Nestled between the foothills of Cangshan Mountains and Erhai Lake in north-central Yunnan Province, Dali is a magical, millennium-old town perfect for a romantic getaway
words & photography: Manuela S. Zoninsein
additional images: shutterstock
Vibrant ethnic minority cultures, unforgettable local cuisine and carefully preserved architecture — the ancient capital of Dali and its checkerboard-like alleyways hold the allure and prospect of travelling back in time for culture, history and food aficionados. Dali once served as an important hub between the ancient Silk Road connecting Sichuan Province with Southeast and South Asia. Today, it links the buzzing capital of Kunming with mountainous Lijiang and its Tiger Leaping Gorge, continuing on to serene Zhongdian, also known as Shangri-La. Dali’s government separates its new developments from the Old Town, ensuring the latter retains its charms and native flavours. When the clean mountain air turns crisp at night, travellers simply return to cozy hotel retreats to vanish into the city’s picturesque past.
With so many rich influences interwoven into the fabric of life in this historic crossroads, exploring the various cultures in Dali Prefecture is a must. Dali boasts the highest number of ethnic groups among all provinces and autonomous regions in China — 25 of the total 56, in fact. Day trips to any variety of minority ethnic communities can easily be arranged through your hotel or any tour operator located along Yangren Jie (Westerner’s Street), the bustling thoroughfare catering to cosmopolitan travellers drawn to Dali’s charms. Alternatively, hire a taxi for the day or plan for a few exhilarating bike excursions throughout the region — just remember to bring a map along to guide you.
Bikes are available for rental at many guesthouses and rental huts around town and prices start from CNY10 (US$1.50) per day. Bikes vary greatly in quality so shop around for the best deal: the Chinese Merida brand and Taiwan’s Giant are among the better options. Taxis in Old Town generally cost CNY5 (about US$0.70) for under 3km; bargaining is commonplace and though most drivers will ask for CNY10 (about US$1.50), all prices are negotiable, especially for locations outside the Old Town. A taxi to Dali New City will cost around CNY40 (US$5.90).
For a bird’s eye view of the rich history of Dali Prefecture, take time to explore the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture Museum in the New City. Its extensive collection of exhibits has signage in both Chinese and English, and is set around a lovely traditional garden (CNY10/ US$1.50, for entrance). Shaping Market (about 30km north of Dali) in Shaping Town offers a lively weekly market with plenty of local colour. Get there early to see local Bai and Yi ethnic traders out en force, exchanging their wares in the expansive outdoor bazaar that is renowned for its variety of products. The breadth of vegetable, meat, basket, flower, fabric and even horse-trading vendors will awe first-time visitors.
Xizhou (about 20km north of Dali) can be visited on the way back from Shaping Market. Xizhou has almost 200 national heritage-listed private houses dating from the Qing Dynasty, whose detailed designs serve as some of the best examples of traditional Qing architecture in China. The story goes that craftsmen from Xizhou often travelled throughout Southeast Asia to learn techniques and source materials for building and decorating. When they made their fortunes, they returned to Xizhou to build their own dream homes.
As most of these houses are currently occupied, first knock and ask politely for permission to enter. The family estate of the Yan clan is preserved as a museum and open to the public, although the best way to see the finest examples is with a local guide. Many of the artifacts found in such attics date back to the Song Dynasty. The Linden Centre is another worthy stop; its helpful owners will also direct you to the most historic haunts.
If it is living culture you are seeking, then the best option is to spend a day exploring the area around Erhai Lake. Boats can be easily arranged through any of the hotels or tourist touts along the main strip — check out the photobooks they carry to get a sense of what the day will entail. Above all, keep in mind the saying: you get what you pay for. Ask about visiting Bai villages and perhaps about a house-visit or lunch with a local family. Gather a group of like-minded travellers and you’ll enjoy a great day out.
Many travellers combine a trip to Erhai Lake with a visit to the Wase Market on the lake’s eastern shore. Wase is a traditional and conservative Bai town with a weekly market aimed at both townspeople and local farmers. The market offers an interesting look at life in a quiet country town and will let you buy some quirky souvenirs, and excellent Pu’er tea from the province.
Yunnan is one of China’s most naturally plentiful provinces: verdant green mountains and tea plantations provide cover for the largest diversity of plant life in China. In fact, Yunnan is home to over half of China’s 30,000 plants species, the majority of the nation’s almost 6,000 rare animals and more than 30 types of birds. The Cangshan Mountains have peaks reaching up to 4,200 km, with a variety of hiking trails that makes this an excellent excursion for both amateur and experienced hikers.
Take the chairlift located at the South Gate of the Old Town (CNY30/ US$4.40) past traditional gravestones and fern forests to an outfitted arrival station, where park rangers can provide guidance on the best trails. If you want to spend a few days exploring, consider hunkering down at the Higherland Inn, a backpackers hostel with sparse but simple cabins that serves Yunnan-style dinner with the lovely family. Be sure to request an electric blanket for the chilly nights!
Not just nature lovers, but food lovers, will be sated by the dishes China’s ethnic minority people serve up, flavours which often contradict and surprise those already familiar with Chinese cuisine. Be sure to try out the famous local goat’s milk white cheese called rubing, which comes either grilled with a chewy texture like mozzarella, or deep-fried and then wrapped around a stick, sometimes filled with red bean paste and coated with sugar.
