Monday, November 17, 2014

The Eastern Shore of Dali’s Erhai Lake

                                              by Jim Goodman

Golden Shuttle Island (Jinsuodao)
       A major reason for Dali’s popularity as a travel destination is its unrivaled natural setting.  It lies on a long, lakeside plain of roughly 2000 meters altitude, flanked by the heavily forested Azure Mountains, with snow-capped peaks over 4000 meters high. 18 streams tumble down the slopes and flow into the ear-shaped lake called Erhai, Yunnan’s second largest body of water, around 42 km long and 3.5-7.5 km wide.  The lower, mostly barren and ruddier Phoenix Mountains bound Erhai’s eastern shore, lying much closer to the lake, reducing the amount of land suitable for cultivation and therefore the number of villages.
      Most visitors to the area confine themselves to the western side of the lake.  Dali Old Town and most of the ancient pagodas, temples and historical relics lie here.  Cable cars take people to temples up the mountains for views of the lake and the plain, itself filled with Bai, Hui and Han villages, rice fields and vegetable gardens.  Butterfly Spring and popular tourist destinations like Zhoucheng, a Bai village specializing in tie-dyed fabrics, and Xichou, formerly an important stopover on the old Tea and Horses Road to Tibet, are in the northern part of this plain.
Bai houses on Jinsuodao
       All of these places will be swarming with visitors practically any time of year.  In contrast, except for Wase on market day and Nanzhao Island, a fancy theme park near Shuanglang at the north end of the lake, where large tour boats from Xiaguan make a daily call, the eastern shore of Erhai attracts few visitors. Yet an excursion there means a look at a traditional Bai way of life less disturbed by tourist influences or commercial development.  The few guesthouses are basically designed for simple overnight stays for itinerant merchants.  The restaurants mainly cater to fellow villagers too busy to cook their own food.  Fishing and farming constitute the traditional Bai way of life here.  On market days the people sell their products to each other and visitors won’t find tables hawking tourist souvenirs and fake antiques. 
       Almost directly across the lake from Dali Old Town is the eastern shore’s first attraction when coming up from Xiaguan—Golden Shuttle Island (Jinsuodao).   A rocky, narrow islet 1500 meters long, so named for its shuttle-like shape, low in the middle with a hill at each end, it lies a little offshore about 3 km south of the large Bai village of Haidong.  Ferries take visitors across to the island.  Most of its stone and gray brick houses, some with whitewashed walls, stand on the eastern side where the ferries land, beside a row of umbrellas shading vending stalls offering local products like dried fish, snails, herbs and a local acorn.

temple interior on Jinsuodao
       The hundred or more Bai families here depend mainly on fishing.  No real farms exist on the island, only vegetable gardens.  During the Nanzhao Era, coterminous with the Tang Dynasty, Jinsuodao was a summer retreat for the royal family.  The king had a palace here of red walls and yellow tiles, a fishing pier, garden and a tower for viewing the lake.  All that is gone now, but the view remains, especially from atop either of the hills.  You can see the Three Pagodas from here and the blue-gray massif of the Azure Mountains towering behind them.
       The island’s houses are typical Bai compounds, with walls of stone and gray brick and tiled roofs, like those across the lake.  A small temple houses the local protector deity, with a couple of unusual statues inside.  One depicts a man with ludicrously long legs and another a man reaching for a fruit with his abnormally outstretched arm.  The island also has some underground caves, famous for their use in the winter of 1872 to conceal remnants of Du Wenxiu’s army after his death in Dali and the collapse of his rebel state.
Haidong houses and farms
       Looking north from Golden Shuttle Island the shoreline bends sharply west at Haidong, a quiet and prosperous village with lush farms behind it, continues a couple hundred meters and then turns north again.  On the knoll above this latter turn stands the Sky Mirror Pavilion.  Originally this was another Nanzhao Era viewing tower, destroyed, rebuilt in later centuries and augmened by a temple to Guan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of compassion, who is a Bai favorite. 
       The three-tiered tower stands up the slope past a row of small pavilions leading down to the fancy, multi-roofed entrance gate next to the road.  Occasionally boats from Dali take tourists here for the ride and the view back across the lake.  But the usual visitors are Haidong villagers, who come not for the view but to worship at the Guan Yin shrine.  Bai farmers here primarily grow rice, but families have their boats, too.  And while depleting fish stocks means less fishing nowadays, the boats are still useful for transportation and gathering up the algae and lake surface moss that can be turned into compost for the fields.
Sky Mirror Pavilion
        Continuing north of the Sky Mirror Pavilion, the next major village along the shore is Wase, a sprawling Bai village with, like Haidong, a picturesque islet just offshore a few km south.  Opposite the hamlet of Haiyin, much smaller than Jinsuodao, the islet is called Xiaoputuo and holds a single, beautiful, two-tiered temple beside a huge leafy tree nearly the same height.  Perched on a platform several meters above the water, its curved roofs with upturned corners contrast against the distant mountain slopes to the west.  The scene is prettiest in the early morning, when the first sunrays strike the island.
        Nearby Wase, is noted for its market days, held on calendar dates ending in 0 or 5.  With lots of available farmland beside and beyond Wase, especially to the east, villagers depend more on farming than fishing, especially in recent years.  Many small boats lie overturned along the shore north of the settled area and the bigger vessels with the tall masts rarely sail out onto the lake.  The boats docked in the harbor on market days are those carrying villagers from other lakeside settlements and tourists from Xiaguan or Dali.
        However, not everyone has abandoned fishing and people in tiny little makeshift boats, floating on blocks of Styrofoam or the inner tubes of truck tires lashed together, still paddle through the offshore waters, using small nets and traps to catch fish.  A few others use rods and cast their lines from the shore above Wase.
fishing near Wase
       Goods sold on market days are mainly farm products like rice, maize, vegetables and spices.  Farmers sell the spices mixed, with samples of the various mixtures put in little piles on a table in front of the packaged products.  Farm tools, baskets, trays, coils of rope, footwear, household pots, pans and utensils and snacks like deep-fried shrimp, sweets and cakes also go on sale.  Local vendors begin setting up in the market square near the pier from 7 a.m., though the scene is relatively quiet until nearly 9:00, when it starts getting crowded.  A stall selling Bai music videos starts playing them and this loud background music continues the rest of the day.
Wase village

