The car ride from Dali to Zhoucheng was a tight fit. I was in the front seat, next to the driver. Jake and his parents were in the back with Lisa on their laps. Jake’s parents had been visiting us for two weeks already in Dali, China, and we were finally taking them out to do some touring. We’d already taken them to the Old Town, to walk past the colorful stores, food stalls and ancient decor. While there, one of the stores that stood out presented a great opportunity for a day of exploration. Instead of buying one of those beautiful tie dyed tapestries that are sold on the street corners, we decided to follow a tip I’d gotten earlier and go right to the source – the small village of Zhoucheng.
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Zhoucheng is about 45 minutes north of the Dali Old Town by car, and it is the main source of tie dyed cloth that is sold all over the region. The local Bai ethnic minority have been producing the artwork for over a thousand years, and it’s a lot more impressive than the psychedelic tee shirts you probably think of when you hear the words “tie dye.” They come in many colors now, but the most beautiful by far is the deep blue and white that they have used for so many centuries. We were on a mission to see how the dying was done, and maybe even try it ourselves.
Our driver dropped us off in the Zhoucheng village, but he told us that the best stores and workshops were within the old town. He also warned us that outside the old town gates a lot of people would try to convince us to go one place or another, but it probably wouldn’t be what we were looking for. We wandered into town to see what we could find.
Springtime in Dali feels like a mixture of Winter and Summer, depending on whether you are currently in the sun or the shade. But on this mid-April morning it was actually very comfortable. As we walked uphill on the main street of Zhoucheng, we looked around for the tie dye shops that the town was known for. The buildings and alleyways weren’t as beautiful as the well maintained streets of the Dali Old Town. The walls of the buildings were bare and dusty, and many streets were cluttered with building materials and debris.
But as we walked, we were occasionally able to see through a doorway or window that revealed amazing courtyards with stone walkways and lush vegetation. In one courtyard, we saw numerous huge pieces of tie dyed cloth hanging up, and upon closer inspection discovered that there was a larger group of young tourists who were busy working with fabric and strings, clearly taking a lesson as part of a tour. We tried to find out if we could join in, but were unable to find anyone who worked there. So we moved on.
We soon came to another courtyard, this one with just a store and no workshop. There were many, many beautiful pieces hanging up. An old woman stepped out of a doorway and told us to look around, saying that the pieces were all made by her. We’ll probably never know if that was true, but they were really beautiful regardless, and clearly handmade by someone, so it was beside the point. My mother-in-law picked out a huge blue and white tapestry to bring home with her. I found a scarf that I knew I would wear all the time (and I do).
After resisting the other pieces the old woman was recommending to us, we stepped out to continue on our way. The sun was starting to get hot, and we were all starting to get hungry. I pulled out the card I had been given by a friend and dialed the number for the workshop. Zhouchen is a popular tourist attraction, and men and women would occasionally approach us and offer to take us to one business or another. Again we resisted as I got directions to our preferred workshop. And good news; the workshop and tour included lunch and tea in the courtyard.
We got lost for a little while (which wasn’t easy considering what a small town it was. We came across a town square, where merchants were selling everything from tea eggs to chickens. We turned left and it quickly became obvious that we had gone the wrong way. We turned around and went right instead, and eventually found a much larger market under two enormous trees. In front of it was the beautiful old town gate.
We made our way farther up the hill, following the directions I was given. It was simple enough, just a straight up from the gate for a long way, and then a right turn at the alley in the picture above.
We turned left into the courtyard and saw that another group was just finishing with their own tie dye lesson. Their work was hanging up on a line, drying in the sun. It was not as good as what the locals were making, not by a long shot, but it was good enough that I’d be proud if I brought something like it home with me. We signed up to receive a lesson in history and technique and make some handkerchiefs. But first, tea and lunch.
While we sat and enjoyed our tea in the shade of the courtyard, Lisa wandered around, looking at the displays and the artwork. She pointed at one of the tourists’ handkerchiefs on the line and said “I like that one,” and the tourist beamed with pride. Jake and his parents chatted. This visit to China was the first time they’d seen each other in over a year. Everyone sipped their tea.
Eventually lunch came. Unfortunately, there was no vegetarian option, and we had neglected to bring our own food. We begrudgingly ate our meal, and I said a little prayer in my head. The meal cost 20 yuan (about $3.00) for rice and three set dishes, and it wasn’t bad for the price. It had some flavors that were familiar to us, and a few that were kind of new, even having been in Yunnan for over a month. Maybe it was just because we’d been vegetarians for so long.
