All of a sudden, the specialties of Dali, Yunnan appear before us as a civilizational challenge that we cannot dodge.
We have crickets, grasshoppers and larvae, lightly fried, lined up on wooden skewers, displayed in a precarious balance at the end of the large wok where, like river fish, small shrimp and other delicacies, the business owner cooked them. We inaugurate the tasting by the locusts.
More than crunchy, they are crunchy. They reveal a surprising taste of salt and water biscuits, one of the most salty.
We move on to crickets. We had already tasted worse Doritos so we repeated them effortlessly. We suspected the larvae and with good reason. They confirmed a repulsive spongy texture. Its aftertaste, of something between moss and slime, disgusted us to match.
We made the ugly faces we expected, thanked the seller for the intrigued attention she had paid us and returned to our uncompromised tour through the geometric streets of the old walled city.
In more recent years, Dali, too, had gained a bittersweet flavor. Until the mid-80s, it remained one of the historical gems of Yunnan, one of the furthest provinces from the great Chinese metropolises, the capital. Beijing, Shanghai, meanwhile, Hong Kong and others.
The backpacking route that explored the southwest corner of the China to then go up towards Lijiang, Shangri-La and Lhasa, the pierced heart of Tibet.
Dali's Backpack Era
By that time, Dali, like the rest of the country, remained calm and genuine. The remedied outsiders brought with them, in their mouthwashes, novelties and differences that surprised the natives. These, concerned only what was necessary with the reception of visitors.
As the walls defended old Dali from countless enemy attacks, mutual cultural respect preserved the city's integrity. This went on for a while, until, as expected, Yunnan's spectacularity spilled over. With the province featured in the international travel press, outsiders increased.
Residents stopped resisting the backpacking profit that was increasingly knocking on their doors. Simple homes were transformed into inns, craft and souvenir shops and bars and restaurants that started serving crepes, kebabs and falafel, not just the Siapaos, jiaozis and the eccentric delicacies, all too often too spicy in the region.
After the turn to the XNUMXst century, one of the consequences of the technological and financial development of the China, was the emergence of a wealthy middle class that claimed the right to travel.
Places like Dali – and, even more, Lijiang – they quickly found themselves invaded by hordes of compatriots, above all of the Han ethnic group, demanding and haughty who now roam the streets and alleys with their eyes fixed on the trembling flags of the guides. Luckily, we arrived in the region in the off-season, far from any of the more popular vacation periods in the China.
Shaping Market – No Patience for Foreigners
We point to the Shaping market. It was still early and there came together producers from the villages and hamlets in the vicinity of Dali, around the great lake Erhai and the mountains that contain it.
We went up the main avenue where transactions take place, paying attention to the wares and the rude manners of the sellers. Women in wicker hats sitting on the floor try to foist brooms, baskets and other goods, arranged in a long makeshift window.
Next door, a raw material dealer for extensions bought women's hair. With apparent success, such were the suitors waiting to sacrifice their own. When we peek at the business, you notice Sara's. Without ceremonies, he feels it and evaluates it.
Calculator in hand, he makes her a proposal, loud enough to take her seriously and almost – but almost quite remote – for her to consider the offer. Accordingly, we proceeded with the capillary reserve intact and the same number of yuan with which we had arrived.
Further up the street, we come across vegetable stands, with therapeutic roots and clothing, with real buffets of exotic delicacies, some much more challenging than the fried insects we had already tasted a few hours before.
The women who managed the food stalls had little bowls and bowls with different sauces and ingredients, pasta, vegetables and meats scattered around.
They cooked them using small stoves or woks and served a hungry entourage that shouted their orders, settled down and greedily devoured their meals, without wasting their moments to breathe in too much conversation.
Products for sale and sellers followed one another. And the Bai's aversion to our photographic approaches was confirmed. In few places on Earth we feel such strong resistance to cameras and lenses. Asking for permission generated refusals.
An Absolute Aversion to Photography
To the detriment of our sins, we were rejected by a number of amazing characters from that China country and deep, rich in fashions and befitting contrasts. We saw peasants in Maoist garb and berets, tanned ladies under long scarves that blended into hijabs.
We crossed paths with dealers in suits and brimmed hats, with grannies in bright, 100% baited garments, or with the exceptional young man who, dressed in a white suit and hat by JR Ewing he of the Asias, he felt more rejoicing than any other countryman.
