Thor's Travel Notes


Journey to Dali

@ Thursday 3 February 2000

Well, if I'd had two cold nights already, they were just preparation for last night. Number 3 building in the Camellia Hotel was an ice box. I went to bed with lots of layers of clothing, and woke up at 1am frozen to the bone. I had to put on all my street clothes, just to get some sleep. Wrote the manager a letter on his own notepaper in the morning to tell him what I thought of his "heated" rooms. The staff lied to me.

Well, it was a morning to do a bit of catching up. I transcribed back some of the stuff on my recorder. Gosh, it fills up space very quickly. Eighteen pages in a couple of days. That took me almost up to lunchtime. These concentrated codes out of our brains called language get awfully stretched out when you put them into scored black letters on paper. Since I had until 2.30pm, there was time to dawdle. At a quarter to noon, just before final checkout time, I picked up my gear and said fond farewell to the little ice box.

The girl at reception agreed to put my stuff in a backroom for a couple of hours. Then I walked around the block and had lunch at Mama Fu's again :shredded pork and chili, which was OK, and something called an Israeli salad. What was an Israeli salad? Chopped cucumber and tomato, smothered in white sauce of some kind. I had wanted green leafy stuff. It is really hard to keep a balanced diet, eating alone in Chinese restaurants, even when they are pretending to be Western restaurants.

Block walking again, I did find another book shop, which had a few books in English. A small, very odd selection. It came down to a choice between Thomas Moore's "Utopia" and Sigmund Freud's "The Interpretation of Dreams". In retrospect, Moore would have been a better choice.

Freud's ideas are pervasive in twentieth century culture, even if you don't believe in them, so "The Interpretation of Dreams" seemed like the sort of thing that sooner or later I should have a look at. Now, by this evening, I've had a look at around 65 pages of the stuff. A couple of things are becoming clear. Firstly, Freud uses the word "science" a lot. Whatever else he was up to, I don't think it was science. (He was smart enough, of course, to understand that the term "science" was a powerful magical talisman, a cultural validator without equal in his age).

Freud was very clearly a captive of his own particular culture and period. It is not a culture or a period that I hugely admire. He was also an extremely self-indulgent individual. As for professional activity, a good deal of his practice seems to have been fiddling at the edges of the damage caused by the medieval ignorance of medical practice at that time. Finally, when it comes to dreams, as with many things like this, there may well be a kernel of truth in some of the ideas somewhere. The metaphors that Freud deals in do have an intuitive appeal, which is why many of them have become instant clichés. But I have very little faith in most of his so-called diagnoses and treatments.

Finally, I roused myself and trolleyed up to the stadium where I had bought the tickets, expecting to get on the bus. No bus. So I asked a chubby woman behind the glass window. She swore something like "bugger it" in Chinese, and then managed "TAXI!!" in English. Shenme - What?? The silly bastards. They had given me not the slightest hint that the bus left from SOMEWHERE ELSE. She showed me some Hanzi on the front of a brochure, which I stuck under the nose of a taxi driver. By sheer luck, unlike the taxi drivers in Chongqing I was to meet later, this guy was at least literate. He ambled off at his own speed towards the other side of town somewhere. This is not a town of fast moving traffic. We twiddled our thumbs behind a level crossing, and all the traffic lights along the route turned red. We got to the bus depot about 1.5 minutes before the damn thing left.

It was by any measure, an impressive bus. A big Volvo. The luggage stored underneath; it had reclining seats, two television sets, and dead in the center of the bus, cleverly lowered into the luggage hold, a loo. I was seated somewhere up near the back, where a man asked me in English if he could have my seat to sit next to his son. That was no problem until I got into his seat. A twelve year old brat in front was bouncing his recliner in my face, non stop. I shook the back of the chair and chipped him a bit, then got my new English speaking acquaintance to say something, which more or less calmed things down. We each got given a show bag with a mandarin, a roll, and a plastic looking sausage, also a bit of cake. Later on came a key ring with a bus enshrined in transparent plastic.

Once it got out on the road this bus really did hone along, without seeming to go fast. Very shortly out of Kunming we hit a four lane highway up into the mountains. As an engineering feat, that highway is massive, and brand new. It doesn't go over mountains, it goes through them. There was almost no traffic. The Beijing Mafia have little idea how to manage complicated things like social problems, but Jiang Zhemin and many others are comfortable with civil engineering. I get the sense that right through China, and especially in remote regions with strategic importance, they are pushing roads like this, and railway lines. Linking up the Empire.

The highway to the city of Xiaguan, which was where we were going, simply could not be justified in terms of simple economics. The lack of traffic on the road was proof enough of that. Most of the trip was through denuded mountainsides, where you could see occasional attempts at reforestation, and frequent serious erosion. From time to time we came to mountain valleys and uplands, where there was a certain amount of settlement, but strictly of a rural kind. Xiaguan itself seems to be parked in the midst of a larger than usual inland plateau, surrounded by mountains. It is at one end of a very large lake.

As we disembarked the English speaking man kindly took me half a block to the place where I could pick up a minibus, No.4, out to Dali Village. He was a smallish man in his forties, with thinning hair, and an unimportant manner. In a couple of brief snatches of conversation I managed to pick up that this was his home town. Of course, he was coming home to see his parents for the New Year, with his son. A chance remark by me about the engineering feat of the highway, prompted him to reveal that in fact he was the seismic geologist on the project. I would have liked to ask him more.

