Yunnan Dali Eco House - Peter's story
About one year before my stay in Dali, I got to know about Yizhe and the Eco House.
It was my colleague Nathalie who invited me to a gathering of 0-wasters in Beijing. There were participants of all disciplines and background: medics, banking, advertisement, housewives...
I remember it was a cosy but meaningful chat about how to be more respectful towards nature and the environment. I also remember an interesting discussion about how to reduce waste when you’re having a newborn baby… about pampers and stuff…
I believe it was a well-orchestrated manoeuvre that I was sitting next to Yizhe, the owner of the Eco House… Over dinner, she told me everything about the initiative. Being an engineer, there was no way to go home without committing to a solid contribution to the renovation of the house…
Yunfeng is a small and friendly village in the scenic Yunnan province, southwest China. It’s situated on Dali territory, in between the Cangshan mountain and Erhai lake.
In a labyrinth of small streets and alleys, that’s where you can find Yizhe’s Eco House.
When the taxi dropped me off in Yunfeng, I felt like a boy scout on another planet. Never been there before, nobody around who could speak English, the taxi driver had no clue about the address....
And Yizhe… was cleaning my VIP room, didn’t pay attention to her mobile… To make my quest even more difficult, the “Eco House” sign wasn’t shown outside, in the small alley, which was to be reached through a small street, which was a side street of another small street, etc.
Fortunately she had dropped me a pin in WeChat, and my boy scout experience led me right to the target.
Yizhe told me I was the first foreigner who made it to the house without her help. Later I learned that I was the first foreigner ever who stayed in the house, haha.
The Eco House is, in my opinion, a small to medium sized house with some nice old Chinese characteristics.
When I entered the courtyard, Tian Tian was the first person I noticed. I can’t remember what exactly she was doing, but I remember her fixing something under the window. It was a peaceful picture, seeing her working quietly in that sunny court, wearing her straw hat to protect her from getting suntanned.
As soon as she called Yizhe, to rescue her from the alien, the other volunteers also showed up. First Nana, then MuGuang. Baozi was too busy in the shower room, painting the most beautiful dolphin I’ve ever seen. Believe me, she’s an artist!
When it comes to the house itself, my feelings were more… let’s say I was a little bit surprized by what I saw.
Based on Yizhe’s description, that day when we met in Beijing, I had imagined a pretty normal house. A house with doors and windows, drains, rooms, etc. Yizhe had told me that it would become a hostel, something like a small hotel. It only needed some finishing left and right.
Well, when I entered the courtyard I was wondering where to start. My compass was still pointing to the West, not to the Eco…
Eco House volunteers - self-introduction
The evening of my arrival we had the mandatory self-introduction session.
I’m Belgian, a master of engineering, I’ve lived in China for three years now, work for a French company with activities in renewable energy (was praised for that), my hobbies are….
They also introduced themselves: my name is … but you can call me by my English name…, I’ve been staying in the Eco House for … weeks,...
Pretty standard introduction, until they started shooting their questions: Why can't you speak Chinese even after so long? Belgium, besides chocolate and beer, is there anything special? Oh, you’re not vegetarian? We only cook vegetarian here......How about sports? Yoga? Sorry girls, I’m a western man, I play football, haha! That was the start of the real discovery.
All volunteers were great, different and special in their own way. I was looking forward to living and working with them, discovering more about them, day by day. Learning about their hometowns, interests, talents, dreams for their lives…
The task: building a clay oven
Day 2: time to start working. A week in advance, Yizhe had informed me about my task: she wanted me to build a clay oven, if that would be possible, that would be nice. You’re an engineer, you can do that, can’t you? We will all help you with it... Sure no problem, “piece of cake” I said.
I was looking forward to a three days job and three days of leisure.
On YouTube you can find videos showing exactly how to do this, and it’s not difficult at all, if you can buy all the materials in the shop around the corner.
The only thing is… in the Eco House we don’t buy things, we produce or reuse things. We’re not going to buy bricks, clay, sand… we will dig it out of the mountain. And so it went…
First we had to build the foundation of the oven. Materials needed: about 1m³ of rocks, clay, sand and water.The water was the only ingredient we didn’t have to dig and carry.
After successfully securing my driving license for Yizhe’s “Mercedes” (=electric 3-wheeler) we were ready to go up the mountain and dig, dig, dig.
My four helpers were reduced to one: the first day Nana was the one to be sacrificed, or actually, the one who bravely sacrificed herself. Nana is a golden girl, but not a bodybuilder… Together we drove up the mountain, we had a nice chat. I shared my 20 minutes of driving experience with her and let her pass the practical exam, success! Nana drove us to the digging ground.
We shared the work. Alternately Nana and I dug, filled the bag, dragged it to our “Mercedes”, emptied the bag, and started all over again. About 10 big bags we filled, which felt like 100.
Dirty, sweaty, but happy with the work done, we drove back home… And me, I had to change my mind about the strength of yoga girls…
In the afternoon, Tian Tian and Ms. Ma, a helpful neighbour, had been practicing the great art of clay-dancing incessantly.
Clay powder bought in the shop can easily be mixed with sand first, and further on with water, to get it ready for construction. However, freshly mined clay is wet and sticky. It’s slave labor to mix it with sand and water...
In the meantime, Nana and I gathered and puzzled together the rocks to build a base for the oven. It was half a miracle that we could finish that job the same day, the base was ready before sunset.
The next morning we had to get more sand and some bricks.
Before Yizhe and I left, I tasked Baozi with the design and production of the arch shape for the oven entrance. I told her it should be 25 by 30 cm, round was ok, parabolic would be perfect. Baozi had never heard the word parabolic, so I told her it was a mathematical shape, and that a round shaped entrance would be fine too.
