Dali is one of the most popular spots for independent China travellers and hugely popular with those working, teaching and studying in China. Thirty minutes by plane and 5 hours by bus from Kunming, Dali is the perfect place to relax.
Dali is the name of the Prefecture, the local city (aka Xiaguan) and the Dali Old Town. Travellers visit the Dali Old Town for its traditional architecture, minority cultures – mostly Bai but also with many Yi and Hui – and simply to relax. The Old Town has a population of approx. 40,000 and the entire Dali Prefecture around three million people. With the beautiful Cangshan Mountains a short distance to the West of Dali (approx 4200 meters at the peak) and Erhai Lake a few km to the East, it has a perfect natural setting. The climate is temperate with moderate Summers and mild Winters, though it can get rather windy.
Within the old town you can visit the local Museum which has a great collection of stone steeles (for calligraphy fans) and an interesting section on Dali’s role in the Taiping rebellion, People Park, the North and South Gates or just wander the streets.
The famous Tang Dynasty Three Pagodas are located 10 minutes bike ride to the North West, offering one of the best preserved Buddhist structures in China. The Central pagoda is over 1000 years old. The entry price at RMB60+ is rather steep though, but if you want good photos you will just have to fork it over.
Dali has a long and rather glorious history. In 738 the kingdom of Nanzhao was established with Dali as its capital and covered a large area of Yunnan and northern Burma. The kingdom survived almost 200 years and had 13 kings before being overthrown by DUAN, Siping in 937. The Kingdom of Dali controlled by the DUANs survived until conquered by the Mongols in the 12th century. Many local people in Dali have the surname DUAN to this day (rare in other parts of China). These historical events are immortalized in the Martial Arts literature of Taiwanese author JIN Yong (read by every Chinese school kid), giving Dali a fame nationwide.
Despite it’s fame as a backpacker haven, local Chinese tourists outnumber foreigners by 100 to 1. Local toursists tend to stay in nearby Xiaguan town so Dali becomes thankfully quiet in the evenings.
Worthwhile day trips around Dali include:
– Cangshan Mountains. Take the cablecar up to Zhong He Temple (worth it as the hike up is not that great, the paths hard to find and rather painful). From Zhong He temple you have a choice of paths running North or South, with each offering equally spectacular views of the mountains, valley and lake. You can head South along good paths for up to 8 hours (with several early exit points down the mountain) and enjoy the view. Spectacular. The Northern route offers the option to head up the mountain and enjoy forest, running streams and ever a swim in the cold waters of a natural pool. Beautiful. Neither routes involve particularly difficult hiking or climbing and the quality of the path is good.
– Shaping market and Xizhou. About 30 kms north of Dali is Shaping town which offers a lively weekly market with plenty of local color. The market starts early. A great chance to see local farmers out in force and literally watch plenty of horse trading. On the way back stop in Xizhou, a town about 20kms north of Dali. Xizhou has almost 200 national heritage listed private houses dating from the Qing Dynasty. The houses are among the best examples of traditional Qing architecture in China and are exquisitely detailed. Much better than anything I have seen anywhere else in China. Chinese style with local touches. Building craftsmen from Xizhou were famous throughout SE Asia and travelled to Vietnam, Myanmar and throughout S W China to build and decorate houses. When they made their fortune, they returned to Xizhou to build their own dream home. As most of these houses are currently occupied, you will need to be on your best behaviour, knock and enter with permission. The best way to see the finest examples are with a local guide as many of the interesting houses are difficult to find. Xizhou also has two estates built in Art Deco style and open to tourists – bizarre, large but not so impressive.
– Erhai Lake and Wase market. Combine a trip to the Lake with a visit to the Wase market on the Eastern shore of the lake. Wase is a traditional and conservative Bai town with a weekly market aimed at both town people and nearby farmers. The market offers an interesting look at life in a quite country town. On the lake visit the Guanyin temple and several islands. Go with a group and enjoy a great day out. Boats can be easily arranged as the owners come into town to drum up business and you can see what you are getting from the photobooks they carry.
– Chicken Foot Mountain ‘Jizu Shan’. Further away from Dali to the North East behind Wase is Jizu Shan, called this because the mountain and its ranges look like a chicken’s foot. Actually a 2-3 day trip in its own right. This is one of the 5 major Buddhist mountains in China and the top and slopes are covered in temples – many in a state of disrepair. Some have been restored and have resident monks. This is a difficult hike with the summit at 3200 meters. Be prepared.
There is plenty else to do and see around Dali. Take you time. Talk with other travellers at one of the 100+ cafes around the old town while enjoying one of the cheapest coffees and pizzas in China. Despite its fame as a tourist town, it is easy to get away from the crowds in Dali. Turn a corner down a quiet street. Jump on a bike. Or just sit in a transquil garden courtyard in your hotel and truly relax.