3 Nights in Dali, China
While planning our route around China, contemplating a visit to Dali stirred up a serious discussion between Alyse and I. Reason being is that Dali is quite a distance away from our other destinations in China which meant busing over 24 hours or flying in, which would save time but cost more money. In either situation, the loss of time or money, Dali had to be worth it. We researched at length and found that guide books, travel sites and blogs promised a beautiful ancient city, famous for its bohemian backpacker vibe and rare minority group (the Bai people) offering visitors a unique Chinese experience.
Arriving into Dali we were greeted with beautiful red slate mountains spanning miles in every direction which was unlike anything we had seen up to that point in China. A vast contrast to the lush, green forests we had just come from in the Sichuan province. Driving into the city you are greeted by ultra-blue Erhai Lake which bounces mountain reflections off its calm waters.
After checking into our hostel, we set off to explore the Old Town built during the Ming Dynasty and was said to be quiet, undeveloped and filled with a charm unique from other parts of China. What we saw was quite different. Yes, the Old Town does have a certain appeal to it as it as it isn’t overly developed (yet), the streets are lined with stone, and local artisan vendors can be found along many streets. However, Chinese tour groups are absolutely everywhere, crowding the narrow streets while twirling giant umbrellas and buying up all the crappy souvenirs, turning the streets into somewhat of a zoo. There are now many people in the Old Town dressed in costumes wandering the streets taking pictures with tourists and then demanding money. One store even had three people dressed in Disney costumes pitching tours (I smell a lawsuit)!
After being disillusioned by the hoards of tour groups we set out to find the heart of the city and its people. Up first, hiking Cangshan Mountain, which turned out to be one of the hardest climbs we’ve ever done because of the sweltering midday sun that beat down on us as we climbed the thousands of misshapen steps to the top. We were just about to start complaining about how tired we were when we saw a giant shrub walking towards us. As it got closer and closer we realized it was actually a man carrying what looked like an entire tree on his back.
As we ascended the mountain, the spiritual significance of Cangshan started to reveal itself as we started to see a few tombs, and then a few more, and then a few more, until we realized that the entire side of the mountain was one massive graveyard.
After finally making it to the top, soaked in sweat and legs gassed, we we rewarded with stunning views of Dali and Erhai Lake and we quickly forgot how shaky our legs had become.
Once at the top we explored the eerily quiet, Zhonghe Temple and many of the picturesque walking paths around the mountain crest which stretch for miles and miles. There is a passage at the top of the mountain which states that when Zhu Yuanzhang (the founder of the Ming Dynasty) ordered his top general to march across Cangshan in order to conquer Dali, the general was so taken aback by the beauty of the mountain that it changed something within him, making him consider retiring to the mountain after combat. Here are some of our favourite photos from the hike around Cangshan.
The next day we set out to find the local market to see Bai people in traditional attire selling goods the same way they have been for many years, with a homemade scale and a silver tongue for bartering. We found ourselves wandering around the market for more than an hour as this was the rawness we had been looking for as we witnessed fish been smacked and scaled on the street, chickens being slaughtered and defeathered, heated exchanges between buyer and seller and even a full blown fight where a woman chased a man all around the market screaming and lashing out before finally being restrained by another woman!
We found Dali is best explored in the evenings when the tour groups were long gone and the temperature has dropped; understandably this is when the locals come out, live music starts up and the Old Ttown comes to life. One of our favourite things to do at night was to chill on a patio with a Dali beer while people watching and listening to live music at the Monkey Bar. Renmin Street is filled with backpacker guesthouse and restaurants run by expats, although the prices were more expensive than we had hoped for, the area definitely had a cool vibe.
The municipality has recognized the commercial potential of showcasing the traditional Bai culture, giving visitors a glimpse into a way of life some members of its community still embrace. Unfortunately, in some cases the picture visitors can get of the community is one of inauthentic polished caricatures in costume trying to make a buck.
We felt like we were able to rise above the smokescreen of tackiness and tour groups and experience Dali and its people in all their beauty and charm. Whether it be bartering with a Bai person in the local market for mangoes, or searching for enlightenment climbing Cangshan Mountain or wandering around Old Town in the evenings with the locals, we loved our time in Dali and felt it provided a little snippet of how things use to be centuries ago.
Ross and Alyse