- Western travellers have been coming to Jim’s place in Dali, China for 28 years. In the early days they were mainly youthful backpackers whereas today they’re from different backgrounds and span many age groups. It’s like a house full of travellers and they are a pleasure to be among.
This is Jim’s second property, called Jim’s Tibetan Hotel. The original one was a seven-bedroom guesthouse within the walls of the old city called Jim’s Tibetan Guest House. It’s up for sale now for it’s too difficult to get good help to run the two, he says. This newer one has 15 bedrooms and is a 5-minute walk of the old city. He calls it a “boutique” hotel but that’s not an apt description and not what visitors want it to be. It’s small and friendly, a colourful mix of Bai and Tibetan styles, with Jim at the centre.
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Jim is Tibetan. His father was a history professor in Tibet when he was sentenced to 22 years of hard labour. When he was released, in 1980, the family came to Dali and five years later Jim started his business. He visits Tibet but he wouldn’t go back to live because his family and business are here and he wouldn’t want to hurt his parents by leaving them after all they have gone through. Besides, he says, this part of China is quite different because there are many minorities and because the mountains remind him of his homeland.
About 80% of his guests are westerners for his hotel provides a much needed respite in a country where hardly anyone speaks or reads English and where daily logistics need to be well planned. Here you can just relax and for a few days meet up with other foreign visitors. During my stay they included several European families with young children, a German couple who had worked in China many years before and were back to see how the country had changed, Americans who were in the country to teach English, and a couple of university professors on a Fulbright scholarship. I actually ran into more Americans in China than anywhere in Southeast Asia, often working as teachers or parents visiting the teachers.
Jim’s place encourages encounters between strangers. There’s a rather informal restaurant with a couple of computers and free wifi where you can sit for hours, a small courtyard garden and a rooftop terrace that looks out on the Cangshan Mountains. An ample breakfast is served in the restaurant each morning and everyone raves about the homemade bread. You can get other meals here too, but the choice is sometimes limited. I had Tibetan yak stew one night because it was the only dish on the menu that the person on duty knew how to cook. So it’s a casual sort of place.
Jim likes what he is doing because he’s independent; he wouldn’t want to work for the government, he says. Everything he knows about the business he learned from foreigners. He speaks what he calls “street English” and offers tours into the countryside around Dali where “traditional people live traditional lives”. These tours are the best I have taken in five months travelling in Asia.
Jim and I talk about what I would like to see and he arranges it. Other guests sign on and by the time we are on the road each morning the van is full and the cost for each person kept low. While the drivers don’t speak a word of English, they always make sure I see what has been discussed, often driving over back roads and trekking across fields to do that.
Jim’s place is famous, or so the young man who runs the B&B where I stayed in Lijiang tells me. He visited the Tibetan Hotel a couple of times hoping to meet Jim but he wasn’t in. His background is different from Jim’s but equally interesting for he was born in Hong Kong and educated at the University of Toronto and, like Jim, he has made his place a comfortable retreat for westerners travelling in the province of Yunnan.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2012