Being newbies in town, I realized it’s almost impossible to escape the tourism bubble of Dali. You’re forced to accept it, even enjoy it in your own way. Occasionally, you can find a weak spot where you can break through. Joshua and I rented bikes and avoided the tourist-choked streets by going into side streets leading to quiet labyrinths where we got our fill of speed and a glimpse of real local life.
That same day, I arranged to see houses with a real estate agent who took us around in his electric motorbike and as we drove along roads new to us, he greeted people as if he were Mr. Congeniality. It rained and we continued the hunt as he happily answered my questions. His cousin attends the Dali University so he knows there’s a Filipino teacher there. Note to self: Must find that teacher.
He took us to a “xiao qu” that looked greener, more modern and more posh than anything we’ve seen, like it could be in lush Singapore. Sixty percent of those who lived there were Chinese from other parts of the mainland while thirty percent were locals and the rest foreigners. The rent was out of our budget but it was interesting to explore the options nonetheless. Note to self: Must find a place where there is a greater proportion of locals so rent is more affordable.
The next day, Joshua and I wanted to continue our bike ride but then Jason got the itch to travel so we headed for Weishan and I realized how much I dislike travelling around China if it meant ending up in typical bad hotels — the ones with gold signs boasting impossible room rates, considering the building’s poor quality, ranging from 388 to 588 rmb but the actual price is 120 rmb for a standard room. More likely than not, the internet in this type of hotel is so controlled that even with a VPN, the Great Firewall of China can’t be overpowered. With certain guest houses and hotels, I didn’t encounter this problem, so there may be some state-owned hotels where Wi-Fi is suspiciously limited.
Weishan has an old town with much less tourists and much less stylish shops, guest houses and cafes than Dali. We met Mark, the Monkey Man from England who lived in Dali for five years running a guest house with his Chinese wife and then moved to Weishan because Dali had become too noisy and overwhelmed by visitors. For him, Weishan is what Dali was five years ago, less commercialized, less trodden and less Disneyland. In Weishan, he and his wife opened a cool,brightly painted cafe.
Jimmy gave him the moniker, Monkey Man because Jimmy liked playing with the long hair on Mark’s arms. I told Mark I was more comfortable with Old Dali because it was a stone’s throw away from New Dali, otherwise known as Xiaguan. I need that security blanket of a big city nearby with complete conveniences. Plus I loved the way Cang Shan loomed mythically over Old Dali and how the waters from the grand mountain ranges cascaded into canals integrated with the streetscape, like the town’s lifeblood flowing to feed its organs.
This alternative education has gripped me like a vice but I couldn’t stop thinking of my conversation with Qiu Jin and the excitement of possibly being a part of a non-traditional school in China. I just wanted to stay in Dali so Joshua and Jimmy can enjoy Qiu Jin’s small school where they had so much fun playing with other kids. We found out it was the last day of their summer camp and the culminating activity was a picnic in the mountains. From Weishan, we rushed back to Dali to meet up with them and drove up the ranges behind Xiaguan, which were lower than Cang Shan but more accessible. The winding road up followed a long line of windmills and we stopped at a picture-perfect spot overlooking the sprawling city which looked like a cross between Hong Kong and Capetown.
Jason and I decided to camp out there with Joshua and Jimmy, so when everyone else left, we had the mountains all to ourselves. We drove onward finding a place where we won’t be bothered by the loud whirring sound of the behemoth windmills. We found such a place, pitched our tent and by the light of the full moon, ate the roasted duck the others left for us. Jason caught a firefly and the boys examined its natural LED bulb with wonder.