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Getting Away: Dali Old Town

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Single Pagoda
Single Pagoda

Editor's note: This is not an attempt to write a complete Dali travel guide, it is merely an effort at providing a useful foundation which travelers can use to explore Dali on their own. Please feel free to add anything we've neglected to include in this story to the comments section below.

Dali is more than just another Yunnan backpacker town, it's a state of mind. For many travelers it is the place where ambitious itineraries go to die, as the chilled-out, far-from-the-world vibe leads to "let's stay one more day", sometimes for weeks or months on end.

By "Dali" we are referring to Dali old town (大理古城) which is located in Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture (大理白族自治州) in northwest Yunnan, just north of the city of Xiaguan (下关), a trade and transport hub that is sometimes referred to as New Dali (大理新城).

The south gate is one of the more popular photo spots
The south gate is one of the more popular photo spots

Although tourism is a major part of Dali's economy and the number of independent and group travelers seems to be going up each year, the old town has done a good job of retaining its identity when compared with other popular tourist towns around Yunnan and China.

Dali has historically been important due to its strategic location and its agricultural abundance. Nestled between the majestic Cangshan Mountains (苍山) and the vast Erhai Lake (洱海) in a sprawling and fertile lake basin, Dali was a key settlement for ancient kingdoms including those of Nanzhao and Dali.

The east gate at night
The east gate at night

History
The Kingdom of Nanzhao (南诏) was founded in 737 on the back of a complementary and successful alliance between Bai farmers and Yi nobles. During the apex of its power in the early 9th Century, Nanzhao's territory covered almost all of modern-day Yunnan, as well as northern portions of Burma, Thailand and Laos.

Conquering Chengdu and the important food production capacity of the Sichuan Basin was Nanzhao's crowning achievement, but also contained the seeds of its downfall. The Tang Dynasty that was ruling China at the time could not brook such a loss and focused much of its military might on reclaiming Sichuan and pushing Nanzhao's borders back. By 902 Nanzhao had fallen apart and was overthrown.

In 937 the Kingdom of Dali was founded by Duan Siping (段思平). This kingdom never reached the heights of power enjoyed by the Nanzhao, but it did last longer, surviving until 1253, when it was overrun by invading Mongol forces and incorporated into Yunnan province, which fell under the authority of the Mongol-ruled Yuan Dynasty. Most of the records of the Nanzhao era were destroyed by Mongol forces and for all intents and purposes Dali and Yunnan were never to be fully independent again.

Over the following centuries, Dali remained an important trading town on the Ancient Tea and Horse Road, an extensive trading network connecting Han China with Tibet, Southeast Asia and India – with Dali and Yunnan at the center of it all. Dali was often the northernmost stop for tea traders coming up from southern Yunnan and an eastern stopping point for Tibetans coming down with herbal medicines, salt and yak products.

Dali was also a major horse market for the ancient trade route. Horses were raced during the annual Third Moon Fair (三月街) that is still held between the old town and the mountains, drawing tens of thousands of visitors from around Yunnan and northern Southeast Asia.

Looking toward the Single Pagoda on the south wall
Looking toward the Single Pagoda on the south wall

The old town of Dali was originally built in the 15th Century under rule by the Ming Dynasty. The town that survives today is the legacy of that era, with the city wall and most buildings being renovated to varying degrees afterward.

Tourism's impact
The emergence of Dali as a tourism destination began in the 1990s when travel guidebooks published in the West began to sing its praises as a backpacker haven and not-so-discreetly advertising that one could head into the hills and pick the "herbal alternative to cheap Chinese beer". Whether it wanted it or not, Dali had become the center of China's bohemian scene.

An influx of young Chinese from Beijing, Shandong and Guangdong plus foreigners from around the world fueled Dali's growing reputation for being a place to tune in, turn on and drop out, a theme explored in the recent novel Harvest Season. After years of looking the other way, local law enforcement officials began to rein in conspicuous drug consumption with several crackdowns, plus some large busts.

Dali has not succumbed to Disneyfication, and it has done much to clean up its previously lawless image. To the local government's credit, Dali's old town is suited to travelers of all kinds of interests. In addition to being a good place to laze about until one's money runs out, it is also a good destination for older travelers, families and active travelers.

