China’s capable of many surprises — like randomly meeting your friend in a train station.
I’d just exited the smoke-filled toilets, where a battalion of soldiers were having a sneaky cigarette. As I crossed the hall back to Selita, I spotted a guy approaching with long brown hair. This is not a common look in China. I couldn’t believe my eyes. After an unforgettable time together in Vietnam, I was reunited with Camilo.
Admittedly this meeting was not totally serendipitous, but it was still unexpected. We were both heading to Dali, an awfully touristic town that had once been a mainstay for Western backpackers.
Today the only remnants of Dali’s hippy past were the Chinese tourists walking around with flowers in their hair, taking selfies in the Instagram-friendly cafes. Dali was soulless, but at least it looked mighty pretty with the Cāng Shān mountains in the background.
One of the good things about traveling in China was that a great meal was never far away. Camilo, Selita and I sat down to a feast of fried eggplant, dry-cured ham, and goat’s cheese. The pork in particular was a delicacy in these parts, famous all over the country. More unusual was that the goat’s cheese was eaten with a side of sugar, sprinkled on top as if it was salt.
With the food finished, we headed to a bar, where I learned to my dismay that Chinese beer only had an alcohol content of 3%. So Camilo and I upgraded to the local fruit wine which had more of a punch — 26% abv — and was curiously sold in jars.
Slightly hungover, the next day we rented electric scooters and tried to drive around Erhai Lake, to the east of Dali. The roads were quiet and wound through peaceful villages and farmers fields. We passed the odd temple tucked beside the water’s edge.
By lunchtime we arrived at the Bai village of Xizhou, a place of ancient mud houses. Sadly, it was also overrun with tourists, every building press-ganged for these purposes. But at least I got to sample the marvelous bread/pie hybrids, filled with egg and pork.
With the scooter’s battery running dangerously low, we gave up on our attempt to circumvent the lake and returned to Dali. The following afternoon we caught a train north to Lijiang, the home of the Naxi people.
Lijiang had an atmosphere that I was starting to get used to in China. Its wonderfully maintained old town was devoted to tourism, the main street choked with tour groups and touts. Yet it was hard not to be enchanted by its stunning good looks, especially at night-time when Lijiang’s reputation for romance was on display.
In a vain attempt to escape Lijiang’s rampant commercialism, Selita and I headed to the nearby village of Baisha. It had an immaculate collection of traditional homes, guarded by high walls and ornate gates.
Baisha certainly had a slower pace of life than Lijiang. I enjoyed watching the elderly folk congregate in the main square, and the artists making some beautiful Naxi embroidery. But most memorable of all was the sheer number of craft-beer bars run by foreigners. There were five on the main street alone. This didn’t seem to be the China in National Geographic.
By chance Selita and I bumped into Camilo in the same village, who was with an Australian chap named Anthony. None of us knew it at the time, but we’d just formed the group that would take us all to some much more adventurous parts of China.
The Tibetan plateau awaited.