That morning became a disaster. We piled up too much sand and brick on the Mercedes, didn’t want to make two trips and waste more time.
When we were almost back home, overloaded as it was, the poor beast gave up. We thought it was just that the battery had drained completely, so we decided to pull it with the “BMW”, another electric 3-wheeler.
This proved not to be a good idea, the BMW also collapsed. Having all mechanical means wrecked, we called upon our best resources,… human resources, to push everything home…
When we reached home base, to my surprise, I noticed a perfect parabolic lying on the kitchen table, 25 by 30 cm… 1 dot every cm. It felt good. Smart girl, striving for perfection, just for the fun of it. Little things that make an engineer happy.
In the days that followed we went back to the mountain twice. Tian Tian, Baozi, MuGuang, all volunteers had to do their tour of duty: digging, -filling, dragging, sweating…
They all seemed inexhaustible, using all their power and creativity to make the work lighter, more efficient. For some reason they seemed to enjoy the hard labour, it seemed to be a tour of joy instead of duty… Maybe the joy of doing something new, knowing the purpose, looking forward to seeing the result of the hard work? Imagining the taste of the first pizza?
And they all got their driving license, although some were more gifted drivers than the others…
The magical task list…
While the team continued the clay-dancing and building the oven (three more perfect parabolic appeared one on top of the other), Yizhe couldn’t resist assigning me more.
"Peter, can you have a look at our water heater, aren’t you an expert on this? Oh, by the way, we're going to build a rainwater harvesting system later, we have some pipes and barrels left over here… Can you make it, or at least make a drawing of it? Also, recently it’s been raining, we have a couple of leaks, can you have a look ... "
What? Wait a minute, didn’t you initially say I was here to build a clay oven? I had hoped to have time for a nice bicycle tour around Erhai lake and climb Cangshan…
To keep a long story short, there was a seemingly endless task list. It was magical, this list grew longer with every task we completed! Filling up holes with the clay, building a support under the stove, and so on, and so forth…
To be honest, there was nothing I would have loved more than to stay in the Eco House for a couple of months more and, together with those super motivated volunteers, fulfill Yizhe’s wishes one after the other, until the whole house was exactly as she wanted…
It was such fun to work together, and it felt so meaningful to contribute to this initiative. The contribution went both ways actually. I also learned from them. I learned to think more about how to recycle materials, how to make something out of nothing. I also learned to see the beauty of imperfection… our world doesn’t need to be perfect and sophisticated to be a nice place to live.
To me, the work and tasks were only a practical necessity to create the opportunity for learning and sharing. Of course I didn't want to leave the house without a tangible achievement, but it was not the most important thing.
I advocate for a polite and healthy curiosity in life: Keep on asking, traveling, learning, understanding... for people to try to understand each other, but also to seek the best of all worlds, to share good ideas, to trigger inventiveness and creativity in each other.
For discovery, the Eco House was the right place to be. For example, to learn more about the practical side of 0 waste. How does that work? How can people produce only 25cm³ of waste per year? And how does it feel to be a vegetarian for a week? While doing physically demanding work. What’s practically achievable when it comes to leaving a minimum footprint on the environment?
Every day Yizhe disclosed more about her lifestyle. How to produce soap out of kitchen waste, cooking her home made vegetarian pizza, the washing machine which was taken out of service, sun boiler for hot water on the roof,… Also every corner, every item in the house had a story, because it was all made by volunteers, friends, family.
The cooking was not my cup of tea, but I can tell you that Tian Tian and MuGuang did a great job keeping us alive!
Our chats were about everything and nothing, about important and trivial matters. The sharing was great,interesting, but also nice from an interpersonal perspective.
I could feel the curiosity of the first days evolving little by little into understanding, comfort, trust. Nana found her confidence to speak English very quickly, and I was amazed to see how Tian Tain and MuGuang also started to make efforts to communicate with me in English shortly after. (I should have learned Chinese, definitely…)
Despite the age gap and cultural differences, all of them gave me a warm feeling, the aura felt right. After only a day I felt at home with them.
The Eco House is not only about ecology, it’s also about people… and the people we meet. Friends, neighbours passed-by… to lend a helping hand, to share walnuts with us, to have a casual chat. Maybe also to have a look at that foreigner they had heard about in the village?
Yes, sometimes I felt like quite the attraction, for example when we were invited to the wedding lunch and dinner of our neighbour. I didn’t mind being stared at by the local grandmas, the meat (haha) and baijiu were tasty, and I felt perfectly protected by my pretty bodyguards, I was in good company.
On Tuesday night we had a planned activity.
Yizhe had invited people with different background to watch the video “Plastic Ocean”. Before watching it we had dinner together, in the Eco House. Everybody contributed to the meal with a homemade dish.
One of the participants was a local farmer, others were working for NGOs. The discussion about how to market ecologically cultivated vegetables at a reasonable price went on lively, until late into the night. There was no time left to watch the video.
We’ll meet again…
At least, that’s what I hope for.
Too soon we had to say goodbye, but the story will continue. More people will pick up the pen to add their own chapter. I also warmly recommend everyone reads the stories written by the other volunteers, I’ve enjoyed reading them a lot.
For the Eco House: I wish Yizhe all the luck in keeping it going, and hope she can welcome inspired and resourceful volunteers, for each task, for each subject, for each activity. (Such a pity I missed Nana’s yoga lessons.) I hope the hostel will be fully booked, all year long, allowing her to further develop the concept, the house, the lifestyle.
For the planet: I hope more inspired people, like those I had the pleasure to share my life with for a week, will stand up around the world, to raise awareness for the precious and fragile environment we live in, and to find creative solutions to provide us with a sustainable though comfortable way of living.
This article contains 15 photos, has helped 402 travellers to China