Many Bai are practicing Buddhists
Many Bai are practicing Buddhists

People
Transplants from elsewhere in China and beyond aside, Dali is an interesting mix of people and cultures. Bai, Hui and Yi peoples have all contributed to the area's rich history, which manifests itself in local legends, architecture and cuisine. Dali is also religiously diverse, with Buddhism, Islam and Christianity all represented in the old town, in addition to Benzhu (本主) a kind of local hero worship.

The Bai people (白族) are the main local ethnic group in Dali. Compared with other ethnic minorities around China, the Bai are one of the most assimilated groups. Since the Mongol conquest, the skill of the Bai in maximizing the agricultural output of their surroundings, especially the rice paddies that dominate the west side of Erhai Lake, have made them an invaluable asset to whoever has ruled the region.

As in many other parts of China, the Muslim Hui people (回族) have historically been active traders in the region and have occasionally taken part in substantial uprisings that have challenged the authority of the rulers of the day. The Panthay Rebellion of the late 19th Century saw leader Du Wenxiu (杜文秀) declare Dali capital of an independent sultanate that lasted 16 years before its destruction (and Du's beheading) by Qing forces.

The Yi people (彝族) have also had a major influence on Dali. The legendary Yi king Piluoge (皮罗阁) is venerated for his leadership, which culminated in his founding of the Nanzhao kingdom. Today the Yi influence on Dali is much less noticeable than that of the Bai or Hui.

Walking along the overgrown east wall - the Mysterious Dali theater and east gate are in the background
Walking along the overgrown east wall - the Mysterious Dali theater and east gate are in the background

Orientation
Located on a hillside between the Cangshan Mountains on the west and Erhai Lake on the east, Dali slopes downward from west to east. Locals tend to use "uphill" or "downhill" more than they'll use any of the cardinal directions.

Dali is one of the few Chinese towns with a standing city wall. The wall's southern and southwestern portions are the most recently renovated and offer good views of the old town. Much of the eastern portion of the wall is overgrown and with the adjacent southern reservoir provides a nice bit of green space for strolling in the Dali sun. Ascending the wall is free, aside from the north and south gates, where visitors are charged two yuan at the top.

The old town primarily consists of the area contained within the city wall. There are two main roads that bisect the old town. Fuxing Lu (复兴路) runs from the North Gate to the South Gate. Yu'er Lu (玉洱路) connects the East and West Gates. In general, Dali's tourist activity is largely confined to the southern half of the old town, with the northern half decidedly more local.

Spring onions washing in a culvert outside the north gate
Spring onions washing in a culvert outside the north gate

Throughout Dali, stone culverts channel flowing water downhill toward Erhai Lake, the pleasant burbling sound creating one of the defining features of the old town, especially at night when the moon and stars (!) are out. Several years ago the streams would run dry during the dry season, but the local government decided that it would be better for tourism to have water flowing through town year-round and constructed a pump system.

Commemorating the good old days
Commemorating the good old days

Huguo Lu
Ten years ago, Huguo Lu (护国路) was the undisputed center of traveler activity in Dali's old town. For several years, the section of the street between Fuxing Jie and Bo'ai Lu was the primary destination for most of the foreign backpackers that passed through Dali, which led to the street being nicknamed "Foreigner Street" (Yangren Jie, 洋人街), a moniker that lives on today, despite the fact that most foreign visitors gravitate toward Renmin Lu.

The shift of the center of tourist activity of Dali's old town from Huguo Lu/Yangren Jie to Renmin Lu was due to several factors, the primary one being the rapid increase of rents by Huguo Lu landlords. As rents went up, costs for restaurants, cafes and guesthouses rose. Due to fierce competition among the businesses on Huguo Lu, food/drink/room prices were kept low. Thus profit margins for many establishments shrank, if not disappearing completely.

Many people who were considering opening a business in Dali noted this trend and opted to set up one street south on Renmin Lu instead. That doesn't keep Huguo Lu from trying to relive its Yangren Jie heyday – there are two paifang (牌坊) gateways on the street's intersection with Fuxing Jie that commemorate its once-dominant presence in international travel guidebooks.

Despite the rather dull current state of affairs on the main old segment of Huguo Lu, there is still plenty of life at the upper (western) end of the street. One stretch of the street here is dominated by older Bai women selling batik, communist kitsch and antiques of dubious authenticity.

