On one of our first drives in Dali, I watched out the window as green fields flew by out the windows of our rickety and sweltering bus. We tried to identify all the plants; rice, corn, vegetables and large swathes of tobacco. Then the view shifted and the green gave way to fields of pink and yellow. Fields of flowers, where food could be grown.
Roses are everywhere in Dali. You don’t only find the flowers growing in the ground and blossoming in clay pots around town. You also find roses in cakes, perfume, make-up and even wine. You can find small rose cakes in shops all over town. They’re handmade flakey wheat biscuits with a rose jam filling, usually two RMB each, about 30 cents in USD. I do not understand how they sell enough to cover the labor costs but enough tourists must buy them to make the industry worth it.
Tourism shapes nearly every aspect of life in Dali. Buses of Chinese tourists walk through with their cameras, snapping photos and buying rose cakes. Xizhou and the shore of Erhai Lake are extremely popular photoshoot spots and you can see couples dressed in wedding clothes or traditional ethnic minority garb posing in rice paddies and in front of cute shops at any point in the day. According to Beth E Notar, sociological researcher and author of Displacing Desire, tourists come to Dali for the exotic narrative of the region. Western tourists used to come because of an entry in The Lonely Planet, a popular guide book, that described Dali as a magical world of “authentic China” off the beaten path. Ironically, Dali became part of the beaten path precisely because of this narrative. Now, most tourists to Dali are from other areas of China. The Chinese government pushes tourism in this area as part of their initiative to fight rural poverty. Ethnic minority groups are used as tourist attractions and traditional rose wine, rose cakes and other flower elixirs are sold as part of this narrative.