Having not particularly enjoyed being lost the night before I resolved on this morning that I would take the time to really understand the way back to the hotel. So bright and early I went out the back gate and began to determine the way back. I started by walking the same path as the day before but stopping when I reached any important intersection that required a significant change in direction. This time I found the obscure quick left turn and didn’t end up dead-ended in the school. One point for a good memory, at least in the daylight. I walked past the spot where the children were playing in the canal, they’d been replaced by a man who was washing some sort of animal entrails, carefully dipping and squeezing the water out. His dirty pile was lying on the stone walkway, his clean pile which was draped over his right arm. A few yards upstream another man stood on the path, smoking a cigarette and blowing his nose farmer style into the water. We saw a lot of food being washed in the canals along with quite a few women doing their hair, often at the same time which resulted in many conversations when sitting down to eat. I stopped at one point to read an instructive sign that explained that throughout the village the water was often dammed to form 3 pools – the top for drinking, the second for washing food and the third for washing clothes. There were no pools here, just the flowing water and so I’m not sure how nose-blowing and meat washing fit into the grand scheme of things.
I came to the first intersection and made a mental note of the wall on the other side of the canal; it was white, trimmed in blue and at an angle to the direction of the path. The day before we had met up with a rough looking rat-dog who had followed us quite a ways into the town. Today there were two Tibetan Spaniels trying to impress a much bigger mutt that he didn’t belong in their neighborhood. I decided to call this spot “Dog Corner” figuring that putting a name to the place would help as well. I made a left and walked along to what I thought might be a good right turn and sure enough, it brought me back to the Mu Gate we’d seen previous afternoon. Giddy with success I decided to back track to the canal and in doing so gathered a couple of additional landmarks – a bare brick wall and a noodle restaurant. I was on my way to understanding where the heck I was and it only took retracing my way halfway back to the hotel. Turning around I started back again and passing the Mu Gate once more I took the main street out of the small square, interfering with 5 women taking each other’s picture. I quickly came to a crossroad that I recognized – the lane that led back to the main square. Turning around again I found myself staring straight at the Ming Gate I had made the mental note about while passing in the dark – this was the missed right turn that led to me being lost. I could have kicked myself because it was so obvious aside from the fact that I didn’t see it from this perspective on the previous walk into town. Ah well, at least I know it’s there now.
I met up with Mike and we decided to cover as much of Dayan as we could before heading out of town to another village up the road. In these early morning hours, the place was wonderfully empty, only a few other people were out enjoying the sunlight. In the main square a group of women in traditional dress were doing a folk dance in a big circle. Simple steps making the circle big and then small. It seems that every culture has this same style of dancing. We worked our way up and out of the commercial district and down into the residential areas where people were going about their regular lives, tending to the communal garden, cleaning their courtyards and shopping for the morning meal. I stopped to talk with a workman who was building an adobe wall, telling him that my home in America was built the same way. He stopped shoveling mud and looked at me like I was nuts. Beyond the main part of the town there was a nice walkway along one of the rivers that led to a park called Black Dragon Lake. Here, it is possible to take one of the most famous photos in all of China – a beautiful pagoda and a classical arched bridge on the far side of the lake, with Jade Snow Dragon Mountain in the background. Well, I got the first two pretty well but the mountain was completely concealed by haze. Another reason for a trip back I suppose. We eventually wound our way back into town and headed back to my hotel to get the concierge to arrange a car for a trip out of town on our next day. That deal made we caught a cab up to our next destination, Shu He.
This little village lies about 15 minutes north of town and the guidebooks suggest that it would be fun to rent a bicycle and ride it out there. But between the road that climbs, starting at 8000’, the traffic and the somewhat confusing route, I concluded that the guidebooks are barmy. A cab was much better, and this guy was smart enough to drop us off at the entrance which had no fee collector.
