On our drives up and down the shores of Erhai Lake we had seen thousands of people preparing the fields and planting rice. Huang said that just one week before we arrived, the farmers had been busily harvesting winter wheat from the very same fields! Dali’s rich soil and a sophisticated irrigation system from the lake makes this valley exceptionally fertile, and the plots are tilled year-round with wheat, rice, potatoes and many other vegetables.
Wanting a closer look, we stopped on the roadside on our way back to Dali one afternoon and walked single-file along the tops of narrow, dirt ridges that separate one family rice plot from another.
It was a hot day and we could see that the process of transplanting the rice seedlings from their first bed into perfectly-spaced rows in larger fields was back-breaking work.
Planting wasn’t the only activity we saw. One woman was pulling out clumps of weeds by hand, then mashing them with her feet into the mud to decay into natural fertilizer.
The smell of manure – both animal and human, the most common natural fertilizer the world over - permeated the air almost everywhere we went in Dali, and was strongest in the paddy field itself.
The setting, with its mountain backdrop, deep-green fields and clouds scudding across a deep, blue sky, was spectacular, and the contrast between the serenity of the landscape and the hard labor involved in coaxing a living from the rich soil was stark.
We’ll make sure to clean out our next bowls of rice. Every grain.