A Bai woman taking a break from selling souvenirs
A Bai woman taking a break from selling souvenirs

Foodwise, King's Park Kitchen serves up fresh and authentic Cantonese cuisine in a pleasant courtyard atmosphere. La Stella's Pizzeria has a wood-fired oven that bangs out decent pizzas and on cold days makes the downstairs dining area pleasantly warm. In addition to pizza, Stella's has plenty of Chinese and Western dishes on offer.

Some of the single malt whiskies at Lazy Book
Some of the single malt whiskies at Lazy Book

For us, the most pleasant surprise at the top of Huguo Lu is the dramatic facelift of Lazy Book, which was once a backpacker hangout and is now a high-end bar with the best selection of single malt whisky in Yunnan, and probably western China for that matter.

The owner of Lazy Book has been rather busy recently, he has also opened a new guesthouse, lazy lodge, at the top of Huguo Lu. If our last two visits to Dali are indicative, it would seem that the guesthouse is already well established with the independent Chinese traveler set.

Get ready to cruise: Renmin Lu
Get ready to cruise: Renmin Lu

Renmin Lu
Ten years ago, Renmin Lu (人民路) was a rather low-key affair compared to the vibrant Huguo Lu. Other than Bird Bar, which was perched at the top of the hill, the street was decidedly local, with a barbershop here, a rice noodle stall there and a smattering of small stores and restaurants all the way downhill.

Since then, Renmin Lu has emerged as the most happening and diverse street in the old town. The entire length of the street from west wall to east wall has enough variety that some travelers literally spend their entire stay in Dali bouncing up and down the hill.

As with Huguo Lu a decade ago, the bustle of Renmin Lu is largely confined to the segment between Bo'ai Lu and Fuxing Lu.

Local restaurants often show off their fresh produce
Local restaurants often show off their fresh produce

Food options abound on Renmin Lu. Good Bai/Yunnan fare is available at several small local restaurants on both sides of the street just downhill (east) from Fuxing Lu. These restaurants are characterized by their prominent streetside displays of their fresh ingredients. In addition to this small strip of local eateries, Chinese food can be had at The Good Panda and a number of small dumpling and rice noodle shops located further downhill.

Common Chinese dishes, coffee, fresh juices and some Western dishes are also available at Gogo Café, Tibetan Café and Phoenix Bar, all of which have been around for years and made it into Chinese and Western guidebooks.

Bad Monkey microbrews
Bad Monkey microbrews

At night Phoenix Bar and Bad Monkey are popular places for libations. Both draw a mix of Chinese and foreign customers, with the Phoenix tending to have more Chinese and the Monkey a laowai favorite (especially since it started brewing its own beer). Together the neighboring bars create one of the more consistently lively areas of the old town when the sun goes down.

Another popular Renmin Lu watering hole is Dali Ba, generally known as the Vodka Bar to regulars, which has a good cocktail selection but is better known for its shots of infused vodka with flavors ranging from orange and cinnamon to betelnut and hot pot.

Cheap, clean and comfortable accommodation is available all along Renmin Lu, with Bird's Nest and Tibetan Lodge at the high end of the street and newer arrivals such as Free Mind and Sunflower Hostel further downhill.

Hidden down a small alley at Renmin Lu's lower reaches, Climb Dali is one of the street's more unique denizens, offering an array of active travel options for people who are looking to do more than eat, drink and shop while in Dali. In addition to being an authority on rock climbing around Dali, Climb Dali also offers kayaking, cycling and trekking activities around Erhai Lake and elsewhere in Dali Prefecture.

The upper (west) end of Honglongjing
The upper (west) end of Honglongjing

Honglongjing
In recent years the once-quiet street of Honglongjing (红龙井) – literally 'Red dragon well' – has received a makeover that turned it into a pedestrian street with a stream running down its middle. It is frequented by the growing number of domestic tour groups during the day but is generally quiet at night.

The upper end of Honglongjing has several guesthouse options, from the backpacker-friendly Dali Hump to Yu Yuan Hotel, which is owned and managed by a friendly Bai family. Chinese painter Fang Lijun designed his hotel Yunnan Inn, where his Dali studio is located.

The stretch of Honglongjing on the east side of Bo'ai Lu is a massive real estate development that is slowly starting to attract tenants that give it some character. Yiran Tang Vegetarian Buffet offers a five-yuan Buddhist vegetarian buffet that is great for vegans and vegetarians but also travelers on shoestring budgets.

