On old-town Dali’s main drag, the shops repeat every few hundred meters. Knock off New Balances cover the shelves of one, light up fidget spinners the next. At a fruit bar, the woman behind the counter chopped my pile of lychees, starfruit, peaches, mango, and grapefruit into hassle-free chunks. It seemed like the traditional Bai (the local ethnic group) culture had disappeared as the town was forced to conform to a blueprint for tourist attraction. Only the natural beauty of the landscape remained. On a lake to the east, fisherman would send out cormorants with bound necks to retrieve more than fifty kilos of fish per day. The lake has long since been over fished. Nowadays, the birds do tricks for travel groups. To the west, the mountains rise out of the valley floor so abruptly that their shadow spreads across old town hours before the sun sets.
From the winding mountain road leading to Baoxiang Temple, the crops below change color every few thousand square meters. I sat in a window seat of our MianbaoChe (bread loaf bus) as the farming communities ducked in and out of view. Up there, the air was crisp and the countryside pristine, a welcome change from the crowded, trash-lined streets I had walked the night before.
More shops flanked the entrance to Baoxiang Temple, but these were housed in a row of low, wide tents thrown up in an afternoon. There were still plenty of cheap trinkets for sale, but there were also pancakes, peanut brittle, and every type of seasoned tofu imaginable. You couldn’t walk from one end to the other without smelling ChouDoufu (stinky tofu), frying oil, and the surprising combination of soft cheese covered in sugar. Beyond the tents was an open square. Throughout the day, people gathered here to listen to the improvised performances of traditional Bai courting songs. At night, it played host to a giant bonfire where hundreds of people formed snakes, one behind the other, to skip and kick and jump in a giant circle. At the base of the Temple, festive energy filled the air, and the welcome party was complete with a gang of monkeys eager to steal out fruit.
We lugged our bags up the stone staircase to the temple where the twelve of us would share a room for the next two days. It was like walking into a dream. The Baoxiang Temple is set into a cliff. To get from one place to another, I was always going up or down: up to the food tent for a vegetarian feast, down to the road for the bonfire celebration, up to the mountaintop for morning meeting, down to the bathroom late at night. The latter trip was sometimes imperiled by a thick fog that descended into the hills after sunset. On a clearer night, we hung around outside, discussing extraterrestrial life while admiring the stars.
One morning, we hiked to the top of the temple. The festivities below us never ceased, but as we climbed, the call and response faded to a hum. No longer could we hear an old Bai man call out to his wife: “If you still don’t believe how much I missed you, look at my face. Before my cheeks were plump, now I look like a pile of fish bones!” The hills spread out beneath us like the folds of an unmade bed sheet. We had left the chaos of the festival behind and before that, the trash an light pollution of Dali. A new Valley now appeared in the distance: the historic trading post of Shaxi. From atop my perch, it looked only an afternoon’s walk away.