Wander the Old City, whose major landmarks are the South and North Gates with Fuxing Road running between them, and Yangren Jie lined with cafés and tourist shops. Jingjing Restaurant on Fuxing, and Baili Xiang Restaurant on Erhai Lu, are known for their own distinctive versions of Bai-style cooking, incorporating lemongrass, cilantro and spice to create the sweet-and-sour combinations often found in Thai cooking. For something homey and familiar, taste the brownies at Sweet Tooth on the corner of Renmin Lu and Bo’ai Lu, a bakery run by a German woman who employs the hearing-impaired from the local community.
Yunnan is a piece of heaven on earth: gorgeous rolling green tea farms give way to ancient towns, where the largest collection of China’s ethnic minority people serve up stimulating food and generous interactions. Dali and its winding stone streets also mean visitors can either wander a quaint town, or escape to natural wonders nearby. Staying warm on chilly mountain nights shouldn’t be hard after eating delicious cooking and curling up with a loved one — it’s certainly an experience neither of you will forget.
The Linden Centre (Xilinyuan Zhongxin)
Located about 30km from Dali’s Old Town, this expansive, luxurious and carefully renovated courtyard home in Xizhou adheres to traditional Bai elegance while serving Western modern standards. It is run by a Chinese-American family who aim for an immersive experience, so travellers seeking authenticity will be happily satisfied.
No. 5 Chengbei, Xizhou Town, Dali City. Tel: 86-872/245-2988; www.linden-centre.com
Three Pagoda Park Hotel (San Ta Yuan Dafandian)
Located in San Ta Park or Three Pagodas Park of Chongsheng Temple, one of the must-see sights of Dali, this is a Chinese-run hotel that manages to balance comfort and nature tastefully. Pavilions, long corridors and bridges connecting pools give it a Tang Dynasty feel.
In the Three Pagoda Park, San Ta Yuan, Dali City. Tel: 86-872/267-6521
Dali Regent Hotel (Dali Fenghua Xueyue Dajiudian)
This might be the most upscale hotel in Dali’s Old Town, with big clean rooms, comfortable beds, modern fixtures and a swimming pool, though its five stars don’t exactly meet international standards. The Bai Minority architectural style, organized around four courtyards, adds flavour and class.
Yu’er Lu, East Section, Dali City. Tel: 86-872/266-6666
DALI FACT BOX
From Changi International Airport, Singapore Airlines flies direct to Kunming airport twice weekly, and China Eastern Airlines once per week. Malaysia Airlines departs from Kuala Lumpur to Kunming three times weekly. China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines and Lucky Air all fly daily to Dali Airport from Kunming.
The easiest way to get around Dali’s Old Town is by foot or by bike, which can be rented from CN Y10 (US$1.50) per day. To visit more distant locations, hire a taxi and ask to pay by the meter (“da biao”). Along Erhai Lake, boats visit Guanyin Temple, Wase market and other Bai villages for day rates varying between CN Y50 to 100 (US$7.30 to US$14.60); CN Y30 (US$4.40) entrance fee is charged for lake visits.
The Chinese Yuan (CN Y) is used in Dali. CN Y10 = S$2.03 / RM4.88 / US$1.46
The Dali prefecture is home to nearly 3.5 million people, with a 50-50 split between minority groups and the Han majority. The Bai represent about one-third of the total. The Old Town of Dali houses less than 40,000.
A Brief History
Dali lies just 350 km northwest of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, but its quiet, clean, soothing and historic atmosphere couldn’t be more distinct. Situated on a fertile plateau between the Cangshan Mountains to the west and Erhai Lake to the east, the Old Town retains the same layout since it was rebuilt in 1382 during the Ming Dynasty, though its flavour is influenced by the Bai and Yi minorities who established the city during the Tang Dynasty.
Daily temperatures fluctuate more than the seasonal climate, going from chilly mornings and nights to warm days filled with piercing sunshine. Come prepared with sweaters and jackets to layer accordingly.
Most locals speak Mandarin, though the elderly may still speak local minority dialects. Tour operators speak some English.
Dali operates on the same time zone as Singapore and Malaysia.
Like in most Chinese cuisines, pork is found in nearly every main dish, making halal food difficult to find. Vegetarian friendly dishes are common in Yunnan cooking, so learn to say “wo bu chi rou” or “I don’t eat meat” in Mandarin.
Singaporeans do not need a visa to Dali if travelling for less than 15 days; Malaysians need an L visa for travel purposes. Please enquire at the nearest Chinese embassy or with your local travel agent.
Best Time to Visit
Dali experiences temperate climates year round, with no extremes in summer or in winter. However, to see nature in all its splendor, it is best to visit from March to June when spring’s rebirth is in full swing.
Despite chilly mornings and evenings, the clear mountain air focuses sunlight — so be sure to keep some sunblock handy. To really get a feel of local cultures, and be liberated from travel guides and touts, rent a bike for a few days and take your time wandering Dali’s streets.
The country code for China is +(86), and the area code for Dali is 0872. Dial 00 followed by the country code to make an international call.