A Date with Dali, Yunnan

Category: Travel Stories, China

Written by Sophie Lu, and published by Forrest Yu

Yunnan is a place one simply couldn't soak it all in on a single trip. My first trip there was in 2007. After a few days, I was hooked and in the subsequent 7 years, I've been dreaming of coming back. Back in November, I was lucky to have a second trip there (route: Kunming, Dali, Lijiang and Shangri-La). A thousand thanks to Odynovo (Formerly Odyssey, the same as hereinafter)! Late November isn't the optimum time to visit Yunnan, but we really lucked out - the weather and scenery all the way along couldn't be better!

                                                                    - By Sophie Lu, Sales Manager at Odyssey Tours

The weather of Kunming was pleasant - neither too cold nor too warm. The Jade Dragon Snow Mountain near Lijiang was pure and holy. The yak meat of Shangri-La was yummy and tasteful. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that the biggest reward of this trip is a whole new insight to Dali. On my first trip, Dali was an all-too-brief stop. I took a hurried stroll around the Old Town and a boat tour on Erhai Lake and then left the next day. It didn't seem to do justice to how impressive Dali really is. In fact, one day is not enough time for Dali. It is a place you need to slow down your pace and spend at least two days and even longer time to savor its charm, the unique charm of "Nanzhao kingdom". The bright sunshine, the azure sky, the clean air, I just loved everything here, especially the blue Erhai Lake, the verdant Cangshan Mountain, the rows of Bai ethnic villages, and the golden waves of rice - they made Dali a fairyland! These sceneries, once jumping into the eyes, must be etched in memory and can never be erased. Settle into a lakeside café, bask in the winter sun, sip a cup of coffee and get lost in thoughts, life is so easy!

Erhai LakeErhai Lake

8-Day Photogenic Yunnan Kunming - Dali - Lijiang - Shangri-La
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Dali has so much to get me hooked, just name a few: the Old Town, Erhai Park, cycling along Erhai Lake, Cangshan mountain, Nanzhao Folk Island, ancient Bai houses of Xizhou and Shaxi, Haishe Island, small fishing villages. These scenic spots definitely are definitely worth recommending to foreign travelers. The landscapes of Dali can be summarized into four keywords "Wind, Flower, Snow, and Moon", respectively referring to the wind of Xiaguan (the "New City" of Dali), the flowers of Shangguan Flower Scenic Area, the snow of Cangshan Mountain to the east of Dali, and the view of the moon from Erhai Lake. Now let me show you some essential highlights of Dali.

Dali Old Town

Dali itself is probably most famous for its beautiful Old Town, which has 4 main gates: South Gate and North Gate, East Gate (Erhai Gate) and West Gate (Cangshan Gate) to the east of Cangshan Mountain. The old town has changed little since my first visit. There were only a few tourists in sight. These days, most travelers tend to extend their trips out to some nearby ancient towns.

Dali ancient townDali Old Town

Xizhou Old Town

Located 18 kilometers north of Dali Old Town, Xizhou is an authentic old town renowned for the elegant traditional houses of Bai minority people who are still in use today. In addition, its carving art is distinct. It is clean, quiet and beautiful. There are big banyan trees, white walls, traditional houses and a beautiful countryside view. 

Xizhou Old TownXizhou Old Town

If you want to get a feel for local life in Dali, the best places to go to are the local markets, especially the morning markets at Xizhou. Here, local farmers sell vibrant produce probably pedaled in from the field that morning, while fishermen show off the day's catch in plastic buckets. The local women in brightly colored traditional outfits and locals with baskets on their backs are perhaps the most eye-catching parts of the market.

Xizhou's streets are paved with slab stones and lined with shops promoting the region's traditional handicrafts: needlework, shoe-making, silverwork, embroidery, pastry, woodwork, etc. Many shops were closed as is expected in the offseason. Xizhou is a famous historic town and a trading port for local Bai minority people. It has the largest number of merchants in the Dali area. These merchants are called "Xizhou Entrepreneurial Band" and deal primarily in tea, textiles and medicinal herbs.

The most impressive place in Xizhou is the Linden Center, a boutique hotel run by Brian and Jeanee Linden, an American couple that has been to China for decades. This boutique hotel is housed in the old Yang Family Compound, which is protected as a historic and cultural building. Linden Centre is not only a hotel to stay; it is also a venue for cultural exchange. It is also a favorite of Odyssey customers and ranks the first of Xizhou hotels on Tripadvisor. The receptionists were very nice to introduce the hotel for us. From there we observed the feature of Bai architectural style - one principle house, two wing rooms, and one screen wall. There is also a cozy museum displaying the Lindens' personal collection of Chinese art, statuary, paintings and antiques. And the viewing terrace - how I wish to lie down enjoying the sunshine and looking at the pastoral view of rice fields and mountains!

