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A Shaping Trip

First stop on our first full day in Dali was the weekly Shaping market, held on a hillside in a village about 30 minutes north of Dali, along the shore of Erhai Lake.

I was eager to see if the market had changed since 1986 – but like the rest of Dali, I found it pretty much unrecognizable apart from the hillside setting. One big difference was the line of souvenir-sellers at the market’s entrance. In 1986, the customer base was strictly local, and the inventory completely focused on everyday necessities.

We saw a lot that looked familiar, with every imaginable household tool, edible item and farming implement on offer.

Other items were recognizable to us Westerners, but in unusual forms: like purple potatoes and pig still on the hoof.

Sami took a dare and got her nose within sneezing distance of a big basket of la jiao – super-spicy dried hot peppers.

There’s a bowl of la jiao on the table in most every Chinese restaurant, but this is the closest Sami’s ever gotten!

This white item rang a bell for us…we knew we’d seen it before…what could it be? Finally the seller enlightened us – a big stack of toilet paper! Buy in bulk and tear your own!
More useful paper nearby…but not for hygiene purposes. This is spirit money, printed in various colors and denominations. The idea is to buy a pack and burn it in front of your ancestors’ gravestones to make sure they have sufficient purchasing power in the afterlife.
Other offerings puzzled us. These neon-colored items, for instance: animal, vegetable, or mineral? They turned out to be crackers of a sort – you buy them and deep-fry them before eating.
This man’s selling home-made fishing baskets. We later learned that fishing is illegal on Erhai Lake from April to October during the aquatic mating season. I’m sure his customers are just stocking up for fall.
At first we thought this man was trying out a musical instrument before buying, but a closer look – and smell - at the other items on the same blanket told us that he was just taking a test-draw on a hand-made water pipe. Hand-cured tobacco and crudely-rolled cigarettes were also thrust at us for a sniff.

Our noses led us to another familiar smell – at least, to Tom and me – bags and bags of round, fragrant seeds, surrounded by active purchasers.

Huang grinned: “It’s marijuana!” Apparently illegal, but widely grown – the lush soil and cool mountain air of southern Yunnan providing the perfect environment. Now we know why Dali has long been considered a backpackers’ paradise! Huang noted that a lot of his foreign guests buy a bag or two of seeds to grow at home. Not us, but we were intrigued when he told us that when he was a kid, his mother occasionally baked the seeds into cookies for the family! Tom and I exchanged a look – a little snack for the next time the kids get cranky?

In the absence of shopping bags, groceries are toted home in a wide range of backpacks.

Finally, we stumbled on the source, and an overheated Miranda reluctantly modeled one version.

We briefly considered a purchase until we realized that it might not be practical as an airplane carry-on.

Even more intriguing than the backpacks were these palm-bark raincapes.

Totally waterproof. With the six-month-long rainy season about to start in June, these booths were doing big business.

Sami tried one on and found they were extremely light despite the fact that they made her look like some kind of brown bear.

Each cape cost 30 yuan – less than $5 – takes half a day to make, and is said to last about five years before you need a replacement. Target purchasing agents, take note!

Because of the altitude, Yunnan’s sun is very strong, so of course we wore our sunhats.

We’ve had these absurd-looking but practical hats, made by a company called Sunday Afternoons, for years – the girls even had tiny ones as infants. Since moving to China and meeting various people who sport their own native toppers, we’ve taken to referring to our hats as our “tribal headgear.”

Every time we put them on, we imagine people conceiving of us as American ethnic minorities wearing our “traditional” costume.

We saw lots of other tribal headgear at the market, but apart from the conical straw numbers worn by farmers in the rice paddies, we didn’t find any for sale.

Huang noted our interest and promised to find us some shopping sources later on the trip. As you’ll see later, he made good on his word!

One particularly outgoing saleswoman swept Miranda’s hat off her head, thrust her hands into Miranda’s hair and started making a ponytail. We weren’t sure what was up, but in a few seconds we saw: she had woven a small, hand-tooled silver hair ornament into the ponytail, turning it into a mini-bun. Presto! It looked neat, but when she asked for RMB 40 (about $5) for the ornament, we smiled and moved on. Another vendor rushed up with the exact same item, now asking RMB 15! We knew things were going in the right direction, and eventually bought it for RMB 8, complete with a slow-motion lesson on how to use it.

Our first headgear purchase of the trip…but not our last, by any means.

Next: Batik


Dali chapters: Intro Shopping Batik Tacky Tea Bai Dinner Rice Paddy Food Cheese Carving Village

Yunnan chapter shortcuts: Intro Dali Lijiang Tiger Leaping Gorge Zhongdian

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