The tie-dyed batik hanging in our dining room was made by the Bai minority living in Dali in China’s Yunnan Provence. We visited Dali in the summer of 2010 and loved every minute. It was the perfect vacation on our vacation. Traveling in China can be intense: noise pollution –yapping toy dogs doing cartwheels, constant honking, high-pitched music and ring tones played repeatedly; dense, visible, cloying air pollution; garbage-strewn streets; flashing neon lights on tall, grey buildings; and people, lots of people everywhere, some blatantly staring, others wanting pictures, the occasional scammer, some yelling mocking “hellos” across the street. Then there’s the language barrier and squat toilets. But amidst the pollution, sensory overload, and people (people everywhere!), you’ll see unbelievable natural wonders, such as the Stone Forest near Kunming.
Dali was a nice respite, the dialed-down version of the “real” China, one of the few places on our China travels that had actual tranquility (as opposed to piped-in bird sounds). After the first several yards of flashing cameras and women in heels (and past the giant game), our hike in the mountains was peaceful with no people for most of the hike (!), a far cry from Yellow Mountain, which was obnoxiously crowded with tour groups following guides with megaphones, workers carrying people up the steep paths on bamboo thrones, and people yelling, playing music (or ringtones), and smoking.
Dali also had a backpacker’s vibe (complete with Bai grandmas selling “ganja” and banana pancakes). It was a welcome change to eat bastardized versions of pizza after months of Chinese food. We stayed at the Jade Emu guesthouse where one of the room service dishes, the flaming chicken, was lit on fire and put on your bedside table. Is the guesthouse still standing? We bought the batik on one of our many meanders through town. It’s more sensual and with bolder colors than the gray, conservative China. I packed it away at the guesthouse next to an intensely perfumed flower (lily?) that a Bai woman sold to me. When we arrived in Chengdu several days later, bags unpacked, the scent of the flower could still fill the room.
I’ve been busy grading research papers and now my house is not a far cry from the chaos of Yellow Mountain. I pause at the batik, perfumed flowers drift on my memory, the scent of the past and the world far beyond my doorstep, a time and place of beauty and wonder amidst the chaos.