After an eight-hour ride in the night train we arrived at the Dali Train Station, which is in the suburb of the New City of Dali. We had made hotel bookings to stay in Old Dali, a nice and quiet old town about fourteen kilometers north of New Dali. It took us thirty minutes by bus to get to our hotel.
It was still quite early in the morning. We checked in, had a shower, and then went outside to try some local snack for breakfast. Since we had managed to get some sleep on the night train we were all ready for the day's event. Around nine thirty we caught a local bus and set out for our destination, the small town of Xizhou.
Xizhou is a Bai town seventeen kilometers north of Old Dali. This place is well-known for its many old, protected houses and courtyards that survived from the late Ming and the Qing Dynasties. The Bai people in Xizhou are a special breed of the Bai community. They have been constantly referred to as the Jews of the Bai, a label which all townsfolk happily take to be an honor for it is really a recognition of their gift and skills in making successful business deals, now and in the past.
From 1920s to 1949, there existed about 400 families in Xizhou, all engaged in running some sort of private businesses. It was said 200 of the families kept shops locally or in other parts of Yunnan, while the other 200 traveled across the country to buy and sell, and some powerful families even made their way as far as the whole of Southeast Asia and the subcontinent of India. They traded in a variety of things: gold, silver, pearls, jade, cotton, silk, natural minerals, medicinal herbs, tobacco, opium, and so on. Over a few decades, the merchants from Xizhou had built up a great fame and wealth with which they also built nice houses with open courtyards.
By what the locals said, there were the Great Four, Middle Eight, and Minor Twelve Families, all were well-established big merchant firms in the past. The top one of the Great Four, the Yans' Family, imported 2,000 American Dodge cars at one go in the late 1940s. At the end of 1949, the communist government came into power and demanded to come into partnerships with the merchant firms, so assessments were made of all the rich families and firms. All the property of the Yans' Family, both at home and abroad, amounted to be over thirty-two billion yuan at that time.
Dali has been frequently hit by earthquakes in history, so the Bai people had learnt to build their houses in two-storied structures. The most popular layout of a residential building is an open courtyard with houses on three sides and a white-washed screen wall on the fourth side. Each side of the building is two-storied, with three rooms upstairs and three rooms downstairs. The middle room downstairs is the living room, where the host sees their visitors and guests, having a cup of tea and smoking a pipe over a nice chat. Sealed up and invisible at the rear of that room is a stairway leading to the middle room upstairs, in which the family ancestral shrines are kept. The rest of the rooms are used then as bedrooms.
At the four corners of the building complex there are usually another four corner courtyards. These are much smaller ones used mainly as space for storage or the kitchen. One of the corner courtyards would be spared to function as the first gate, which opens up to the outside lane or alleyway. For the sake of privacy the second gate should be opened on a different wall of the same corner courtyard, thus no passers-by can peer directly into the life in the big courtyard.
All the open courtyards are paved with stone slates, the top part of the walls elaborately decorated with nice ink paintings, wooden doors come with carving of auspicious motifs and symbols. What impressed us the most were the many potted flowers. It seemed all the families are happy to have flowers in their courtyard and they try to pick up specific species that would respectively come in bloom in different seasons.
We visited the courtyard of one of the Middle Eight, the House of the Zhaos'. A 200-meter winding alleyway took us to its secluded premises. This complex consists of two parts, four connecting courtyards to the left wing which were built in the Qing Dynasty, and a single row of connecting rooms to the right wing which were done in the Ming Dynasty. Each courtyard is in rectangular shape with houses erected in the Qing Dynasty on three sides, while the Ming part stands to the fourth side. The sheltered corridor under the eaves of the Ming rooms links up with left wing and serves as an arched passageway leading to each of the courtyards. This is a lovely quite isolation in which, we believe, all residents could enjoy the tranquility and live up to advanced ages.
It was past midday after we have visited four old courtyards and spent much time having a chat with the families. Though there still remained a lot more we wanted to know about this place we decided to give it a miss and go for lunch in the village square.
We had Xizhou Baba (baba is a local word for cake or bread) to satisfy our hunger. The locals roll out the pastry and put them in large flat cooking pans, and then heat them up with charcoal fires from underneath and above. The Baba takes only a few minutes to cook. Xizhou Baba comes in two tastes: one is salty with minced pork and scallions; the other is sweet with brown sugar and finely chopped rose petals. Both are delicious. This is one of the best snacks I had for my time in Dali.
That was a wonderful day.