I’d been trying for months to get Lisa to do crafts. She was a little to young for most things we tried, and sure enough, once the tie dye class started she was more interested in playing with some of the ingredients than in actually making anything with them. I enjoyed hearing about the process before it started, and about the different plants that were used to make the various colors. The deep blue comes from isatus tinctoria, known in English as woad.
As our instructor showed us how the patterns were made – the hours and sometimes days of stitching, twisting and tying, the complex process of soaking, hanging, dying, washing, and so forth – what once seemed like just another souvenir for tourists hanging on the walls of the Dali Old Town, suddenly looked a little different. Those patterns, each little flower petal or butterfly wing, suddenly looked less like a brush stroke and more like a carefully planned artwork or the solution to a puzzle.
Just looking at one of the cloths – a three meter giant – twisted up into what looked like a little squid before it was dyed, brought home how much labor went into these for what would eventually sell in a shop, travel across China (or across the world), and find a home on someone’s wall or table.
Needless to say, when Lisa and I worked together on our handkerchief, it didn’t take days or even hours, and our focus was not so intense. Lisa liked putting clips on the fabric, and we tried to make some little flowers with them. The teacher helped us make a few stitched flowers in the corners, too. My mother-in-law had a little more luck, partially because she had more experience with crafts, and partially because she didn’t have a two year old in her lap. She watched the instructor carefully and did her best to imitate one simple pattern. That’s probably the best way to learn. Of course, I’ll always like the one Lisa and I made together best (it’s the last picture in the post).
Even if we didn’t walk away with the knowledge required to make amazing tie dye tapestries of our own, we did at least walk away with some new knowledge, and that’s how I want to end this. If you travel to China, or Asia in general, and you visit the old towns, you will see a lot of little shops that seem to be selling the same hand made knickknacks and souvenirs. Some of them are clearly manufactured, and others are clearly handmade by someone. Slight differences between similar items are a giveaway. Even if you can’t tell with the naked eye what is local and what came from a factory somewhere, it’s not too hard to find out by asking a few questions. It’s always better to reward the local artists, and it’s especially gratifying when you see what’s gone into it.
Most souvenirs you will see aren’t quite on the level of the Zhoucheng tie dye, but every little object has a history. The best part of our trip wasn’t mastering a new skill (we didn’t) and it wasn’t learning the details of the process (a lot of them are already forgotten). The best part was taking something we saw every day, removing it from an ocean of sounds and sights, and giving it a history, understanding its uniqueness, and putting it in perspective. That’s one benefit of slowing down your travel, and it’s something we hope we teach Lisa to do.
Some Tips for Visiting Zhoucheng
Tell your taxi or Didi driver to take you to 周城. All of them know where it is, but not all of them will know how to read it in English characters. Jake can confirm that if you don’t know just how to pronounce a place name, you probably won’t be understood.
Here is information for the particular workshop we visited:
Name: 蓝续 (Lanxu)
Address: 大理市喜州镇周城村大充路84号 (note: the address is just for reference, your taxi or Didi driver will have to drop you off in the village like ours did)
Phone Number +86 18987152159
I speak Chinese and I was able to translate for my family. If you don’t speak a word of it, and you aren’t much for visual learning. You should call first and ask if they can accommodate you.
Zhoucheng won’t show up right on Google Maps – it will take you to another city entirely. So if that’s the only navigation map you know how to use, enter “Zhouchengcun, Dali, Yunnan, China” instead. But keep in mind that if you want to use Google Maps while you are traveling in China, you will need to have a VPN app installed on your phone or computer. Almost all Google products and websites are blocked in China.
Bring a Snack
Like I said earlier, the food wasn’t bad, especially for the price, but if you are a vegetarian, don’t expect to find a lot of options. The restaurants aren’t exactly plentiful and diverse, and non-Chinese speakers will have trouble.
Bring Your Camera
Even though the Bai tie dye artwork is inexpensive by western standards, you will still want to bring home more of it than you can afford. In general, the Chinese don’t mind if you take pictures, especially if you are already spending money. A wide angle lens will be most helpful because the tapestries are big and the quarters are close. Jake got a lot more use out of our 24-70mm lens than our 70-200mm.
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