There are travellers who dismiss Dali, saying it was once a place treasured by western backpackers but is now too touristy. I say just ignore these naysayers for they know not what they are talking about. If Dali is too tame then all you have to do is travel a few kilometers and you are sure to find a village almost untouched by foreigners. If your aim is to avoid bus loads of domestic tourists, then that’s not very difficult either. The area is incredibly charming and certainly at the top of my must-return list.
Dali is in the southwestern part of China in the province of Yunnan. Yunnan, with 26 ethnic minorities, is the most culturally diverse province in the country. Each minority has its own distinctive dress, culture and language so it makes for a colourful mix. Many minorities are related to the hill tribes found in Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand so it feels more like Southeast Asia than China. It is also one of China’s poorest provinces.
It is geographically as well as culturally diverse so if scenery and hiking are what attract you to a place then Yunnan has that too. Dali is bordered on one side by Lake Erhai, one of the country’s largest highland lakes, and on the other side by the Cangshan Mountains. The landscape is dry and rugged and the whole setting rather austere and haunting.
Dali Old Town is an ancient walled city with cobblestone streets and stone houses of upturned eaves. There are two ancient city gates and three famous pagodas that tower over the whole place. Because westerners have been coming here for some time, there is a good range of accommodation and restaurants.
Spend a few hours in the town itself and then head out to the countryside because the villages, markets and comings-and-goings of minority peoples are absolutely fascinating. Transportation should not be difficult to arrange. Each day I booked a car and driver with my hotel and others signed on until the car was full so it was very affordable.
There are many places to visit, some well known such as the Shaping Monday market; others are more off-road. A starting place is often the town of Xizhou on the other side of the lake from Dali. The morning market there is fun and contained so you won’t get lost. The people are mainly Bai, which translates into ‘white’, which is their sacred colour because it means purity.
It is a ‘horse and buggy’ town with women hard at work throwing crops on the road for passing vehicles to break down. Other women know enough English to follow you around and try to convince you to buy some of the stuff they keep pulling from their bags; they will cut the price drastically if they think you aren’t interested.
There’s Zhoucheng, another Bai village known for its blue-white tie dyed fabrics and batik clothes in glorious hues. I visited a large market town where I found myself lost for some time in the crowd. The mix of people was fascinating: some Tibetan, others obviously Muslim, many toothless, a few still wearing the Mao suit. Women carry children in embroidered back carriers or else walk about with a stiff, straw backpack where they put their goods.
You can visit remote, walk-in villages where not much has changed in decades. In one of them I looked through the windows of a school and on the blackboard was written in English “God is so good, so good to me”. Are the teachers missionaries? Parents of the students were harvesting crops under the basketball net. My driver gave them each a cigarette as thanks for showing us their village (anti-smoking campaigns haven’t arrived yet).
There are incredible Buddhist temples in the countryside, seemingly hidden, which might explain how they escaped the destruction of the Cultural Revolution. Some frescoes are whimsical and rather surreal and sure don’t look like the Buddhist temples I visited in Southeast Asia. Perhaps that’s because of the unique blending of beliefs here.
If you’re up for one touristy activity, then go cormorant fishing. These birds are trained to dive deep in the lake waters in search of fish that they bring back to their master in the boat; the birds can’t eat their catch because a rope is tied around their throat so they can’t swallow (this does sound a little cruel).
Dali is about 400km from Kunming, the provincial capital. It has an airport and is an easy bus/private car ride from Lijiang, another must-go-to destination in Yunnan.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2012