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Weekend in Dali: A Chinese perspective

By in Travel on

Sometimes life in a big Chinese city gives me a drowning feeling. The busy streets, crowded morning subway commute to work, concrete buildings all the way home — there is no place to slow down. But I had heard of a town where calming down was part of the charm. It's called Dali (大理).

Being from Beijing and now living as a student in Hong Kong, I was intrigued. When it comes to Dali, there are three features that jointly make up the place's 'brand'. All three are well-known to people all over China — the Cangshan Mountains (苍山), Erhai Lake (洱海) and area's lovely eponymous old town. I would add the little village of Shuanglang (双廊) to this list.

For my planned three-day trip to Dali, I wanted to drive all the way around the lake, reach the top of the Cangshan Mountains by chairlift and wander around the old town for one leisurely afternoon. If that sounds like a busy trip, it actually turned out to be just the peaceful and lazy one I needed.

Seeing sunrises and sunsets has always been one of my favorite things, and in Dali, I got to do both. At around 7:30am my first day, the sky started to turn from black to a kind of bruised blue as the sun slowly began to show up. The thick clouds across the lake seemed to chase the sun while it rose.

Taking all this in from far away on the mountain, it ended up lasting much longer than me and my friends had expected. We were standing at the edge of the lake, waiting. The longer we waited, the more we wished for thicker clothing. Dawn during a Dali winter is just way too cold not to feel a chill coming on.

But once the sun was up, the chill ran away. And that's a pretty strange thing about Dali in particular and Yunnan in general — locals say in the morning you need to wear a coat, but by noon, a t-shirt's enough. Within an hour of watching our first Dali sunrise, we completely understood. After a warm bowl of delicious rice noodles, it was time to start the day.

Driving along the shore of Erhai Lake was the best way to start our trip, we thought. But it was still a thing to discuss, mainly because driving completely around is a journey of 130 kilometers. We decided to go because we wanted to see the view from the east, see a different side of the lake, and visit the town of Shuanglang along the way.

From the west side of the lake to the east, there is only one way to go — you really can't avoid driving along Huanhai Lu (环海路). The road was built very near the lakeside, and sometimes there are stairs leading down to the water. Only five to six stairs in total, but to me carrying my camera, they seemed a little bit dangerous. The view from the road was wonderful enough.

We came upon a road for cycling with a big turnout at a Bai minority holy place called Hongshan Benzhu Temple (红山本主庙). It was a nice spot for riders to stop and enjoy the view over the lake. It is a big platform and, for me, one of the better places to view all of Erhai. The lake stretches north to south for 40 kilometers. The surrounding mountains kind of steal the show though as they fade into the horizon.

As we drove around, we noticed the older section of road was not as smooth as where we began. We saw trucks all the way, carrying construction debris and other waste. We were driving clockwise, so on the right side sat the lake, with forested Cangshan stretching away behind. But on the left we saw new houses and endless construction sites with sand flying up in the air. I guess all the heavy machinery had badly damaged the pavement.

But the pace of building has now slowed down. In 2017, government officials in Dali announced the lake was seriously polluted and blamed shoreline hotels and restaurants for much of the contamination. By some estimates, 4,000 businesses have since been closed.

We arrived at Shuanglang on the lake's northeast shore, parked our car and got ready to explore the small town. What we saw was different from what we expected. The built up area has a reputation for huge numbers of travelers packed into busy and crowded little streets. I had heard from my friends that the crowds were often incredible and stifling.

We expected to see a manifestation of the old Chinese saying "People mountain, people sea" (人山人海). But it was entirely the opposite. Tourists were a sporadic sight, and many of the shops were closed. We met an old local lady who helped me braid my hair. Afterwards we talked for a bit and she told me that business was tough these days. The number of travelers had decreasing dramatically, she said, and that was exactly what I saw.

After the local government released its notice of environmental protection, scores of shops closed in just a short time. The road to Shuanglang was then being built, and took an extremely long time to complete due to a general lack of infrastructure. Both of these factors lead to a decline in tourism, and the elderly lady said it was much harder to earn money than in years past.

