A DAY IN XIZHOU VILLAGE
Continuing our explorations of the Dali region, we went on a day trip to Xizhou village today to experience a slice of rural life in provincial China. Not yet discovered by mass tourism, Xizhou is is just a small village about 20km north of Dali that is home to 2,500 Bai people. The traditional Bai architecture of the village was beautiful, the people welcoming and friendly, and our experience of village life truly memorable. Our day trip to this rural hamlet was one of the best days we’ve had since we arrived in China and not one we’ll easily forget.
Xizhou and Dali were once stops along the Silk Road trading route, something a few Xizhou family clans successfully tapped into. Selling tea, silk and other goods to passing traders, these families became wealthy merchants and built houses reflecting their status. These homes, decorated in the traditional Bai style, are designed with a large courtyard in the centre, a ground floor for living and a second floor for storage of food. We got to see a number of these homes today, both outside and inside – the villagers were lovely and happily invited us into their houses to see how they’re built, and to admire the intricate decorations. Characterised by ornate gateways, hexagonal honeycomb patterns, up-turned eaves, and spacious courtyards, these homes were beautiful and an architectural and cultural treasure*.
*One of the reasons the architecture in this town is so well preserved is that the Japanese didn’t invade this area during World War II.
Most of the residents of Xizhou are still farmers and just outside the village, we could see all their rice paddies planted with green shoots of rice and stalks of corn. The town lies in the fertile strip of land between beautiful Erhai Lake and Cangshan Mountain; the richness of the soil and easy access to fresh, clean water means Xizhou continues to be a relatively prosperous village (which is how the families can afford to maintain and preserve their traditional homes).
After strolling through the village and in and out of people’s homes for a while, we stumbled across the central village square where the daily morning market was in progress. This was no touristy souvenir market either, people were there to buy there food for the day, fresh from the fishermen, butchers, and vegetable growers.
The crowd ebbed and flowed from one vendor to the next, with people chatting, touching, tasting and buying. We saw women with babies strapped to their backs choosing the best looking vegetables and lake fish for their families, and vendors calmly displaying their produce for the day. There were fresh (i.e. live) chickens, eels, lake crustaceans and fish; piles of freshly picked apples, pears and peaches; and mounds of vegetables – some of which we had never seen before. The whole market had an air of joyful chaos about it, which we loved!
One of the most noticeable things about the market, and in fact the whole village, is that it was extremely clean. It had none of the street funk (i.e. odour) that is so common in rural towns and open-air food markets. Our guide’s explanation for this, when we asked, was simply that “…the Bai are very good with details – they take care of the details”.
We also noticed that, in both Dali and Xizhou, there are occasional signs in arabic script and signs indicating halal meats are available. It turns out that this is one of the last remaining areas where Chinese Muslims still reside. Brought here by traders travelling the Silk Road, Islam made a home for itself in far western China; and it seems that, despite numerous attempts over the centuries for the religion to be stamped out, it continues to be practiced by a small number of loyal believers. There was definitely something reminiscent of the bazaars of the Middle East or the medinas of Morocco for us in Xizhou today. Even the Bai houses, built with an internal courtyard and no windows facing the outside world, remind us a little of traditional Muslim homes.
Xizhou village is situateD on the shores of Lake Erhai and so, after lunch in the village, we went exploring the lake with the help of a local fisherman who rows tourists out into the lake for views. The mountains and lake waters around us were spectacular, bit for us the fisherman was even more interesting. With his face weathered and brown from years of working on the lake, the fisherman had an air of quiet dignity about him that we couldn’t help but admire.
Supposedly shaped like a human ear, Erhai Lake is long and narrow (42km x 8km) and acts as the collection point for all the waters that run off the Cangsheng Mountains. The lake is an important food source for the local Bai people, who use trained cormorants catch fish (like the Zhuang in Guilin and Yangshuo). Many fishermen now just use nets to collect their catches, but 6 families continue to use cormorants. While we were on the lake, a local fisherman came over to show us the catches his birds had made. He tried to sell them to us, but we’d already eaten and how no use for a 2kg carp!
*Erhai means “ear-shaped sea”.
The whole experience was so much more authentic, and therefore enjoyable, than the contrived show we saw in Guilin. Today it felt like we got to see an example of an ancient ritual, practiced in China and Japan for more than 1,500 years, not just a show.
After such a great day we headed back to Dali for dinner. We needed a break from Chinese food tonight and found a small pizza place that came highly recommended by Wikitravel. After a week of eating (delicious) stir-fires, it was nice to enjoy something different. Never has a simple pizza tasted so good!
So ends our final day in Dali – and what a great day it was! Xizhou means “happy place” in the Bai dialect and we can certify that it does indeed seem to be a happy place.