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We spent the morning ambling through old Dali town before getting our bus to Lijiang. As with all parts of China we have seen so far, building work is in progress throughout the town. If it is not pavements and roads being dug up it is new hotels and housing blocks going up, presumably where traditional old style houses stood not so long ago.

Old town Dali

When we arrived in Dali Stef had been given a card for the DaliHigh Café which had internet access and our search for this café this morning shaped our meanderings. We did find it eventually, tucked away off the main drag. It is run by an ageing American and only opened a week ago. In all the time we were there we only saw local people walking up and down outside so we were not surprised when he said he got little passing trade. He was one of those dropped out hippy types who seem to migrate to backwaters like these.

Old Dali is a mix of very picturesque well maintained streets and areas badly in need of renovation (which here means demolition and rebuilding). The main Fuxing Lu is a wide street with narrow canals running down the sides and weeping willow trees with Chinese lanterns hanging down from their branches. Shops line the street on either side, all geared for the tourist trade, and touts are on every corner trying to entice you onto boat trips or the cable car up the mountain. It is a colourful scene but somehow knowing that it is all tourist driven takes away from the beauty of it.

As soon as you turn off Fuxing Lu the story is very different. Here there are the traditional old houses with ornate wooden and bamboo beams and tiled roofs. Some of the buildings almost seem to be sighing under the weight of the years worth of activity that has taken place inside them. Others are sagging and have a slightly drunken appearance. A market led off down a narrow side street and everywhere there were local people going about their daily lives. Here too the streets were lined with shops but these sold everyday items rather than tourist tat. Huge towers of steamers were keeping the dumplings warm and if the places they were in had looked cleaner I would have been tempted.

Further south on Fuxing Lu the road reached a square with a large pagoda style building in the middle but with no indications of what this was for. This area seemed to be full of shops selling jade and silver jewellery and ornaments, different to the shops closer in to the centre but still all geared to the tourists. Beyond here a large open square was home to a huge golden statue of a soldier and a flag pole with the Chinese flag flying. A few military looking types were busy doing something around the flagpole and when they saw Stef with camera in hand they said “no photo”. Stef pretended not to understand and snapped away getting in his shot the large brass plaques which clearly say “no photo”. The military types simply shrugged and walked away.

We worked our way around the city wall and back to our hotel, checked out and then killed time until our bus was due. We were meant to be picked up at the ticket agency at 1:30 but got there early just in case there was a problem. A different lady was at the agency and she just waved for us to sit on the settee and wait. As 1:30 came and went we tried to ask what had happened to our bus. It was one of those usual travel sagas. Our tickets have never been for the 1:30 bus. We will be picked up at 2:00 (or 2:20 or 2:30 depending on how late it got) by a minivan that will take us to the main road where we get the bus.

City gate with traditional girls (all show for the tourists!)

The language barrier did not help and by this stage we were both getting very dubious about what was going to happen. The mud cleared a little when a Chinese lady, who is married to a New Zealander, stopped by asking us to drop leaflets in Lijiang for her brother’s hotel. She acted as translator and confirmed that all was OK and that in China we should not really expect things to run as they are timetabled to.

She used to live in Dali and told us that the increase in tourism has changed the town a lot. House prices have more than doubled in the last few yeas making it difficult for local families to afford to buy. Much of the renovation of the town is trying to copy the look and feel of Lijiang which successfully gained UNESCO World Heritage status. Dali’s application at the same time was rejected.

As we waited for the bus my tummy started to play up and I asked to use the travel agency’s loo. The lady there hopped up beckoning me to follow and to me to the local public toilets. They were clean and they did have a western loo but there is absolutely no hope of privacy. Walls about two feet high separated the toilets and there were no doors so everyone gets to see everyone else while they do their business. It is probably the one thing I would recommend that China changes if it wants to attract lots of foreign (western) tourists.

With the lady in the travel agency getting more and more frustrated at the delay, the minibus finally turned up and with two other people on board it was full once we were in with our packs. That did not prevent it from stopping at another hotel where an Australian couple with two backpacks and a large case were also waiting for their lift to the bus. We were then driven out of town and to a lay by on the main road where other people were waiting. The bus was our first Volvo bus experience and it lived up to the expectation of comfort that we had.

Our route took us north along the lake and past the village we had seen from the Cloud Path yesterday. Leaving the lake behind us we started to climb up into the hills and mountains. Here the villages looked more traditional, with less concrete and breeze blocks in evidence, and the fields were terraced up the sides of the mountains. Pretty much every last available space was used, A we climbed we were back in landscapes similar to those we had seen in South America with wide valleys stretching out for miles beneath us. SO far the landscape has not been ruined by vast cities or express roads but no doubt that will come in time.

When we arrived at Lijiang it was at first sight yet another city, although not on such a large or high rise scale as most we have seen. We got a taxi from the bus station to the old town with the driver on his mobile all the way checking directions, despite having assured us that he knew where he was going. As a world heritage site, the old town is closed to vehicles and he finally dropped us as close as he could to our hotel. An old chap was conveniently on hand with his bike, which had a trailer attached to the back, ready and waiting to wheel our packs through the streets for us. It is just as well he did because although we would have found the street our hotel is on, the name outside is only in Chinese characters.

A long passageway leads through to an inner courtyard, one of three in the hotel. The courtyard is lined with old wooden doors and shutters behind which old style houses have been converted into smart hotel rooms. Ours was on the second floor and gave us a view down into the courtyard below. It was very clean and modern, had comfy beds and a heater that worked – true luxury!

Ellie and Eric came to meet us and we went out and about in Lijiang. As we had just arrived we followed their lead as they took us down and into the heart of the old town. It is based around two streets that run parallel to each other. One is full of shops selling the usual tourist stuff, the other is chock full of restaurants and places to eat. Both are lined with Chinese lanterns and the overall effect is very welcoming and beautiful. On the restaurant street there seems to be a nbightly competition between the eateries to see whose staff can sing the loudest. It is quite a cacophony of sound but adds to the local colour.

We did not have the best meal ever but it was good to catch up on what we had all done over the last day or so and to finalise our plans for New Year. Stef and I had spent some time on the internet before we left Dali looking at people’s experiences of trekking through Tiger Leaping Gorge. Not wanting to walk along the road we were all agreed that we would take the high path. It sounds like it is a long walk to the Halfway House point and with no option to bale out if you get knackered along the way I was wary about committing to do it. We asked at the local tourist information desk and I have to say we got sketchy information. For a staggering Y350 per person they will arrange transport, accommodation and entry into the park for you. At our hotel they said that a taxi would probably be about Y200, a much cheaper option and the one that we opted for.