Cycling Around Erhai Lake

Ah glorious Erhai Lake! The lake is a clear deep shade of blue , the sun shines down warming me and glistens on the surface of the slow-moving lake. The skies are blue with huge puffy cumulus clouds hovering in the air unlike the typical blue to gray gradient so commonly found in Shanghai’s skies. I am utterly content and without the stresses of work and city life. This is why I’m alive , to enjoy moments such as this!

Erhai Lake is the 7th largest freshwater lake in China and the second largest highland lake besides the previously mentioned Dian Lake in Kunming. It’s definitely a very large lake stretching about 42 kilometers long and 4 kilometers wide making a large oval shape. Can’t quite match up to what I’m used too living by the Great Lakes in Ohio but hey it’s big enough. It was any bigger I’m not sure I’d be down for the challenge of riding around the lake in 2 days (or even attempting the challenge).

I highly recommend biking by the lake , you don’t have to be as extreme as us but just hop on a bike and make a short journey to one of the adjourning villages along the lakeside. Xizhou and Zhoucheng villages are both not too far away from Old Town and can easily be managed (there and back) in a leisurely day trip.

On the western side of the lake one can ride on the paved road that runs along the lake. This side is easy to ride upon and is also pretty flat, traffic isn’t too heavy either. Up near the northernmost point of the lake the route turns to bumpy harsh dirt roads. Get a bike with a good seat because this can inflict some damage on the butt. The eastern side of the path as well as being bumpy dirt also has some hill climbing (up and down) to do. There seems to be a lot of construction and preparation to pave the road though so perhaps it will be a little more easy-going my next time around.

There are supposed to be 17 different villages scattered around the lake , a few temples, and some small islands to visit. Some of the villages were just mere outposts with nothing more than a few buildings and a store but others were worth stopping by for a little visit. Some villages of note we encountered were Xizhou , Zhoucheng, Wase. The islands looked pretty cool and would probably be worth visiting but we were a little occupied with the whole bike riding thing.

Starting out felt so good just riding the bicycles and cruising along the highway but after about an hour and a half or so I noticed a warm feeling spreading over my body. Uh-oh the temperature may not be all that hot but the sun is still blazing down. Remember to pack some sunblock because many of the little villages don’t sell any. It took a long time and checking at many stores along the way to find some and by that time the damage had been done. I was absolutely roasted. Ouch!

The first stop at a village was at Xizhou. Xizhou is a pleasant little town that reminded me of an old Western town with dirt streets and a little bit of tumbleweed tossed in for good measure. We also found our first hemp plant growing in the wilds , the wilds being alongside the only busy road into town. This village sold many of the tie dye tapestries to be found in Old Town but at cheaper prices. The village fruit, vegetable , and household goods market was nice to check out as well. Olivia bargained for one of the traditional cone-shaped farmers hats. We also stopped in for a fried bread with meat concoction that was amazing.

Pulling out onto the road our next stop was in Zhoucheng. Zhoucheng is especially known as the region’s main tie-dye producing town. We followed old ladies in traditional red Bai clothes to their warehouse like store with tons of clothes. I never go clothes shopping but I ended up picking up 3 very cool shirts. Be warned though bargain very very hard. At first the shirt and vest I liked were 260rmb total but we (read Olivia) managed to barter it down to 160RMB including a dress and a scarf. I hate bargaining and traveling with her made me extremely happy haha. When Chinese bargain together it may seem like each party gets extremely angry and that they are fighting but fear not it’s all business. The boss goes away happily making some money and the buyer goes away thinking they got a good deal (if your bargaining skills are good or just have no idea of how much things are actually worth).