Handmade crafts are springing up in this part of Honglongjing - in addition to a few stalls selling handmade silver jewelry, there is a wide selection of ceramic products at Pottery Studio, where visitors can also make their own pottery.

Pottery Studio
Pottery Studio

Bo'ai Lu
Years ago, main north-south street Bo'ai Lu (博爱路) was a noisy and congested two-way street – since becoming a one-way street it has not only become quieter, it has gradually attracted increasingly diverse businesses, especially restaurants.

Bo'ai Lu has several quality bakeries including the überpopular German-style Bakery 88 and the American-style bakery/café The Sweet Tooth. Recent arrival jawaca also has an impressive selection of baked treats.

Dali mainstay Café de Jack has been going strong since 1989 and has balcony and rooftop seating. Another old-school Bo'ai Lu institution is Sister's Cafe, which is one of the few places in Dali offering Japanese food.

Black Dragon Café has great breakfasts, some of Dali's strongest coffee and a spectacular menu drawing upon both Asian and Western influences – we enjoyed the smoked tofu wraps and Thai glass noodle salad last time we visited. We've heard nothing but good things about Hover Bistro but it has been closed for private parties every time we've gone to check it out. Zizhulin Sushiyuan is a nice high-end vegetarian restaurant with a pleasant courtyard atmosphere, but it can quickly become expensive.

With all the walking around that one can do in Dali and up in the hills, it is worth keeping in mind that there is a high concentration of massage centers along Bo'ai Lu, all of which offer foot and body massages.

Cangshan Foothills
Just to the west of the old town in the Cangshan foothills, there is a crisscrossing network of dirt roads and well-trodden footpaths with plenty of surprises awaiting curious strollers. Walks in this part of Dali are characterized by scattered old walled homes with equally old fruit trees producing plums, peaches, pears and pomegranates, as well as towering Dr Seuss-esque eucalyptus trees.

Footpaths in the Cangshan foothills can suddenly become quite narrow
Footpaths in the Cangshan foothills can suddenly become quite narrow

Even if you're not venturing off the beaten path, it is advisable to wear long pants as many plants found along the trails have burrs or may cause mild allergic reactions.

Three Pagodas, with the Cangshan Mountains in the background
Three Pagodas, with the Cangshan Mountains in the background

A couple of kilometers to the north of Dali, the Three Pagodas are a major stop for package tours passing from Kunming to Lijiang. Tickets to see the iconic Bai-style towers up close are a pricey 121 yuan, which also includes access to Chongsheng Temple, the new Chan (Zen) temple compound that our cynical mind tells us was built solely for tourism revenue generation.

Just uphill from Dali's south gate, the Single Pagoda has not yet been converted into a theme park like the Three Pagodas, but it has been closed to the public for some time, and appears to be headed for a makeover. The rolling hills above the pagoda offer good angles for taking in the pagoda as it is now.

A cartoonish Buddha at Zhonghe Temple
A cartoonish Buddha at Zhonghe Temple

Zhonghe Temple and surroundings
At 2,500 meters above sea level, Zhonghe Temple is a Buddhist temple with Bai architectural influences. It can be reached by hiking a steep horsing trail for an hour-plus, hiring a horse or taking the convenient chairlift, which is 80 yuan for a round-trip ticket. Regardless of how you ascend, you will need to pay 30 yuan at the ticket office at the base of the chairlift. The small viewing platform adjacent to temple's entrance provides excellent views of the old town, Erhai Lake and the surrounding mountains and fields.

The view of Dali old town from Zhonghe Temple
The view of Dali old town from Zhonghe Temple

Across from the entrance to Zhonghe Temple, Jiyue Fanzhuang is one of our favorite restaurants in Yunnan, primarily because of the great view but also for its simple, no-frills Yunnan cuisine made by a friendly couple that has lived on the mountain for the last 12 years.

Mr Yang washing ginseng at Jiyue Fanzhuang
Mr Yang washing ginseng at Jiyue Fanzhuang

When we last visited, we found Jiyue Fanzhuang proprietor Mr Yang washing some roots with water from a nearby mountain stream. The roots turned out to be ginseng that he had picked earlier the same day. He was preparing to make ginseng paojiu (泡酒), the generic name for infused Chinese spirits. Mr Yang said his paojiu would be ready after three months of steeping in baijiu. With a big smile he told us that it replenishes and invigorates.

