July 21st: The Big Lake, Dali, ChinaAt this time of year, Dali heaves with Chinese and Western tourists. Its newly renovated streets are lined with cafes serving platters of Western food, trinket shops full of jewellery and tailors offering ethnic clothes.
Set behind a huge wall, (rebuilt just last year) temples are lit by neon green lighting. It's an example of tourism Chinese style - remove the original architecture, rebuild and mass market it. Indeed, Chinese tourism far outweighs the spendings of foreign travellers. Passing an office entitled, 'The Cultural Propaganda Team of Dali City', I wonder how they fit into this puzzle?
Yet Dali is a nice place (for nice is as good a description as any) to take a breather from the 'rigours' of China. Step away from the main drags and there's still a network of backstreets overlooked by old wooden houses, night markets selling skewered chicken claws, and huddles of men engrosed in card games. For how long this will remain though, it's hard to say. The rate at which the Chinese construct new buildings is astounding - changes occur almost overnight.
For all this cynicism, I'm happily holed up in a comfortable traveller hostel. It's raining and I'm sitting up on the veranda, close to a speaker which is piping out a muzac version of 'Whiter Shade of Pale' - a good time to reminisce. Dali feels like a significant arrival as I vividly remember route planning back in London all those months ago - meeting for a beer with a representative of an adventure touring company in Putney, we poured over a map and circled Dali as a resting point - and now here I am.
I'm a little disappointed by the ease in which I slip back into Western mode. 'Dalai Lama' breakfast at the Tibet Cafe seems the perfect start to a day (muesli and flower tea), noodles for lunch (integrity to China), and a burrito to wrap things up. Perhaps the highlight of the Dali food world is the chocolate brownie and ice cream from the Sunshine Cafe - a dessert which seems to have entered into Traveller Legend. But do I feel like I'm really in China?! They'll be plenty of time to appreciate rice and noodles, I reassure myself...
Trystan dashes off to Kunming by night bus to pick up a parcel from the post office - our 4 day journey takes him just 6 hours. In the meantime, I meet up with Donner, Marguerite and Boas, the Dutch couple and their child, I first met in Hue, Vietnam. They're in the MCA guesthouse just outside the city gates, in a world that seems a little more real. John and Nora are another Dutch cycling couple in town, who recount tales of riding in Mongolia and Iceland. Familiar faces can be seen - Ferry, my roomate in the Camelia, whose Chinese I marvel at. Over an evening of story telling, I introduce him to the delights of The Brownie - he's someone I hope I'll meet up with again. Spending time with other travellers also reminds me that travelling can be as much about meeting other like minded people, as visiting a country itself. I find cycling perfect: an escape into a different society altogether, balanced with meeting people you can talk to easily. Why deny 25 years of Western upbringing by avoiding all other foreigners? It's part of who I am, and I enjoy finding out what different impressions others have.
A week in, and we're very much ready to move on. Dali is a comfortable place, but I'm in need of a little discomfort. We're at 2400m, and there's a lot of climbing to do. Lijiang is our next stop, another backpacker haven. But from then on, it's the real China. I promise...