Dali Old Town (大理古城) has always held a special place in our hearts. Palpable history and wonderful people make the area a welcome retreat from China's larger cities. This, coupled with the moody and often stunning vistas provided by the Cangshan mountain range and Erhai Lake, adds to the valley's charm.
Long known to foreign backpackers and adventurous Chinese as a gateway to the mountains and canyons of northwest Yunnan, the area is also home to less familiar bucolic hamlets such as Weishan (巍山).
We recently found ourselves back in both of these towns and were once again pleased to see how both manage to preserve some semblance of the past while continuously accommodating throngs of tourists, each in their own way.
Dali Old Town
Dali is one of the few old towns in Yunnan with an intact city wall. The edifice has certainly been rebuilt, remodeled and given a fancy new face in most places. However, vestiges of the past are still to be found along the western portion.
The wall is a fantastic place to get above the jumble of tile-roofed buildings and find good views of both the lake and the mountains. It is also often clogged with photographers —especially near the south gate — and has become a hot spot for shooting wedding photos.
North of the gate lies Fuxing Lu (复兴路), where many travelers get their first glimpse of the countless shopping options available around the old town.
Among the bustling streets, Dali is home to Buddhist and Taoist temples, mosques and the occasional church. The striking Dali Catholic Church was consecrated in 1927 by a bishop named Ye Meizhang.
The outskirts of the old town are increasingly filled with resort communities, but luckily the lovely slopes of the Cangshan Mountain range remain largely untouched.
Xinggong Tower (星拱楼) was built around the same time as Gongchen Tower (拱辰楼), and then was rebuilt at the beginning of the Qing Dynasty. Xinggong Tower is narrower, only as wide as the street, with two tiers rising above the neighboring houses.
Tumbledown houses, most of which appear to have been built more than 100 years ago, line the roads in Weishan. The bottom floors of most of these structures have been converted into small shops.
The trappings of modern life can be seen everywhere, but the eaves — and the grass growing out of them — harken back to a simpler time.
Tradition is by no means dead in either town. The elderly are especially skilled at maintaining the old ways. Pictured above are handmade noodles left to dry in the open air
Life in rural Yunnan can be blessedly slow at times, giving both tourists and locals a chance to catch up on the essential and relaxing aspects of life, like calligraphy.
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