The Land of the Bai People
Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
351Trip End Ongoing
Here, just north of the Myanmar (formerly Burma) border, west of Han China, and east of Tibet, the Bai ethnic group lives in the valleys and mountains. Their language and culture is unique, yet shares characteristics of Tibetan, Burmo, and Han language and culture--Dali is a melting pot.
At the center of Bai culture is Erhai Lake and the old town of Dali
Heading out the south gate, I went in search of marble sculptors. I had seen them on the bus ride into town: it piqued my interest. What were they doing? First, marble is plentiful throughout the land here. Marble mines exist throughout the mountains, although most of the large boulders are gone--already used. The active mines appear to be on the east side of the lake. As marble is metamorphosed limestone it all started making sense as I recalled Yangshuo--the land of limestone mountains. In the Hengduan Mountains, massive uplifting has occurred, which heated up the limestone here, melted it, and thrust it into the air thousands of feet. When I reached the marble sculptors by bike, one young novice sculptor with three years of experience was working on a large guardian lion from one of the few remaining large boulders of white marble. As Dali marble is known throughout Asia, it was likely going to be one of a pair of guardian lions for the entrance to a skyscraper or government building somewhere at the cost of 100,000 yuen.
The marble is a simple reflection and picture of life on earth for the Bai people and is a pure art of nature
Out of the east gate, I headed to go Cormorant fishing, which I'd heard about for a while but never experienced. Long ago, fishermen came up with the assinine idea of training cormorants to fish for them. Actually they only had to rely on the hunger of the male birds. At the edge of Erhai Lake by his houseboat, I met Zhao Yi Zhou, the cormorant fisherman. In preparation for the fishing, Yi Zhou tied the lower necks of the cormorants with reed grass so that they could not swallow a fish, yet could store about ten fish in its gullet. Rowing into the lake, Yi Zhou pushed the cormorants, sunning themselves wings outstretched, off the boat and called them to fish--pounding the bottom of the boat and yelling commands: "He, Hei!." The cormorants, with their oily feathers, were excellent underwater swimmers and soon came up with fish. Seeing one with a fish, Yi Zhou enticed the cormorant to approach with another small fish then grabbed the cormorant out of the water and forced the fish out of its gullet into the boat
Along the edge of the lake, farming villages, rice paddies, and vegetable fields rise to the edge of the steep mountains. On the mountains are more terraces and the land is unimproved pasture for grazing goats: basically grass interspersed with cedars and rocks. Up here at 6,000 feet, the farmers are tilling the soil and replanting the rice. The rice is first grown in small dense paddies to ensure successful weed free germination. Once a larger field is prepared by hand hoe, oxen plows, or roto-tillers, the dense rice is sparsely replanted in rows. Hundreds of farmers are involved in this work, and weeding the fields, and applying pesticides, and selling the food in markets.
Through the northern gate, I traveled to the Yan Family House to partake in Yang Folk Dancing. Three-course tea, a metaphor for Bai life and a traditional greeting ceremony, accompanied the dancing performance. The first tea is bitter, the second tea is sweet, and the third is an aftertaste: "life is bitter in the beginning and sweet in the future. One has to be industrious to have a happy life". I enjoyed this tea with several busloads of Chinese tourists. At the end the dancers went into the audience and being a little different looking, all the Chinese next to me were prompting me to go up there. So I did a couple of dances, getting all the steps wrong of course, to the laughter of the audience. I was not alone, however, and managed to get my neighbor up dancing as well.
Through the western gate, I left the next day, heading by bus towards Lijiang.