wanted to visit China, I needed to learn something and damn it I was going to make it happen.  I also recognized the fact that in the daytime, I am a celebrity.  My newly cleaned blonde hair blowing in the wind gave rise to a whole new world–the Westerner.  The people who ignored me at night were instantly attracted to me.  I needed it.  Who doesn’t love attention?   As I made my way up and down the streets and through the alleyways, I watched lots of people giggling and taking my picture.  At first, I obliged but after a handful of photo seekers approached me or followed me I decided to use this to my advantage.  If they wanted a picture of me, they must TAKE a picture of me (see my new friends).  Being a solo traveler, it’s hard to find people to flag down for photos but here in Dali everyone has an iPhone or Samsung and that means they know exactly how to use MY IPhone.  Problem solved and let the photo sessions begin.

Breathing in the fresh air, I took notice of my surroundings.  Dali is located between the Cangshan Mountains and Lake Erhai in the Yunnan Province.   Bai and Yi minorities settled the area, which represents about 85 percent of the population (last estimate was $2 million).  There are 55 ethnic groups in all of China and 26 reside in Yunnan alone.  A relatively small Chinese Muslim population is also present in Yunnan.  The interesting thing I found is that the Muslim groups actually speak Bai (similar to Mandarin) and not Arabic, however some of the signage contains Arabic in it.  The Bai people practice Buddhism but others follow Taoism and Christianity.  I noticed a church with a cross in Old Dali but it’s likely being transformed from a church to a community center.  The Chinese classify the Muslims groups in this area as belonging to the Hui nationality or Bai Hui (Bai speaking Muslims).  It’s estimated that the Hui people came to Yunnan as followers of the Mongolian army in the 14th Century.  I could not differentiate the Bai Chinese from the Muslim Chinese or *Hui.

Now that I conquered the town of Old Dali, the time came to really branch out to other communities.  My guidebook recommended the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple.  I surmised with lots of sign language that the front desk would store my luggage and some guy in a suit would take me to the Three Pagodas for $4.  Donning a crown of flowers, a Bai symbol (I clearly needed to draw more attention to myself), I trusted this man to take me to my next destination.  When we arrived, he motioned for me to stay put while he busied himself talking to what I understood to be guides.  I forked over $20 and received a ticket as a woman escorted me to the front gate.  I am still trying to figure out what I paid for since she only swiped my ticket, handed me an English map and pointed me to the pagodas.  Truthfully, I gathered the whole group of them calculated some deal but with history to conquer I moved on quickly.  To read all about the Pagodas, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Pagodas_of_Chongsheng_Temple_%28Dali%29

Temple at Three Pagodas

Temple at Three Pagodas

Admittedly, the Pagodas define beauty and longevity having sustained natural disasters and wars.  The area encompasses ponds, greenery, flowers and several monasteries.  What more can I tourist want?  The weather in this area comprises two seasons: rainy and dry.  Currently, this is the dry season and as such the mornings and evenings are cool (40s) but the days are picture perfect (65+) and make for great sightseeing conditions.  I managed to survive the barrage of requests for photos and even snatched a few of my own.  It’s really hard being me.  With my crown of flowers, the sunshine, the celebrity photos and a warm day, it occurred to me it was time to try and eat local.

What I failed to mention earlier, is that the local delicatessen is rooster, pig hoofs, pig tail, livers, guts of pigs, the head cut off, quail eggs, chicken and chicken feet and a whole lot of disgusting.  This is definitely the reason astute restaurants omit pictures but sneaky me snapped photos in the supermarket and asked the staff at my new and definitely improved accommodations in the village of Xizhou.

Nestled in a village with a population of about 6,500 people, Linden Center is home away from home.  Americans own it and God Bless America the staff speaks English.  It was time to get my questions answered.

What are the slabs with all the Chinese at every entrance?  Well Kelly, Dali is well known for its marble and the name for marble is actually Dali marble and the Bai people use marble in modern architecture.

The thing that looks like a dragon foot with toe nails…what is that?  Well Kelly, it’s a chicken’s foot.  Me: Do people eat that? It doesn’t look like there is any meat on it.  Answer: They like to chew on it especially the nails (no joking).  I was not amused.

The response from my guide:  What do you call the insides like the intestines? I respond, the intestines?  He says, “no all of it?”  I say, “oh the guts.”  He pauses and without hesitation spurts out, “You have to have the guts to eat the guts.”  He made a funny.  I stood horrified.  I later met two Israeli girls on a bike ride and told them of my findings and said I think the Jews got it right when they said pork isn’t kosher.  ICK! They quickly agreed.  I acquired a deep knowledge of Chinese food especially as it relates to Yunnan.  It gives the vegetarian movement great momentum if you ask me.

Lastly, a question locals either fail to answer or are incapable of addressing from Africa to India to China pertains to the “toilets.”  While the holes in the ground have been cleaner here than in other countries, I grow tired of pissing on my shoes and sprinkling on my pants and then nearly dropping my sunglasses as I bend to wipe.  The experience is not pleasant and it’s probably why I am thankful I am constipated most of the time.  Get rid of the rooster and the pig, bring me a porcelain god and we have a deal.

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