In spite of the abundance of figures and the variety of styles, taking pictures without asking provoked immediate avoidances or slurs in native dialect that could even be well disposed, something that the brusque way of communicating of the Chinese in general and, in particular of the Bai, does not. allowed to infer.
We do what we can. When we got back inside the walls, we despaired of a distraction that would mask our unexpected frustration.
From its porticoes inwards, Dali lived under a dazzling split personality. We saw her giving herself to the most distinguished entertainment rituals with which she bound strangers.
These, photographed in historical Bai costumes, starred in intricate matchmaking productions on the ramparts or bastions of the fortress, or elbowed each other in the eminence of the watchtowers, which they climbed to photograph the surrounding panoramas.
The Disputed Streets of True Dali
Simultaneously, in other existential exchanges, the local daily life continued on the sidelines of all that tourist commotion. Retired people are entertained around disputed mahjong tables.
Butchers cut the newly arrived pieces of meat, the owner of a Chinese restaurant touches up the lush display made up of sauces and vegetable arrangements.
Next door, a young man, probably his son, begs fire from a coal so resistant that it forces him to replace the wicker shakers with a hair dryer.
We continued. We are faced with chattering battalions of students who, freed from classes and entertained by successive tumults, parade the dark blue uniforms of their student class.
We entered a Renmin Road. There we found the school they came from. We detour onto Xinmin Road and come face to face with a church.
By itself, a Christian temple in those borderlands and believers in traditional Chinese polytheism or, whatever, Buddhists or Muslims from China it would be a wonder.
As if that wasn't enough, it was one of the most unusual churches we'd ever come across, with forms faithful to traditional Chinese architecture.
An Unexpected and Troubled Christian Church
The church was built in 1927 by French missionaries with the purpose of revitalizing Yunnan Catholicism, introduced in the region in the XNUMXth century, at a time when missionaries and newly converted Christians were often martyred.
During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, it suffered severe destruction and was closed. It would only be renewed and reopened by the authorities in 1984, when it received a status of Historic Protection that allowed it to last without further tribulations. Thus, it preserves several exuberant sections of gnarled roofs crowned by a golden cross. When we enter, it is empty.
The interior reveals a space similar to the more modern and sober naves of Western Protestant churches. In a painting exposed on the altar, Christ wears a red tunic, has a blue cape on his back and appears enveloped in a golden glow, in the manner of a superhero prophet.
The two rudimentary paintings of the angels that flank it, the yellow Chinese characters underneath, complement a religious artistic ensemble in such an unusual way that it leaves us scratching our heads. In any case, the time for us to appreciate it soon ran out.
The guardian of the temple appears out of nowhere and informs us that it has to close, the same as thousands of her fellow citizens did for those who had already spent a long day in front of shops and businesses.
When the night cheers up Dali
Artificial lighting in the area between walls anticipates the twilight. It heats up and lends new splendor to the watchtowers above the entrance porticoes.
The peaked roofs are gilded that contrasts with the twilight blue of the sky always clear and with the reinforced green of the walls below, which are already covered with climbing vegetation. We went up to one of these towers and from a window on the fortified top, we admired how the city surrendered at night.
Back on the ground, Dali's nightly version continues to amaze us. The sound of Chinese folk music awakens our senses. In pursuit of the melody, we turned a tight corner.
Without expecting it, we were faced with a kind of local Flash Mob. Dozens of residents had gathered in an open square. Without further ado, an elderly hostess and a DJ inaugurate the music and hostilities.
The participants integrate a wide choreography and dance with grace and harmony, only possible through the daily repetition of the ritual. After the first song, several others dance, each worthy of new individual movements, to the delight of some young people who, on the sidelines, laugh heartily and, in this way, celebrate the vitality of mothers, grandmothers, neighbors.
Forty minutes later, as spontaneously as it had started, the meeting comes to an end. The hostess interrupts dryly the song that dragged on. In the good Chinese way, the dancers simply stop dancing. Do not say goodbye.
They don't give in to any kind of contact or similar nitpicking. Instead, they turn their backs on the closest ladies and go on their way. Dali has been the way it is for a long time. Visitors to the heaps are still changing.
More information about Dali on the website of Encyclopaedia Britannica