With my arms full of bags, and a folded up trolley, I sort of staggered sideways, like Mr. Bean on holiday. When a No.4 minibus duly pulled up, packed to the gills, I barely managed to wedge my way in through the door, poking various people in the eye as I went, and then bulldozed a path through the crowd, dragging the bags across their bodies, to a clearer space down towards the back. I still had to stand up for most of the way, until somebody finally got out. The fare cost Y1.40 -- not exactly expensive for a half hour ride.

Since the big bus hadn't got in until 6.30 pm or so, it was getting pretty dark. Our route led through the foothills bordering the lake, where settlements stretched down to the water. I didn't have the slightest idea where to get out. All the way from Kunming I had been the only waigoren in sight. First, all the travelers had been Chinese folk coming back to Xiaguan for New Year, and now on the packed minibus these were clearly village people who commuted, perhaps daily, into the nearby city.

At last we passed a gate, lit up, that said "Number 5 Old Dali Guest House". This sounded vaguely familiar from the LP Guide, so I took a punt and stumbled out at the next stop; (someone probably has a multi-million dollar business selling names that sound vaguely familiar). The exit was right next to an open fronted shop. It took about ten seconds flat for an old lady to fix her gimlet eye on me and shuffle over with a brochure that she shoved under my nose. The brochure, three guesses ... was for Number 5 Old Dali Guest House. She summoned a strapping lad who assumed the responsibility of leading me to this accommodation, no doubt to pick up his pimping commission.

The design was rather not what I'd expected. The LP Guide had said something about a Taiwan foreign investment enterprise, and I was expecting your ubiquitous white crustacean tiled, multi-storied, dark blue windowed, latest Chinese quick-buck hotel, with all the external and internal charm of a public toilet. But this place was built around a sort of a courtyard. Everything was just two stories, with natural wooden verandahs facing into a central garden. The back section of the hollow square of buildings was a bar & restaurant.

The bar reeked of Western imitation dropout culture, and was accordingly peopled with little clusters of imitation dropouts on two week holidays from their architect's offices in Dusseldorf, and accountant's offices in Milan.. There was of course a bar, with a barmaid who'd had a veneer of Western pop smoothed over her Yunnan village heart, and an English menu that the LP Guide must be mass producing for pit stops along the world's donkey tracks. The relationship between this generic "banana pancake menu" and regional translations into the food trough would make an interesting Ph.D. thesis..

I plumped for the most expensive room in the house, being the only one with a private bathroom. Hmm. That LP Guide must be at least two years from realities on the road, maybe five years in many a spot, ... It mentions this ensuite as available, but the room, when I looked at it, had the appearance of being made last week. It had a varnished wooden floor, imitation brick wallpaper, some waist-high plywood paneling around the edge, a door that had to be violently kicked open, a bathroom still apparently under construction.

The plumber, like most Chinese plumbers, had obviously grown up in a village where the only plumbing was a bucket and a well, and probably went home to such a place at night. The handbasin, perched unsupported on any rim, was ready to obey gravity and crash to the floor if you foolishly put a hand near it. The shower of course had no shower rose, just an water pipe dumping gobs of water from a great height into the middle of the room. This is the quintessential upside-down Chinese shower, with water spraying upwards as it hits the floor and soaking anything that you've hung behind the door.

Nevertheless, the management was clearly pitching higher than the dormitory average, a sort of deluxe slumming for the higher price. A large modern art print in the bedroom hinted "hey, we're not primitives", and a couple of arty lampshades softened the light. The TV set had an interesting remote control that set the volume to either zero or two hundred decibels. A barefoot boy from the kitchen found a way to finesse that, but he never did teach me the secret.

I made my way into the bar, and found that apart from a couple of staff, nobody else could or would speak English. The crowd was continental European, every one of them, dressed in a properly casual style for the road. It was a fair guesstimate that each made more in a week than I make in a year. Not surprisingly, they ignored me totally. They didn't look especially merry, but were entirely self-absorbed. One old man of thirty showed skill in the offensive art of summoning the "garcon" with a snap of the fingers, and demanding his order without even a glance at the waiter.

I rashly asked for some tomato soup and a beefburger, oh, and a glass of wine, which turned out to be half a glass and very, very sweet. The tomato soup, when it came, was ... well a study in contrasting imaginations. I visualize tomato soup as a fairly thick puree, maybe smoothed with a dash of milk, and made piquant with a little salt, or some other spices. This effort was water, dish water I believe, slightly whitish and oily with a fleck to two of egg in it. A few slices of tomato projected above the high tide mark. It definitely tasted exactly like dish water, an admirable attempt at recycling no doubt. The beef burger, well that was a work of art too. Two slices of the local bread, always sweet in China, sandwiched more slices of tomato. Sitting ON TOP, not between, the two slices of bread was a tiny meat patty. Serves me right for not ignoring the generic Western menu and asking for something the locals would understand, like "lazijiding he yi wan mifan" -- spicy diced chicken and a bowl of rice..

The saving grace of Number 5 Old Dali Guest House was the little wooden verandahs fronting onto the courtyard. These had a couple of easy chairs, which would be nice in the middle of summer, and a line to hang your newly washed socks on. So washing socks was my last energetic act for the day..

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* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"Journey to Dali"... copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved
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