Walking around Shuanglang Old Town, it was hard to find a wonderful restaurant or a place to shop for traditional trinkets. Luckily we weren't there to spend money or splash out on a big meal. We were there to relax.

That's why I think we visited at a good time. Before we came, we didn't know what was going on — all the construction and bumpy roads. The town's streets were not as busy as before. That much was clear. We saw it, and we liked it, because it was the best time for travelers to truly enjoy the sights and nature without any disturbances. We did feel bad for the locals though.

Shuanglang was built with some traditions intact. The houses are no more than six floors, with whitewashed walls and gray, slate tile roofs. Walking around we saw older Bai ladies wearing their traditional clothes and selling small fried fish and shrimp. In the morning people fish, and after lunch they sell the harvest for a living. We tried some. It was fresh and tasted good, but was just a little bit oily. The last detail didn't stop us from thinking everything was delicious.

The whole town was pretty quiet, and we spent about two hours wandering around. The most interesting thing was a small island called Nanzhao. It has a now-famous photo opportunity consisting of a white chair and table. Almost every Chinese tourist who comes to the island takes a photo there, with Erhai Lake in the background. We went there too. Before, it cost ten yuan and time spent in a queue to get a picture. Now, without many people around, it was free. However, it does cost 50 yuan for the entry ticket just to get onto the island.

After our driving loop around the lake, we next went to Cangshan Mountain. There are two ways to see the mountain up close — one is hiking, the other is taking the cable car. We chose the latter option simply because we didn't think we could make it up and back before dusk on foot. There are three different cable car routes — Gantong (感通), Cangshan (苍山) and Ximatan (洗马潭).

Ximatan is the longest. It is said that in ancient times an emperor conquered Yunnan and discovered a pond on Cangshan Mountain. He rested there and washed his horse, thus giving Ximatan — Horse Washing Pond — its name. We couldn't take this way because of the time, and instead picked the shorter Gantong route.

The best part of visiting the mountain for me was taking the cable car. We could see all of Erhai, which got smaller and smaller as we ascended. But when we arrived at the top we found out we should have chosen a different way up.

We reached a small pond only two-minutes walk from the station. It appeared to be a dead end. So much for our hike. The most interesting thing about this tiny destination was the many locks hanging on the handrails. Tourists buy locks and red ribbons, make a wish, write down their names and lock everything onto the handrail. But that was it for our cable car experience.

The last thing we did in Dali was explore the old town. We climbed the city wall first, where we could see Erhai and Cangshan. Back down in town, there were many people selling small drums — they sit in their stores and seemingly play all day. To us, the whole town appeared immersed in music. Handicraft shops were also everywhere, displaying goods that locals may take for granted but that are dazzling to those of us from far away. The sun went down on this amazing day a bit early, bringing the cold back with it. Our trip to Dali ended with the daylight.

Images: Stella Mao

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The old saying of Dali's four natural wonders: Wind, Flower, Snow, & Moon ("风花雪月")...

Wind of the South ("下关风")
Flower of the North ("上关花")
Snow of CangShan Mountains ("苍山雪")
Moon (reflection) of Erhai Lake ("洱海月")

I have just come back from a quick trip around that area, and spent one afternoon and night in Dali. Dali has found a new identity.

I have visited Dali several times over the years, and like many people on here was disappointed with what I saw. The slow commercialisation of Dali, leading to a schizophrenic (not one thing, not another) mess.

On my recent visit, the street vendors had gone the really low end food places had mostly gone. The city was busy, and for a mid-week just before CNY that was surprising. It was not a frantic busy, everything was moving smoothly and working well. Even noise seemed to be down, and I found it a lot less stressful.

There is a sort of gentrification among traders. There are more upmarket shops. There are many more shaokao (national trend) and most of these are chains, rather than small independents. Many of the small family food places have redecorated and are not the old dim and dismal places that they used to be. The commercial development has also spread into other streets.

Dali is not the Dali of old, but it has found a new identity. This new identity may not be to everybody's taste, but I found the city a much nicer place to stay, than I did 3 years ago.

