Erhai Lake, is named after its shape and expanse. “Er” in Chinese means a human ear and “Hai” means a sea. It is one of the seven biggest fresh water lakes in China and the 2nd largest highland lake at an elevation 1,972 meters. It is over 40 kms in length, 7 kms wide and 21 meters at it deepest point.
We hired a driver to take us on a day trip around the lake. There are many small minority villages that are dotted around the lakes shore. We left at 9am and were to return before dark. This cost 300 yuan for the two of us. (about $45 Canadian dollars)
The first village we came across was called Xizhou. This village grew and flourished in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) because of renowned tea merchants that traded with Tibet. It is a typical commercial center of Bai Ethnic Nationality. Here we were taken by our driver to see peoples homes. The man of each home was given a cigarette by our driver. It seems to be the common gesture of thanks.
Their houses are of the typical Bai design (courtyard rooms on three sides and a screen wall on the remaining side) and “Sihe Wutianjing” (One big courtyard with four smaller ones at the four corners of the main one). Xizhou Town is composed of more than 88 compounds of this kind. Some have several yards and some have yards within yards. It was very interesting to see how the people lived here.
Historically, this was a military fortress of the Nanzhao Kingdom and a temporary palace of the King of Nanzhao. Because of its favorable geographical situation, the town used to be a commercial center before 1949 and there were more than 140 national capitalist families among whom the Yan’s, the Dong’s, the Yin’s and the Yang’s were the biggest ones in the capital. Yes there really were Yin’s and Yan’s.
The next place was Zhoucheng Village. It is the largest village of Old Dali City. The entire village is in a square shape with row upon row of houses. This village is known for hand-made tie-dyed clothing that is sold all over the world. They also produce many batik materials.
We went to a shop where they make the tie-dyed products. It was an old set of dwellings set around a central courtyard. There were many large metal pots that had clothes soaking in natural dyes.
The pot was placed over a burning barrel to further enhance the dying process. They showed us the plant used to make the green dye, and then the ochre used to make the yellow dye. All the other colours are from natural sources as well.
We then carried on to the village of Shaping. This happened to be a village having a market day. The driver parked in a gravel lot and asked us when we would like to come back and meet him. We decided an hour should be a sufficient amount of time.
The market was chaotic. There were people everywhere. Carts with product were being moved around, kids were playing, there were people bartering and lots of food being cooked. In this village like all the others around the lake, you will see the people in traditional clothing. This is really the clothes the people still wear here, this is not something done up for tourists.
Other than a few modern conveniences these people don’t live much differently than they did centuries ago. It wasn’t hard to waste an hour wandering around. We didn’t find anything we wanted to buy, it was mostly produce being sold. We did thoroughly enjoy the experience.
Now we were going to the end of the lake, the furthest point from Dali. We stopped at the Jiangwei village temple. Our driver approached the large wooden doors and a small lady in a traditional Bai outfit let us all in. We climbed up some rickety wooden stairs to the top of the temple. The stairs were really steep and the ceiling so low that Jack had to hunch himself over. When we got to the top there were two ladies sitting around a colourful alter with many different religious figures. We were given incense sticks to light and place in a jar of sand.
We made our way back down to the courtyard area. It was quite the site with many Bai ladies gathered around. They were about to have their lunch. There were only a couple of men, we wanted to ask the driver why, but he spoke only a few words of English. We walked around the area and a group of ladies sitting around a low table motioned at us and spoke to the driver. He motioned to our mouths to confirm that they wanted us to eat with them. Next thing we knew we were sitting on low wooden stools around the table. They were the tiniest, and the wrinkliest little old ladies we have ever seen. They were adorable. Jack seemed like a giant sitting next to them, even I felt huge at 5 foot 2!
We had bowls filled with rice and then a cooked spinach type green was put on top. We sat and ate with the ladies like we were regular guests. They chomped at their rice and acted like it was no big deal that we were there.
There were many groups of ladies sitting around tables. Our group did seem to be the envy of the other tables because of the foreign guests.
Our bowls were not allowed to get empty, someone would stick a big clump of rice in them again. After about the 3rd refill we finally had to put our hands over top of the bowls and politely shake our heads no. Jack patted his belly to show we were full. We pulled out our pocket Chinese dictionary and pointed a sentence to our driver. It said thank you for your kindness. He said this to them and they all laughed and smiled and chatted back to us, of course we couldn’t understand any of it. We were ready to leave now and waved goodbye to them and said xie xie (thank you) to them again.
Further down the road from the temple we got a nice view of the lake. A few hundred meters offshore we could see many small wooden boats. The people were standing in them and raking stuff off the surface of the lake. It seemed to be some kind of grass. We could only guess at what it was for. We thought maybe it was used as fertilizer for the crops.
We carried on around the lake. On this side of the lake there were yards and yards of plastic lying out in the sun. They had small eel like creatures drying on them, others had fish cut in half lengthwise. They were lying on the road and taking up a lot of space. It made it quite difficult if another vehicle came to pass us from the other direction. We got to see all kinds of traditionally methods still being used, like donkeys carrying bails of hay from one village to the next.
As we drove past farmland we saw huge cement columns dotted through it. They stuck out like a sore thumb. We asked later in town what they were. Apparently a train line will be put through from Dali to Lijiang. It seems China is committed to mass expansion of the railway. These small remote villages will eventually all be linked. Their character will change dramatically when it happens.
At one point on the drive we were high up above the lake. We stopped at a viewpoint to look down. Below us was a village of old houses that looked like they were piled on top of each other. All you could see was hundreds of rooftops. The village was called Tianshengying.
We saw a small island just off the lake shore, it is called Putu. It has a small temple on it. When we stopped to take a look there were two Bai ladies in a wooden boat making their way to the shore. They do this by pulling on a rope that is is strung across from the island to the shoreline.
Our last stop was a temple that we had to pay a small fee of 10 yuan to get in. It was called Sky Mirror Pavilion. It has one section with vendors selling things. Then you go along a raised walkway to the other side of the road. There you go through a garden area and up to the temple. Inside you climb the stairs up to the top where you get a great view of the lake and across to the old town of Dali.
We had about another hour drive back to the old town of Dali. We had to pass through the new Dali town en route. This is where we were originally dropped off by the bus that brought us to this area. The city is typical of many others we have seen in China. It is growing with construction everywhere you look.
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