       Around 11:00 the tour boat from Dali arrives, discharging a group of mainly backpackers, who dart around the market area looking for photo-ops, perhaps grab a bite to eat at one of the restaurants and have to return to the boat about 1:30.  The lake surface starts getting pretty choppy in mid-afternoon and since it’s a long journey back to Dali, the boat skipper insists, on the grounds of safety, on an early departure.  And by the time it gets close to the western shore white-tipped waves already dominate the lake surface.
market day in Wase
       Back in Wase, those who came by passenger boat also have to leave before the water gets too rough.  They don’t have as far to go, of course, so they can stay longer than the tourists.  By 3:00, though, activity in Wase starts to wind down.  Visiting villagers are departing and only local residents and those who live within walking distance still remain.  By 5:00 they are all gone, too, and the stalls in the market square have all been dismantled.  Without any bars or nightclubs, Wase now reverts to its post-market peace and quiet.
       Beyond Wase, the last northeastern sector of Erhai is part of Eryuan County, including Shuanglang, the next major stop up the eastern shore and arguably the prettiest Bai village in the entire area.  The residential area lies at the base of a small hill and spreads over a claw-shaped, flat peninsula that juts out from the middle of the village.  Farms lie around and behind the hill, but until recently Shuanglang was primarily a fishing village, especially active in late summer, when fleets of boats set out onto the lake.
the peninsular part of Shuanglang village
       Nowadays, it looks like tourism will soon become the biggest earner in the local economy.  Just south of Shuanglang lies a small offshore island.  On my first visit to the village twenty years ago the island was empty and boats only went there to cast nets and lay fish traps off the shore.  By the end of the decade, after a massive tourist company investment, the place became a theme park called Nanzhao Island.  It features a massive palace, central market square, exhibition hall and various sculptures, including a marble Avalokitesvar, supposedly copied from an ancient model.  But it stands 17.56 meters tall, the biggest marble statue in the world, and we can be pretty sure that’s several times the size of any original model.      
Nanzhao Island and lakeside restaurants
       Tour boats from Xiaguan bring dozens of Chinese tourists here every day.  Besides seeing the palace and statues, they can examine a traditional Bai house, buy deep-fried snacks in the square and watch the inevitable ethnic song and dance show.  For a genuine cultural experience they could skip the artificiality of the island and explore Shuanglang instead:  plenty of Bai houses here, as well as temples, markets, people in ethnic clothing, the same snacks and food and the same magnificent view across the lake.  They don’t, though, because organized tourism means organized presentations of whatever attractions are in the area.  Tour operators here believe they are supposed to be professional shepherds. 
       In recent years Yunnan’s railway network has extended from Xiaguan to Lijiang.  Shuanglang now has a station on this line and will surely draw more tourist attention.  Twenty years ago, pre-Nanzhao Island, only local Eryuan County buses went there and from Dali you had to get off a north-bound bus at Jiangwei and flag down one coming from Eryuan to get to Shuanglang.  It had a couple cheap guesthouses and maybe half a dozen restaurants or noodle shops. 
       Even before the train line opened Shuanglang was already much more accessible.  To visit Nanzhao Island one had to pass through or by Shuanglang and its natural attractions encouraged returns, this time for the village alone.  Now that it has been ‘discovered’ by both national and international tourism, the conditions that made Shuanglang such a genuine attraction may begin to erode.  New hotels have been erected, including a couple of high-end luxury hotels, restaurants line parts of the waterfront and Dali-style souvenir shops can’t be far behind.
Shuanglang market day
       You can hardly blame the local Bai for getting in on the tourist business.  Their big earner in the past—fishing—is no longer viable.  In fact, this year the government temporarily banned fishing in Erhai, due to depleted stocks and contamination.  The old fishing vessels that fascinated me in the past no longer line the docks of the peninsula.  Only small passenger boats ply the water these days.  Shuanglang’s farms are still productive, but of course, families are bigger now, everything is more expensive than before and some kind of income has to replace what they once earned from fishing.
       How much the coming transformations in Shuanglang, and later on in the rest of the eastern shore villages, will affect local people is up for speculation.  The Bai are a very conservative people.  They celebrate more festivals, follow more ancient customs and retain more of their traditional aesthetic and cultural views than most of the province’s minorities.  That’s held true in recent times even on the western shore of Erhai, the most heavily tourist-mobbed area in the prefecture.  So there’s a good chance Shuanglang’s new popularity will not entirely undermine local traditions.  And who knows?  Maybe the lake will revive and the people can renovate their boats and go fishing again.  Anyway, in the meantime, they still have their splendid location at the most scenic spot on Erhai Lake.
fishing boat in Shuanglang, 1994
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