A recent trip with my wife and daughter to Yunnan Province, China, found us staying in Dali, a place that used to attract free spirit backpackers who liked to hang out in Old Dali between the beautiful Ehai Lake and the impressive 50 km. long Cangshan Mountain.  The bloom is off that rose now, with formerly laid-back Old Dali having become a detestable tourist trap, its fakery ripe for vilification in a future post.  That said, there’s nothing phony about the areas south of Dali over the mountains where thrive the hard-working, fascinating Yi, Hui, and Bai ethnic minorities of China.

Jim’s Tibetan Hotel was our unique and wonderful residence in Dali, Jim, the owner and a Tibetan himself, specializes in Chinese ethnic minority travel experiences. He took us one morning to a Yi village about 75 minutes south of Dali via the new road that the Chinese government has built to Laos. It’s now 18 hours by car or truck to Laos versus 7 days on the ancient road in use before for thousands of years. We also saw a new railway being constructed to Laos. The Chinese are smart to strengthen commercial ties with Southeast Asian neighbors, and this is reportedly part of their trillion dollar strategy to dominate world trade.

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Yi village south over the mountains from Dali showing terrace farming

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Same Yi village showing typical construction, not much different from the rest of China’s rural areas, regardless of ethnicity.

The Yi ethnic group maintain their rural agrarian lifestyle, but with modern accouterments, such as motor vehicles, electricity, mobile phones, and satellite TV. The old ladies dress in traditional Yi garb (see photo just below), whereas a 12 year old Yi girl and a 14 year old Yi girl we met were dressed like our fourteen year old daughter. Both Yi girls could have passed for Americans.

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Older Yi woman dressed in traditional garb tending her pigs

Below picture is of Jim standing in a Yi courtyard in the village. Jim looks like a fascinating character, and he was.  Jim’s guided ethnic experiences were expert, although he chain-smokes (but never in vehicles).

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Jim of the eponymous Jim’s Tibetan Hotel

On that day trip South over the mountains to several Yi, Dai, and Hui villages and towns, we passed through the center of New Dali, a city of 500,000, renamed because nobody in China had ever heard of its original name. But they all knew Old Dali, so the large city adopted the name.

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High-rises like these dot the landscape of New Dali

Passing an endless cityscape of buildings built along the road between Old and New Dali, Jim lamented how the rice paddies that had been there ten years ago have all been replaced by such construction.

The development continues still, but I couldn’t get a clear idea what is driving the growth other than tourism. Jim mentioned that 10,000 tourists per day trek to Old Dali, and that it is busiest in July and August. That’s nearly four million per year, less than half the number that seek out Lijiang Old Town (northwest of Dali), where we stayed 2 nights earlier that week. Still doesn’t account for the astonishing growth of New Dali.

The new road to Laos that we drove peaks at an impressive 2400 meters (7800 ft) before dropping again into the valley where we stopped in several small towns, including at Huimingcun to visit a 600 year old Buddhist temple (pictured below). The dramatic carvings of Buddhist and Indian gods inside look original, but are actually recreations made from photos in 1980. Like most religious antiquities, the temple’s original carvings were destroyed during Mao’s Cultural Revolution to assure the primacy of communism.

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600 year old Buddhist temple in Huimingcun

Few Chinese choose to stay at Jim’s Tibetan Hotel because that beautiful and quiet place “scares them,” so Jim related. Young people complain his hotel is “like a temple.” Jim said young Chinese tourists want flash, bright lights, blaring TVs, and lots of noise. Jim explained that his clientele is mostly European, with some Americans, who appreciate the serenity of his property.

That certainly jives with our experience in Lijiang Old Town a few nights before. There I had to ask the other guests, all young Chinese, to keep it down after midnight so that we could sleep.

Speaking of which, it is my observation after this recent trip that Chinese young people have two vocal volumes: far too loud and deafening.

Jim also told us that he’s had trouble keeping young Chinese employees at his hotel because “all they want to do is play on their phones, not work.”

Driving in New Dali I was reminded that city traffic in China moves through intersections via roundabouts, traffic lights (all with countdown timers), or catch-as-catch-can. In the latter case, which account for half or more of major intersections, cars move slowly left, right, or center to weave around other vehicles. Somehow it works without signals or traffic cops. I liked it!

On major Chinese streets and roads, lanes can be approximate. Vehicles somehow find their way around each other without too many collisions. Speed bumps are everywhere, which tend to keep down speeds, as intended.

Jim said China is moving so fast to electric vehicles that it is depressing the cost of internal combustion cars. We saw many three-wheel motorcycle utility vehicles (the pickup trucks of China) that were electric in Dali. In fact, the majority of cars, trucks, and buses on Old Dali streets were electric.

We lunched in a small town known for its Hui ethnic minority, who are all Muslim. The meal of two kinds of beef, rice, snowpeas, egg and greens, and “Old Lady Potatoes” (because they are cooked soft) was one of many memorable culinary experiences on this trip. See below photos.

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We also visited the town’s market, as rich in variety of everything imaginable (and some unidentifiable) as the one in Lijiang. Lots of marijuana seeds for sale. MJ grows wild here, and the Yi and Hui people eat the seeds and the leaves. Sounds like fun! But we didn’t try it. Also walked through the animal trading area (below photo) where cattle, water buffalo, donkeys (for eating), and white Brahma bulls from Burma and Laos are bought and sold. Frankly, it put the NC State Fair animal pavilions to shame.

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Here’s another shot of two Yi women buying greens at that market (below), dressed in traditional clothing.  They also make their own shoes in the same exquisite designs and colors.  Note the Hui woman standing with them reaching for her money.  As I said, Hui are Muslims, peacefully coexisting with the communist (atheist) Chinese government as well as with all the other ethnic groups living in the region.  All the ethnic groups get along with each other well.

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Though not depicted, the third major ethnic group in this region are the Bai people.  Because they are not Muslim and do not dress in distinctive clothing, they blend in to the eyes of Westerners.  However subtle the facial feature differences are to us, I am told the Bai are recognizable to other Chinese.

Dali was outstanding because of this visit south over the mountains to the long valley where these small towns of Chinese ethnic minorities prosper.

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