Photo-essay: Time And The Village – Lake Erhai, Yunnan
Lake Erhai is situated just south of Dali, in Yunnan. It’s a huge body of water, 250 square kilometres of placidity, sitting weightily on a fault going 11 metres downwards.
We often think about our experience of time in the context of the city – intense, staccato and dislocated. But what struck me most about my visit to the lake was the way in which the world around Lake Erhai was constructed around various modes of ‘time’ – modes that inevitably feel more romantic, and actually, well, more timeless. In this short post, I want to highlight some of these modes – and through pictures simply offer depictions their co-existence – for these temporalities are beautiful. If you like them too, click on the pictures to enlarge in a lightbox.
The experience of time around Lake Erhai is mediated by nature and culture: it’s at once both omnipresent and constructed by each in equal measure, respectively.
Geographically, time stands around us, resting, dormant and still. Lake Erhai itself exudes a calmness and confidence that only such a stoic vessel of water is capable of. Its name in Chinese translates as ‘Ear Sea’ – and indeed it is an empathetic lake, listening to history in solitude.
Around and about in the lake are the Cangshan mountains – as the seasons change, the snow-capped mountain tops remain trapped in winter, narcissistically reflecting in the water. Indeed, marble in China is now known as ‘Dali-stone’ an eponymous nod to the stony-faced mountain.
The Three Pagodas are human testaments, standing proudly in brick and mud as reminders of the ancient Nanzhao kingdom to which Dali once belonged. Stubbornly resilient to mythological dragons and disasters, the pagodas curiously survived a 1925 quake that only forsook 100 other buildings in Dali.
The city of Dali is split into two, by nomenclature and by concept. The ‘New City’ of Xiaguan is where many unknowing tourists alight from buses – most of whom wish to visit the ‘Old City’
Here, the time of development and progress sits conveniently several miles away from the preserved and enclosed city of the past. Time is well-defined. Our experience of the ‘Old city’ is surrounded by and squared off by a city wall – the perimeter of history if you like; we are within the citadel.
It’s in that space that hordes of domestic tourists come to experience an otherness of culture – the Bai minority – and to watch them perform in a neon theatre – a tourism theme we explored in a previous essay about Xishuangbanna.
But if you escape the barricades of the city walls, where trinket women entice you with false relics of the past – you will experience more fascinating modes of time, less concerned with the weekend tourists landing at the new airport, careful to experience authenticity from inside a box. Around the lake are the kind of temporalities residents of China’s urban centres really dream of – the pastoral. the agricultural and the ‘time of the village.’
The temporal distinction between the Old and the New cities of Dali has led to visitors describing their experience of the two as if they were stepping into a time-tunnel. The experience of time here is equally about the invented and the imagined. Here’s to living nostalgia in the present.
Around the lake, an abundance of vegetables – you can spend days asking local farmers about their produce – ruminating on a complex vocabulary of greens.
The ordering of the vegetable patches, swathes of rectilinear shades of green, reminds us of parochial time. We re-appraise a circularity of routine that feels so familiar to an urban experience but still so distant from our real lives – of seasons, of planting and picking, of walking to trade full of product and returning to sell. In essence, of market time.
In Xizhou village, which like Dali sits along the ancient ‘Tea horse route’ – people read, smoke, knead and weave – repetitive actions that reinforce the quotidian. In Dali, men read quietly to their shadows and ossify in thought during the twilight.
Xizhou is a wealthy village – it was home to the Dong family, the scion of which was Oxford educated, and who made their fortune in trade.
The Dong legacy is visible in their great architectural home – which is now the Linden centre – a historical and cultural preservation establishment.
Inevitably, the booming tourism industry brings change in the structures around the lake – here, dismantling and building sit adjacent – knowingly acknowledging how the temporalities of village, old town and city are edging closer to one another.
Inside Dali old-town – there’s a curious clash of temporality, as bored workers sit around waiting for nothing. I’m always fascinated by the model head-shots inside the hairdressers – cast as trendy and modern, mute and faded palette tones reveal their own obsolescence.
And we end the day on Lake Erhai thinking and dreaming about time; of landscape, village, pastoral, artificial, historical, and modern – and each offers a different shade of memory.
Images and words by Alex Wilson