Riding through the harvest
THE rain has gone, Dali's streets sparkle and puffs of mist decorate the mountains. It's a sweet day begun with a sturdy bowl of rice porridge washed down with gallons of green tea.
I watch the world go by: a rubbish truck plays classical music from a rooftop loudspeaker; women from numerous ethnic groups walk by, wearing an array of fanciful hats; and children walk to school.
Dali, in Yunnan Province, South China, is an old walled city with massive arching winged-roofed gateways interrupting the wall at its cardinal compass points. In recent years, its ancient houses and historic ambience has attracted heritage-hungry tourists, mostly from other parts of China. Though Bai people make up most of the population, Hui, Li, Lisu and Han also live here, hence the variety of hats and clothing styles.
The old lanes are small so cars, trucks and buses keep to the few bigger streets. Bicycles are used imaginatively. The butcher's delivery bicycle rattles by with the rear end of a large pink pig sticking out of a bamboo basket. The flower-seller cycles sedately, not wanting to damage her load of roses, lilies and chrysanthemums and a farmer delivers two hefty sacks of rice by balancing them on the crossbar.
Our group head to the bicycle hire shop around the corner. I select a shiny new pink one, labelled Zoomer, with no gears, upright handlebars, a metal front basket and an old-style comfy seat.
We're heading for Xi Zhou on the edge of Erhai Lake, 26km away. Chongsheng-si monastery, with its three pagodas piercing the sky like giant swords, is the first stop.
These multi-storied, 60m, sky-pointing religious apostrophes are slender and elegant, and were built 1100 years ago. But most fun is the tiny tots' invasion. A primary school group, with hundreds of little ones, trots neatly up the path to the pagodas. One bold boy says hello. We say hello back and the rest chirp, shout, wave and smile. A thousand hellos later we are back on our bikes.
The road is raised above flat fields where crops make patchwork patterns; tall tobacco plants, topped with tufts of pink flowers, jigsaw with darker green garlic, rambling sweet potatoes and brown corn storks. But rice dominates and harvest is in full swing. The rice is tall with heavy golden grain heads and Bia women in blue take turns at scything and threshing, while leftover leaves and stems are tied in conical cones to be used as stock fodder later.
Men bring in carts of compost and hand-hoe it into sodden soil. They haul baskets of rice to the road where grannies rake it out to dry, guarding the precious crop and waving rakes at cyclists who ride too close. The rice shares the road with horses and carts, bicycles, motorbikes, trucks loaded with pig poop, cow dung and corn storks for compost, and buses blaring their horns.
The ambience is of industry and orderliness. The fields are neat and divided by raised earth paths and water-filled irrigation ditches.
We pass a noodle factory where strings of noodles dry on outside racks and a statue-makers' workshop where lions and dragons are being chipped and chiselled into shape from great lumps of marble. Near Xi Zhou, along the lake edge, the road is high above fresh-water ponds where pink shrimp grow to bite size before being hauled out and laid to dry on the shoulder of the road, competing with rice for space.
Xi Zhou is a prosperous village, proud of its area of smart new houses built in the traditional style with high, impenetrable walls and private central courtyards.
They have elegant gates and formal gardens where trees are clipped to look like mini pagodas.
A market selling local craft features gorgeous hand-embroidered ethnic clothing, clunky silver jewellery and fancy hats.
We head for a lakeside restaurant, brushing past a lush marijuana plant budding-up in the sunshine. Its roots are sucking nutrients, in true Chinese ecological style, from a toilet drain.
Lunch is local fare of fragrant rice, Er Hai Lake whitebait; deep-fried baby shrimp, bok choi with thick slices of garlic; aubergine and pork. This feast is lubricated with beer from large bottles cryptically labelled 23.
Later in the afternoon, when clouds build up over the mountains and the lake turns silver, we head back to Dali. The grannies are sweeping up the now dry road rice and the same folk we passed earlier are still harvesting and threshing. Their backs and arms must ache but the prosperity in the area indicates that hard harvest-time work pays off.
It's dusk when we roll into Dali. I pat Zoomer fondly, convinced that the world's best bikes are Chinese, upright, gearless and have fat seats.