I’D PUT OFF returning to Shuanglang – just under 40km northeast of Dali, on the far side of the Erhai Lake – because it meant so much to me before and during the writing of Harvest Season. In fact, it was an inspiration for the town of Longdong, and I actually wrote the lakeside scenes of the novel sitting lakeside in the evenings drinking Dali Beer at a desk the owner of the Bishe Guesthouse provided for the “foreign writer”. The setting looked something like the picture to the right.
Well, it didn’t look quite like that, although the view is almost exactly the same. That’s because the Bishe, which I must admit was a shit-hole besides the view, is under renovation – along with the rest of Shuanglang. The picture above is taken at The Bay View, a new-generation lodge that has been around for around a year-and-a-half, and is very similar to a couple of dozen other homey lakeside lodges that have opened in the last year or so. Two foreign-run cafes have set up business – the pizzas at the Flying Turtle Coffee are recommended – and I bumped into Zhang Yan of Dali Bookworm fame yesterday as she was getting her new bookshop in order next to the French-run Amigos.
Change rarely happens this fast anywhere and nobody saw it coming. I certainly didn’t. The road from Dali to Shuanglang was so bad – and continues to be – and Shuanglang itself was, until recently, an isolated fishing village so medieval that it seemed perfectly inured from the depredations of modern tourism. Despite this, almost overnight it has been discovered and almost the entire town is being torn down and rebuilt in the style of a forgotten but ancient jewel in the crown of the Dali valley. It wasn’t. The peninsular scenic area (entry Y20) in which the Zhao Ancestral Mansion and a time-honored monastery are being hastily thrown up by day laborers and hordes of Bai women straining under the weight of wicker baskets full of bricks on their backs was unpopulated before 1985 local friends tell me. The rest of the town, as I remember it as recently as three years ago, looked more like third-tier Nepal than a holiday destination in China. The truth is, until about two years ago, Shuanglang was a fishing village on the wrong side of the Dali valley.
No more … and this is just the beginning. Within two months a railway station, 20 minutes north of Shuanglang, will be completed. A highway between Xiaguan and Lijiang – China’s No 1 domestic tourist destination – that skirts Shuanglang is scheduled to open within a year. Xiao Si, the artist owner of Shuanglang’s first in-the-know, getaway boutique lodge (Lady Four), which opened just over four years ago, told me this evening that she is already building her own getaway far away on the outskirts of town before the invasion really gets underway.
But in the meantime, Shuanglang lakeside is as beautiful as ever as the sun goes down and the jackhammers stop hammering and the tractors and trucks rumble out of hearing and you catch a glimpse of someone rowing a boat towards the shoreline.