The Bai women of western Yunnan are cut from the very earth. Their stars-of-twilight eyes are set against high cheekbones and taught, tan skin the likes of baked clay. They make a perfect prayer to the sun, having worked countless hours under its relentlessness. In their traditional hats of crackling white and pink, their sapphire petticoats, they are art at labor. Both steely and quick to smile, everything about the Bai woman is dignified; absent is the lostness that swells in the throats of so many other indigenous peoples.

The massive lake adjacent Dali echoes the sky. Low mountains that ramble up from its western shores seem imposing from a distance, but in the sunset they are revealed to be infants playing at kings and queens. Their playhouse dominion is a small walled city of cobbled lanes, failing stone houses, willows, pomegranates, and Bai women at market. The air is cool but for the hard sun, and it rained for hours last night. The skin of a cow lay on the flagstone in front of a market shop this morning. The tiny street dogs remind me of someone I loved once.

Adam is married to a stunning Chinese woman called Colleen. They are expecting a child, and she radiates. Superstitious, she’ll avoid cold water after the child is born. They’ve just returned home to Dali from Yangshuo, where we met, and the States before that. Happy to play hosts, they took us to the other side of the lake for two days, to a small Bai village where cactus grows on the dry hillsides above lush farmland. There, on the shores of the lake, is an ornate guesthouse in whose open courtyards swam the smells of a busy Bai kitchen. We passed a quiet night at the water’s edge, lulled by the lapping water and the sounds of the local fishermen hauling whitebait.

The southern jungles have fallen away behind me; icy peaks are a promise now. In a few days, a great swath of land forced up by the Tibetan Plateau will blot out the sky. Dali is my jumping-off point for a journey into remote Sichuan, and by-and-by, Tibet. Days and days on buses, valley villages, and towering rock lay ahead. The Himalaya are out there, across a great, dry distance. I’m already haunted by curious dreams, a product of the thinning air. Sometimes they push through the veil into my waking hours, and I imagine the pause in your eyes as I start to say something miraculous but then forget what it was.

~br

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