KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We met with Mu Chua one morning to negotiate the fare for hiring her brother to drive a minibus and for her to act as a translator. She had not been very far from Lijiang so could not act as a guide, but her brother speaks zero English so we knew we could not manage without her. We settled on a daily rate and we would pay all the gas and tolls. She insisted on bringing along her sister (she had come with us to Tiger Leaping Gorge) and we knew her to be quiet and shy. We felt it would be too crowded with six adults and all our luggage but Mu Chua insisted they would manage squeezed in the back because her sister had never been out of Lijiang and didn't want to miss the chance to see the south of Yunnan. We decided if they could put up with the discomfort, we didn't want to deny someone the opportunity to travel.
Our first stop was Dali, about 160km south of Lijiang. Some travellers don't bother to see both cities because they are reputed to be somewhat similar, but we were glad we made the stop, for more reasons than one. The drive took about four hours and we had terrific weather along the way, which allowed us to see the beautiful mountain scenery and the huge lake, Erhai Hu. It sits at 1973m above sea level and covers 250sq km. There are lots of opportunities for mountain bikers around the lake but we weren't up for that and concentrated on walking around Dali's Old Town. It's much smaller than Lijiang and the streets are pretty much laid out on a grid but a wall surrounds the Old Town and the modern buildings are outside the wall so there is a nice separation of old and new. We had a terrible lunch in a café that caters to foreigners. It seems that a lot of places that get mentioned in the Lonely Planet soon let their standards down and coast on the business the guide brings them. Still, the afternoon was sunny and warm, a pleasant change from Lijiang and we walked around enjoying the town and then found a simple hotel just outside the south gate. It was so reasonable that our guide and her siblings got a room there too. The next day we awoke to a heavy grey sky and rain. It was disappointing but I guess its par for the course in this mountain area in November. We walked around the small streets and admired some of the handicrafts of the local Bai minority group. We ducked into a small coffee shop when we got too damp and David and I shared a dessert called "Ugly Brownie". It was a great gooey square made with chocolate, coconut and real, honest to goodness, butter! Decadent, but delicious.
After fortifying ourselves, David wanted to walk up a small lane that caught his eye. Not far up the lane he was drawn to a small shop that sold mostly Bai textiles but had a little glass jewellery case near the back. He is always on the lookout for old silver and something drew him deep into the shop. While he looked over the items on display, I was drawn to a small baby tied to the back of his mother, the woman shopkeeper. She let me lift the blanket that was covering the baby's head and I could see that he was just waking up. What a cutie! The three of us seem to be so taken with the small children in China, and I must say the parents love the attention we shower on them. We always greet the babies and toddlers with Ni hao, and it never fails to get a delightful smile from the parents. If the little ones are old enough, the parents encourage the children to say Ni hao back or even to say Hello to show off the little English the child might know. We have never had a parent reject our attention, though some children are a little hesitant with our strange appearance.
David was very interested in the silver in the display case and asked to see it up close. In this way, we began a real adventure with this local woman and her family. As David's interest grew, she began bringing out more and more lovely pieces and before long she was on her mobile phone to her husband and mother. Her husband arrived to take the baby off her hands and her mother came with more silver for David to consider. It looked like David was going to be tied up for some time, so Anil and I went off on our own to do some errands and arranged to meet David at a café and hour and a half later.
Just as we were at the crossroads near the café, our mobile rang. The shopkeeper was calling to see when we would arrive and they were finished conducting business. They were so thrilled to have made a large sale of silver to David that they wanted to take us all out for a traditional Bai dinner. By now, we had met the shopkeeper's mother, sister, husband, daughter, mother-in-law and sister-in-law and niece. We all trooped down to a restaurant, the baby came along too, tied once again to his mother's back. A sumptuous feast was laid out before us and we tried a wide variety of dishes. The shopkeeper and her sister-in-law were the only ones who could speak English, but we had a great time communicating with sign language and David kept the little girls entertained with his origami birds. The girls surprised him and made some origami shirts and trousers as a reciprocal gift for David. The grandmothers were delighted with the interactions between the generations and the cultures. In the end, all the women posed for a group photograph. It was a delightful experience; one I will remember for a long time.
After dinner, we went back to the shop to collect the silver, but to our amazement, the grannies managed to find even more pieces tucked away upstairs above the shop. They didn't have to twist David's arm very hard to convince him to buy even more and before they were done, there was over 30kg of silver wrapped up in the bundles they prepared for him. The husband had pretty much stayed out of the business dealings, but we were happy he was on hand to load the heavy parcels into a basket and carry it all the way to our hotel on his back in the traditional manner. I am sure David didn't sleep a wink that night; he had come across some of the most unusual silver bracelets, necklaces and boxes that he had seen in years and had managed to get all for a great price. It's possible the extended Bai family didn't sleep well that night either as they sold a tremendous amount of silver, much of which hadn't even been on display in the shop so they couldn't have anticipated that a single foreigner would show up during the slow season and carry off so much of their merchandise. It was a great day for all concerned.
The next morning when it came time for us to load up the minibus with all our luggage, Mu Chua couldn't believe how much heavier David's suitcase had become. I told her that David had purchased some beautiful stones, the kind that are quarried all around Dali and sold in the local shops. She seemed to understand and her sister helped her heave the bag into the back of the vehicle and we were on our way again.