@tigertiger

The closure of many guesthouses & businesses along Erhai Lake, particularly in Shuanglang (双廊), is compromising Dali's nostalgic quaintness & allure, much less the livelihoods of local tenants and out-of-town entrepreneurs.

As you pointed out, the evolved identity aims to maintain the town's ecological sustainability for years to come.

does that last post make sense to anyone. i cant get my head around it. please can someone clarify. i thought openine all those guest houses was compormising the allure. and more so the livelihoods of locals, not much less. out of town entrepreuers will benefit as they are the ones now opening the branded shaokao and posh businesses,more likely than locals doing it. how can the new identity maintain the ecology, more people means more impact, and the aim of the business is to make money, the identity is promote tourism surely?

I've presented you the blue pill... now for the red pill, deeper down the rabbit hole we go:

Most landlords of guesthouse properties consist of local Dali residents, who've rented out their sought after lakeside locations to tenants all across China. From Sichuan to Dongbei, these guesthouse tenants transmigrated to Dali, boldly investing in infrastructural renovations that transformed the outlook of the town... synergizing modern eclectic flair with traditional, architectural nuances of the Bai ethnic minority... en route to a richer tapestry of colors.

Like the soul searchers drifting from breakup, free-spirited artists/poets/musicians, and couples escaping the bustling cities in search of a romantic, rustic getaway... out-of-town entrepreneurs and sightseers alike have congregated here in collective solitude to form a vibrant community of guesthouses/eateries/bars/shops enveloping the lake. This rendezvous melting pot of domiciled voyagers in addition to the picturesque mountain lake backdrop, have fused the mystique and the word-of-mouth draw of Dali.

Over the years, local Dali landlords have notoriously increased rent prices manifolds, reaping the rewards of the bygone tourist boom. There are numerous accounts in the Chinese grapevine of tenants selling off everything back home in order to start their new life as Dali guesthouse owners. Many do so by taking out high interest bank loans to absorb the high rents and refurbish/operation costs... only to be suspended indefinitely by the new environmental protection mandate before breaking even, let alone turning a profit.

For the past year, hospitality/dining related activities within 100-200 meters of Erhai Lake were ordered to cease. Without customers nor steady income, many owners unwillingly abandoned their Dali dream to return home, sunk costs notwithstanding. The laketown once blooming with life has since shriveled into a barren, quasi-ghost town. The bleak contrast from its flourishing heydays has turned off many would be vacationers.

Dali locals with fingers on the pulse have griped on WeChat Circles/Weibo feeds that shutdowns have drastically reduced tourism. Citywide revenues along the entire vertical & horizontal supply chain have seen much better days. From local fishermen & farmers... to Dali women & men that rely on wages in housekeeping, laundry, dish-washing, serving, cooking, transport/delivery, construction, etc.... to aforementioned "waidi" owners of these discontinued establishments & services that once put the local workforce on payroll.

One notable complaint on social media was a local granny who as a living does street-side hair braiding for female tourists. She complained about not landing one single business for an entire month.

Her distraught voice resonate the sentiments of EV renters, street vendors, mom & pop shops, mid-size stores, restaurants, and bars in Dali's Old Town where closures aren't even enforced, yet all indirectly hit hard by the decline in tourism... don't get me wrong,

I'm all for protecting the ecology of Erhai Lake, but it definitely comes with social ramifications. The recovery will take some time.

I think there's such a thing as tourism being commercially overdeveloped, especially when it is hyped as 'authentic', etc., and when 'authentic' is promoted as something deserving of sacred awe on the part of outsiders, who probably can't understand it anyway..
But then what does 'authentic' mean? I'd suggest it means not pretending to be what it is not.
And with that I suggest we all may be in trouble.

The guest houses lakeside may well have been permanently hit, but how long ago was that? 1 or 2 years now? A year is a long time in Chinese business development.
The guesthouse trade will migrate a few hundred meters, creating new opportunities, if it has not already done so. I think the recovery has already taken a strong hold. Judging by the level of business I saw last week, and speaking to one local business owner.

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