A short flight of stairs up from Zhonghe Temple is Cloud Pass Road (玉带路), a stone contour path that winds its way north for 5.8 kilometers or south for 11.5 kilometers, where it ends with cable cars that descend to Gantong Temple (感通寺) below. Down tickets bought at the chairlift ticket office are valid for these gondola-style cable cars that pass through some impressive scenery. All told, Cloud Pass Road is flat, slightly monotonous stroll through mountains that is good if you don't want a challenge or have children with you.

The entrance to Higherland Inn
The entrance to Higherland Inn

For those looking to hike to the top of the mountain, follow the stairs up from Zhonghe Temple about 100 meters past Cloud Pass Road to Higherland Inn, which is located at a trail head from which it is roughly six hours of walking to the peak under normal conditions. Higherland has guesthouse facilities should you want to stay on the mountain, as well as a small restaurant. More importantly, it has a map of the trails above that could prove helpful.

Follow this trail to the top
Follow this trail to the top

It is worth bearing in mind that weather conditions at the top of Cangshan are prone to changing rapidly and without warning and can be very cold and wet even if it's sunny and warm in the old town. Make sure that when hiking you allow yourself plenty of time and are accompanied by others if possible, as the mountain range claims the lives of hikers every year.

Mysterious Dali
Dali's growing popularity is driving more and more investment projects that are having a significant impact on the town as a whole. One example is the new music and dance show "Mysterious Dali" by famous director Chen Kaige. The show is held at a new auditorium built in the northeast corner of the old town and is performed nightly from 8:45 to 10:30, echoing throughout the old town and getting louder the further you move up the mountain. Morning rehearsals also affect the lives of local residents, who in general had very little good to say about the arrival of Chen's show in Dali.

Daytrips
Daytrip options around Erhai Lake that are worth checking out include the lakeside town of Shuanglang, the markets at Wase and Shaping and the old town of Xizhou, which has some of the best-preserved examples of Bai architecture in the region.

Most travel agents in Dali can help book trips all over Dali prefecture plus train, bus and air tickets for destinations further afield.

Dali's got plenty of it
Dali's got plenty of it

Local Food
Sour and spicy are two of the primary flavors featured in Dali cooking. Lake fish cooked in earthen pots (shaguoyu, 砂锅鱼) is quite popular among locals, as is sour and spicy fish stew (suanlayu, 酸辣鱼). Although Erhai Lake's water quality has improved recently, it is worth keeping in mind when considering fish, shrimp, snails and other creatures from the lake that pollution is still an issue. Yellow pot chicken (huangmenji, 黄焖鸡) is another common local dish.

Rushan for sale
Rushan for sale

Unlike elsewhere in China, Dali has a local tradition of producing dairy foods, the most popular being rubing (乳饼), a firm and slightly pungent goat cheese, and rushan (乳扇), a wide, flat, almost toffee-like substance that is often wound around a chopstick after cooking and accompanied by a sweet or savory sauce.

Large jars of plum wine at Meizijing
Large jars of plum wine at Meizijing

There are numerous good Bai restaurants on the east (downhill) side of Fuxing Lu, especially on Huguo Lu and Renmin Lu. Two of the more famous Bai-style restaurants in the old town are Yiheng Fandian and Meizi Jing, which is famous for its homemade plum wine.

Getting there
Daily flights from Kunming to Dali cost up to 930 yuan and arrive at Dali Airport on the southeast edge of Erhai Lake. Flights run around 40 minutes and there are no buses to Dali from the airport which means you'll need to make your own plans to get there. Taxis are not always available and may require extensive haggling if you want to avoid paying too much.

Kunming's West Bus Station sells express bus tickets to Xiaguan (下关) for 142 yuan. Expect 20 minutes in line on busy days such as Fridays and longer around holidays. Bus trips typically take four hours.

There are day and night trains from Kunming to Dali that take from six to eight hours, with ticket prices ranging from 30 yuan for a hard seat to more than 100 yuan for a bed. This mode of transport is not recommended if you only have a weekend.

Once in Xiaguan, it's another 22 km to the old town. The 4 and 8 buses will take you to the old town in around half an hour for 1.5 yuan between 6:30 am and 8 pm daily. Taxis are a faster option but will run 50 yuan.

Cycling the old road from Kunming to Dali is also an option, check here for how to do it.

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Comments

the picture of "The east gate" is really nice:)))

I have been Dali,beautiful place,and like the food rushan,Yum!

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