After leaving Zhoucheng, with bags considerably heavier than when we arrived, the next major stop was in Wase. We passed through a few other little villages but didn’t really stay , there wasn’t much to see or do. I’m sure there were some other attractions to check out along the way but by this point we had covered more than 40 km (25miles) and the road had petered out into dirt. We were starting to get sore , cranky , were severely burnt, and exhausted ( I believe Wase to be approaching 70km from Old Town). The “fun” bike ride was starting to turn into something a little more arduous. Wase in itself doesn’t have too much but we stopped because it was getting dark and our bodies could go no further. We found a hotel (I think it was THE hotel of Wase) and got a room with two beds for 40 rmb , nice! After ditching the bags we lugged our broken bodies over to the pier and hung with the local villagers as they swam in the water. We watched a surreal sunset over the lake and saw as the sun slowly disappeared behind the mountains leaving a purple hue to the sky. As the sun set the stars and moon emerged from their hiding places. Wow! I could finally see stars again, something that doesn’t happen too often in Shanghai. Pretty neon lights and skyscrapers are the replacement for the stars. After a bit we went back into town to grab some BBQ and retired to our rooms.

The next day just happened to be the local market day. On the weekends a big market assembles in the town square and people from the mountains come into town to sell their vegetables and fruits and pick up on provisions. The sleepy little town gets transformed a bit and the market is huge and bustling. Worth it to go check it out. Leaving the town we were a little bit less than overjoyed to think we still had about half the lake or so ahead of us. Looking back on it we may have had more than half the lake to go due to the winding path and the ins and outs of weaving around the various coves , bays , and rock outcropping that just back out . Many more turns compared to the straight western side.

Basically we just cruised and cruised and cruised and cruised ( you get the point) , taking pictures of some huge wild hemp plants ,sometimes thinking to ourselves “I will never ride a bike again as long as I live” this is definitely not true as I love biking but yea we were battered. Made a quick stop in XiaGuan (New Dali) for some of my favorite street food I’ve had in China. Due to the proximity of ErHai lake these vendors were set up with a smorgasboard of tasty fresh seafood treats. We watched fisherman come up to the vendors with nets full of squirmy sea critters. 3rmb (less than fifty US cents) for a stick of small crabs! In addition they also had full fish on sticks , an awesome grilled shrimp cake , tiny lobsters , shrimp, fried potatoes , and all of it washed down with a (or a few) tall Dali beers. Ah yes life was good again as the aches slowly receded into the background. One of the vendors mentioned that how tomorrow one of the county big wigs was rolling through so the police informed the vendors (unlicensed vendors) that tomorrow they shouldn’t be around. I like how that kind of thing works. The police are fine with the vendors , as was I on that day!, and just want the locals to make some money. I don’t care if the vendors have paid their dues , their tax, to the (rich) man in charge.

After XiaGuan we had one final small stretch on the highway to go and we would finally be back in Old Town. As the kilometers ticked away we got happier and happier. Back in town we didn’t do much of anything , ate some food and just relaxed. That was all I was hoping for! The next day we would be taking a train to Lijiang! More to come soon!

Advertisements

Dali – China’s Hippie Hangout

If you arrive in Dali via train know that you aren’t arriving in the Dali you expect. Where are the ancient buildings and the cobblestone roads? Where are the countless restaurants, bars, and bike rental shops? Visitors to Dali are looking for the Old Town but the train pulls up into New Town aka Xiaguan. Don’t fall prey to the hordes of touts laying in wait for the train to pull up and fares to pour out. You can hop on bus #8 to go to Old Town for a mere 2rmb. If money is no object for you and you grimace at the mere thought of brushing your tooth over less than a gold and marble sink than hop in a car with one of the touts. Ok , ok it isn’t really that bad but make sure you barter a bit first , don’t ruin it for the rest of us! The battle for the bus can be kind of intense though. There is no place to line up and everyone just kind of assembles into a mass and the buses will pull up into different places in the parking lot and then the whole aggregation of people will push, shove, and generally be insanely irritating. Not even the police officer yelling (in Chinese) “don’t push don’t push!!!!” seems to have an effect. I don’t condone pushing people to advance your position in line but if others are pushing (especially trying to butt in when you are clearly in front trying to get onto the bus) then f*** it , push them and don’t let them cut!!