Cycling along the shoreline of Erhai Lake

If you haven't biked along the shoreline of Erhai Lake, you have not really been to Dali. And I strongly recommend this route: Gate outside Dali Old Town – Xizhou – Shuanglang. Whether along Huanhai Xilu or Dali Road in Shuangluang, you will enjoy the postcard-like view of Cangshan Mountain, Erhai Lake, Bai ethnic villages and golden waves of rice.

The road along Erhai LakeThe road along Erhai Lake

Fisherman on Erhai LakeFisherman on Erhai Lake

Shuanglang Old Town

"At the eastern bank of Erhai Lake, there is a tiny fishing village. It is far away from the hustle and bustle of cities and has been kept silent for over a thousand years. Old folks still lead a simple, traditional way of life by fishing in the lake. This place is called Shuanglang." this is usually how films, TV programs, essays and photos describe Shuanglang. Its fame inspired us to visit it. But perhaps because of its growing popularity, it has become overrun with tourists. We were a bit disappointed to find a heavy commercial atmosphere. Groups were pushing each other on the narrow and dusty lanes that were packed with hostels and inns in construction. The lakeside street was lined with bars and restaurants that are decidedly built for tourists. Many celebrities, including Yang Liping, a famous female dancer in China, who have purchased private villas and clubs here looking to escape from urban noises, perhaps will find it too crowded to offer a real sense of escape.

Shuanglang ancient townShuanglang Old Town

While the town had its share of tourists, it is still possible to find a quiet corner. Sit by the Erhai Lake or take a sunbath outside a hostel or drink a cup of tea or coffee and enjoy the sunset- many travelers come from afar just for the quiet moment. The Nanzhao Folk Island is at the center of Shuanglang. We did not go there for lack of time. 

Shaxi Old Town

Shaxi is a quaint, rustic little town in Jianchuan County, between Lijiang and Dali. For the moment it is still largely overlooked by tourists. Shaxi's history can be traced back to 2400 years ago. It was once an important trading post on the ancient Tea Horse Road on which Tibetan horses and Chinese tea were traded for centuries. While not as flourishing as the neighboring towns of Lijiang and Dali, it does retain a feel of what they have lost - authenticity and tranquillity. It takes no less than one hour to walk to Sifang Street (Shaxi's main street) from any corners of the town. The stone flagging streets were lined with crumbling old stores indicating the trace of history through the decaying mud-brick walls. Shaxi is rich in history yet it does not idolize its glorious past, it is unpretentious, profound and enchanting – that's why I would highly recommend to my foreigner customers.

Shaxi Old TownShaxi Old Town

Dali really has very rich tourism resources. In fact, there are so much more to it: Weishan Mountain, Weishan Ancient Town, Yudai Road Hiking, Yan Family Compound, Small Fishing Village, Zhoucheng, Zhang Family Garden, Shibao Mountain...I wish I could come back someday, not on a business trip, but to really relax and experience it. Believe it or not, I am already looking forward to my next trip when I hope to lazy around Erhai Lake, cycle along it, or simply stand by it chitchatting with my friends and enjoying the sunshine… 

Some Essential Information about Dali:

Food:

Do not miss the "Baked Milk Fan" if you're in Dali. It got the name because it is made in sheet, thin and shaped like a Chinese folding fan. It can be baked, deep-fried, steamed or cooked with Cloud Ham and other materials. Its scent filled the air of Dali. Other local snacks include Kao Er Kuai (Baked Rice Pancake) and Sha Guo Yu (Fish Casserole). Stewed Carp Casserole is one of the signature dishes of Dali.

Shopping:

If you are interested in shopping, I would recommend buying silver accessories. Silver shops can easily be found in Dali, though the price is a bit high. Dali is very suitable for the growth of plums, so there are a variety of preserved plum snacks such as the famous Carved Green Plums. These preserved green plums are very tasty and helpful for those with motion sickness.

Accommodation:

Finding accommodation is never a problem in Dali. There is plenty of accommodation in the Old Town, ranging from modern boutique hotels to guesthouses restored from Bai houses. 

Hint: Dali was a part of my Yunnan tour with my colleagues at Odyssey Tours who will make their trip reports in the next few weeks. Stay in tune with us and discover more about Yunnan with us!

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