In November 2021 I handed over the lease of the house I lovingly restored and happily lived in for a year in Heyang to my friend Chang. I didn’t know if I would ever see my house again and it was hard to let it go. It’s the place where I discovered I was on the path of tea and where I organized my events. The protracted process of saying goodbye gained me a reputation among my friends as She Who Is Forever Throwing Leaving Parties. Finally, I got myself and Ding Ding on a plane and shipped 300kg of tea, tea ware, art, books, bicycle, camping gear and qipao dresses to Europe. Motivated to settle down in what I think of as the Yunnan of Europe – Bulgaria.
China was still mostly closed to the world when my plane took off, with no end date of the Covid restrictions in sight. My future as a lone freelancer in China was precarious. I had no hope for my dream of developing an international Artist in Residence project in Dali. It was the right decision to leave, and the never-ending parties helped me a lot in processing the big move. I was ready to move on, and looking forward to a new future back in Europe.
Fast forward a year and a half and here I am – surprise, surprise! Sitting on the front porch of ‘my’ courtyard and looking at the wonderful Dali clouds, on holiday in Heyang.
I had no plans to go back to China. I took Ding Ding, my love of tea and Chinese culture with me and enjoyed settling in Bulgaria. Travelling around Europe by train and seeing friends and family was great. Losing Ding Ding last summer was devastating. Seeing China open up again in a matter of… seconds was surprising, to say the least. When I saw a vacancy for a great job in Shanghai I didn’t think twice. Back to a newly opened up China! Very high on my list of things-to-do-when-back-in-China was a visit to Yunnan. A holiday in Heyang.
Last Saturday I arrived in Dali, together with thousands and thousands of Chinese tourists. They are ready to make the most of the first national holiday that is completely free of Covid restrictions. Yunnan in general and Dali in particular are enormously popular holiday destinations so I brace myself for stressful travel and travel with hand luggage only. The trip goes smoothly enough.
Not only is it a national holiday, this week also marks the first time in four years that the famous San Yue Jie market is on. This is a traditional Baizu festival and the largest market in China – sprawling from the east gate of Dali Old Town up towards Cangshan and branching out across many side streets. It is hugely popular with local people and with tourists. I navigate my trusty old e-beast a few times through the honking traffic, selfie-taking crowds, thick barbecue smoke and blaring music around the market and decide to stay well away.
Oh my Dali
My Dali holiday plays out at a small hippie festival, in the guesthouse where I lived while renovating my courtyard, riding my ebike to the villages outside Dali Old Town and to the courtyards of friends.
Most of all I enjoy spending a few nights at my old home. Here, all is peaceful and quiet, and nothing seems to have changed much since I left. I explore the house and the yard, seeing the cracks left in the concrete from the big earthquake in 2021. Last night there was an earthquake too – strong enough to wake me up but the epicentre is far away. The electricity and water go off for a few hours – ah, village life!
Has nothing changed? Over the last few days I find out who has left, which new shops have opened and how competitive they are – everyone wants a slice of the enormous tourism pie that is Dali. My friend’s guesthouse has not survived the years without tourism and he is about to leave, leaving a crushed dream in his wake.
With other friends however there is a certain nostalgia for the Covid days. When all was quiet, Old Town was ‘ours’ and we waidiren (Chinese from elsewhere) en waiguoren (foreigners) were a small and friendly and tight community. I couldn’t have wished for a better place to wait out Covid. Even last year, when the long lockdowns where bringing Shanghai to its knees, life in Dali was still pretty relaxed.
Now, many people are eager to travel, explore something new, outside China. Some are expanding their business – restaurants have doubled in size. Three slow years in a locked down country is a long time and China has this wonderful entrepreneurial energy that needs to go somewhere.
As far as I know I am the only one from the foreign community exodus who has returned to Yunnan since China opened up again, late last year. Some people react as if they see a ghost when they first see me, at the festival. Eyes popping and jaws dropping, then hugs and laughter. I wrestle myself through another tourist traffic jam and visit friends in nearby Xizhou. With my old neighbour and tea teacher I share tea. My roomie and friend Ule visits and we have tea together, talking about projects and the impossibility of dating in Dali. With everyone there is a year and a half to catch up on. It is amazing but it is also quite overwhelming.
Holiday in Heyang
Today, I am alone. I’m at ‘my’ courtyard which is no longer mine. The presence of Ding Ding is very much missed but Saucy the dog keeps me company.
I visit the market and get recognized by my usual vendors of mixian and fruit.
At night, I sleep like a log. I sit outside my house and listen to the familiar sounds of the village. Water gurgling down from the mountain, village ladies clucking and tutting outside my window in the little village square. I no longer live here but I still feel very good here. It’s a benevolent place. It will change though – and probably quite fast. I am grateful I could come back and touch my old life one more time. A holiday in Heyang – what a unexpected and great gift.