I took the overnight train from Kunming to Dali. I’d enjoyed my visits to Chenggong and the robot, but Kunming itself is a dirty, dusty city and the traffic is brutal. Motorbikes are ridden on the pavements and cars and buses – few of which look roadworthy – belch out thick, black smoke. I heard a vehicle backfire with such ear-ringing ferocity that I thought a bomb had gone off.
Kunming men seem to have an above-average interest in the contents of their noses. I sat on a bus avoiding looking at a man who spent more than a quarter of an hour with a finger up his nostrils; a customer at the Carrefour deli counter rooted around in his nose and then pointed at the food he wanted, leaving a smear of snot on the sneeze-guard; I walked past a McDonalds and saw a man vigorously emptying his nose onto the restaurant floor.
The West Mountain area was pleasant enough though. I took the cable car up to the top, looked around temples and rock carvings alongside groups of South Korean and Japanese tourists and then walked down. They had a photo gallery of famous visitors – mostly Communist Party elders and local bureaucrats. I’m not a fan of the royal family, but the pictures of the Queen visiting in 1986 stuck with me. I kept wondering how she got there (cars can only go up so far). Did her majesty walk? It seems unbelievable.
When I arrived in Dali just before 7am the next day, the streets of the old town were empty apart from a few children going to school and local people eating breakfast. The only shops open were butchers, each of which had taken delivery of a whole cow that was being dissected. As the sun rose higher and the mist lifted, I saw the mountains to the west looming over the rooftops. For those few minutes, this town that had been recommended to me so many times over the past four years, lived up to its reputation.
I checked into a cheap hotel, washed my tired feet and slept for an hour. Then I went back outside to look around properly. It was still early but already the atmosphere of the place had changed dramatically. The shutters had been raised on the heavily-restored shop fronts, revealing gaudy tourist tat, fake bags, reproduction Mao posters and factory produced ‘ethnic’ clothing. Middle-aged women tried to sell me bus tickets, boat rides and marijuana. Tour groups were starting to invade the town centre.
I know that I can’t be Marco Polo. That’s not how the world is anymore. And mostly that’s a good thing. I didn’t have to come here by mule along the Burma road, dodge bandits, shit in a hole. But is this the alternative? Hash browns, Nescafe, banana pancakes, coach tours, the sound of an ‘Atomic Kitten’ song rising through the floor of my hotel room from the bar below. Whatever magic the place once had has been well and truly stamped out by over-restoration, over-commercialisation and swarms of tourists. Travelling to a place like this doesn’t broaden the mind, it just empties the wallet.
Dali wasn’t all bad. I walked away from the town and saw the clouds parting like a ruptured suture, bleeding light onto the mountainside (see the picture at the top of this post). The lake was also quite beautiful.
After walking to the lake, my feet hurt so much that I had to go back to the hotel. One sock was stained with blood, the other with pus. I’m still getting used to the new shoes I bought in Hong Kong.
I realise that to people who – due to work or family commitments – can’t imagine taking all this time off to travel, my complaining must sound intolerable – like a princess whining that her tiara isn’t on straight. Maybe I just have to lower my expectations. Next stop is Lijiang.