After about 20 or 30 minutes we finally saw the ancient protective stone walls of the Old Town and disembarked from the bus. I could already see the attraction of the Old Town. Tree lined cobblestone streets, old 2 story house architecture , a wide arrange of restaurants , bars, and coffee shops. The setting of the Old Town is also perfect. Large mountains (Canshan, Cang mountains) look up to the west of the town with quite dramatic clouds looming over the top never moving just lurking ominously. To the east of town a few kilometers away separated by some farmland is the big Erhai Lake. Some temples and monasteries also lay nestled in the mountains. 7 years ago my current roommate studied Kung Fu in one of these monasteries. I believe it cost something like $50 USD a week for accommodation , all meals, and training. Expect things to have changed since then but perhaps a great deal may still be found for all you martial arts enthusiasts out there.

There are plenty of guesthouses all over Dali so don’t worry about finding accommodations just pop in to check them out and find one that suits you. Dali has some of the cheapest accommodations in China so again don’t worry. Some highly recommended ones include the Jade Roo and the Jade Emu, I heard people talking about 5 Elements , but I stayed at (and loved) Dali’s Hump Hostel. This is run and owned by artists and features amazing murals painted on nearly all available wall space. I think Simonster would be in heaven here. They also have a music room / bar on the second floor that people can just go into and play with the instruments set up there. Some nights they feature bands and other nights its open mic time. Amazing place with huge rooms!

For now though, we hopped on some horses led by a guide (guesthouse arrangements) for a journey to Zhonghe temple and from there we planned to walk up into the Cang mountains. This was Olivia’s first ever horseback ride and she was thrilled , I’ve been horses a few times so perhaps the novelty has worn off a bit and also probably due in part to my stubborn horse never listening and always bending down to eat and trying to go down the wrong path, but I had a lukewarm enthusiasm for the trip. At the Zhonghe temple we got off and left the guide to play Mahjong for the day. We hiked up into the mountains and found a cool guesthouse. Can’t remember the name (writing this post about 2 months after the fact) but if you are really looking to get away from it all try to find this place and stay there. Located up in the mountains with a beautiful view of Old Town and the lake, there are absolutely no people around , a true getaway spot.

We hiked on the Emerald Belt or Cloud Traveller’s Path , a well-built stone pathway that cuts along the mountain side . This is a nice easy path to walk with little change in elevation and stunning scenery. While walking we found numerous species of flowers growing and I found plenty of occasions to munch on some wild raspberries. Depending on the way you go you can find an ice cold rushing mountain spring to relax by and dip your feet in or you can encounter a series of mountain pools , 7 Dragon Maidens pools, along the path you can also find the Phoenix Eye cave. After being cooped up in Shanghai for the last 6 months this was amazing for me. Wild berries , pine forests, mountains , clean cold streams, wow! Just like my trip to the Philippines , I was happy when I finally got out of the madness of Metro Manila and relaxed in the pristine forests around the village of Sagada.

Coming back into town that night on the street corner next to our hostel was a bongo circle , a frickin’ bongo circle!! This really cemented Dali as the hippie spot in China. And guess what! There wasn’t a single foreigner in this circle of dreadheaded kids wearing colorful clothes clutching guitar beating the night away on bongos. An interesting appropriation of culture to be sure. I’m sure Nixon and Mao are both turning in their graves. Oh yea before I forget , walking around the markets yields a treasure trove of hand crafted tie dye tapestries and shirts. While walking around you will even hear whispered out calls of Ganja Ganja from old red clad Bai women. Wow indeed! A quick note though according to wikitravel Dali used to be a hot spot for the green but it seems like these days one should exercise caution. I didn’t partake but be cautious if you plan on it.

Dali is also a very artsy place. During the daytime you can find local art students painting the relaxing streets and can also find some cool spray paint up on the walls. Be sure to check out waterfall street as well!

The next day we arose fairly early and rented bikes in the insane notion of trying to ride around ErHai Lake. Stay tuned , the next episode will be the ErHai Lake villages! Those pictures from last post are acting kind funky when I view the site from China. So I’ll go back to the gallery style of posting. How do they work for everyone else?

Wikitravel’s guide to Dali is extremely thourough give it a look see to learn more about Dali or to help plan a trip there!

http://wikitravel.org/en/Dali