Like Dayan, Shu He is a traditional Naxi village; same architecture, same goal – sell crafts to tourists. The fields surrounding the town were well tended and filled with that same yellow flowered plant we’d seen so much of on the ride in from the airport. We wandered around for an hour or two, managing to bump into my friend’s wife and her friend from my town back home. “Small world” really doesn’t come close to describing things sometimes. We caught a gypsy mini-bus back to town which interestingly cost ½ what the official can had charged us for the trip out. Arriving, we decided to climb the only hill in town to a pagoda overlooking the ancient town. It wasn’t a particularly arduous ascent but I definitely felt the effects of the altitude. At the top is a very famous pagoda built recently in Ming style by the government at a huge expense. Lacking any real history or cultural significance, it was pretty nonetheless. The hill though is not about the pagoda, it’s about the view of the rooftops of the ancient town, and it was spectacular. We walked over the crest and down to a vantage point through a cool pine forest and along a path that was decorated by prayer “bells”, little circles of wood with wishes written on them that clatter in the wind. Birds sang in treetops in front of a panorama of hundreds of buildings with those unique tile roofs, stretching off into the distance.
Finding a way down this side of the hill was easy. Mike stopped to use one of the public bathrooms (which are abundant, free and incredibly clean) and while waiting I fell into a conversation with a Buddhist monk who was souvenir shopping with what was probably his mother and sister. I guess I never thought about it, but monks must have mothers too. Although for some reason that seems incongruous. We had the normal chat about where I was from and what I was doing there and how amazing it was that I could speak Chinese. Mom and sis finished their shopping and he wandered off. I took a chance and got a nice picture of him walking away.
It was dinner time so we went looking for a place to eat, deciding on a place that called itself a “wine bar.” It was well before the dinner rush, so we were about the only people in the place. We selected a table overlooking the canal figuring a mix of eating and people watching would be fun. For lack of anything better to do, the entire staff of 10 came and stood around our table in a half-circle helping us first to select a bottle of wine and then observing closely as I tasted it. I accepted the bottle and the wine steward decanted it into a carafe and poured about half a mouthful into each glass. I guess he figured it would go further, one swallow at a time. Following group observation of us using the menus, our orders were placed and the crowd dispersed.
We sat and sipped our wine and watched the tour groups passing by. One or two people in each group would stop and pretend to take a picture of the restaurant, but they were really taking pictures of us sitting there. I started waving and this caused more people to take our picture. It ended up being a nice way to pass the time waiting for the food, hamming it up for Chinese tour group tourist whose most cherished memory of their trip will be a couple of Americans flashing them the “V” sign from a restaurant balcony.
Continuing the tradition of over the top service, the chef brought our meals out. I had chose duck l’orange and was surprised to find it served with French Fries; it was delicious.
At night the restaurant district turns into a bar strip with loud pounding Chinese pop music, girls out in front of each place trying to coax you in and white helmeted riot police, one to a bar, making sure that harmony is insured. The noise was truly deafening, made worse so by one place that provided the drinkers with wooden blocks to pound on the tables in time with the music. Lots of Rap, or at least what passed for Rap in southwestern China – boys in baggy jeans, big shoes and baseball caps. Sitting and having a beer was tempting – the people watching would have been memorable But there was such a marked conflict between the serene nature of the ancient town and the bar strip that I just had to get out of there. We called it a night and headed back towards our respective hotels.
I have to say all my back and forth morning walking paid off immediately. I left the main square and walked past the Wisteria restaurant. Passing the billowing red and white construction tarp, I quickly found the right turn at the Ming Gate. I took it and headed back towards the Mu Gate and my next landmark but something caught my eye – the most amazing shop, a store front dedicated to dolls, all western and dressed in frilly Victorian garments. I had to have a picture and so I stopped. While standing there framing my shot a young boy of perhaps 8 years old appeared in the light. He was holding a pop gun and yelling at me in Chinese. He cocked the gun and fired a couple of times. I laughed at him, took the picture and continued on, mightily impressed by his defense of his parent’s store.
Past the Mu Gate I cut between the noodle shop and the bare adobe wall, taking a left turn and heading towards the blue trimmed white wall. Finding it, I took a quick right and almost stumbled into a huge pile of wet garbage. It was all vegetables and must have come from the restaurants in that block. One old woman was there with a flashlight pushing it around with her cane. A couple of dogs were working it over from the other side, explaining why I’d seen dogs at this spot on every pass. Suddenly it all became clear and I had the perfect night time landmark – Giant Cold Slaw Corner. Walk until you see the Slaw and take a right. I passed by and continued on, finding the hotel gate with ease.