Morning in Dali

It dawns. The sun that emerges from the Lake of Erhai is not yet visible, but its light shines up on the ridge of Cangshan Range, the foothills of the Himalayas. The market in Dali’s old town rises up. First comes the spraying lorry, playing a loud Chinese opera aria, so everyone could get out of its way in time. Then come the costermongers from the neighboring villages, in Bai folk costume, bringing the harvest of the night on two-wheeled cords, or in a basket on their back.

In the halal meat store, mouth-watering pieces of meat are suspended, the passing men slow down and carefully examine them. A part of the Bais have been Muslim since the Mongol conquest, and their shops and eating-houses announce themselves in Chinese and Arabic letters. Bai folk music is sounding in the shop, the shopkeeper’s little girl is carelessly dancing to its tune in front of the shop.

In the market’s eating-houses they offer mian, hot dough soup, with a spoonful of minced hot on the top. The vendors come alternately to eat a bowlful of it. The morning is cold under the Himalayas, until the sun is up. The dumplings filled with vegetables or meat, the baozi and jiaozi, offered in bamboo steamers in other places, are not sold here. They cost two yuans more, they are too expensive for the people of the market.

An old Bai lady is selling fragrant spheres made from herbs. “What are they good for?” “For lavement, my dear. For soap. Buy of it, it’s just two yuans a piece.” We all buy of it, the lady’s face is dressed in a thousand cheerful wrinkles. “Ask her, how old she is”, they are urging me. “I’m eighty, baby boy”, she laughs. Her wrinkles suggest more, but her smile has not grown any older since she was a girl. “So don’t forget, this is soap, for washing yourself. Do not cook it for tea!”

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