To this day, Dali is my favourite city in China. For two months, I’ve been traveling in Guangxi Province, Yunnan Province and Sichuan Province, and there were not many so places that I could see myself living, but Dali was one of them. Dali used to be a backpackers’’ THE hangout place, but not anymore. Because of the past, Dali is still backpacker and westerner friendly; big percentage of people can speak and understand English, and there are few places you can cure your homesick.
Most of all, I liked Dali because it’s not a fake city. Meaning, a lot of touristy places that are popular to Chinese tourists are fake; they re-built the town and not really anyone is living there. But Dali was different. There was a good mix of locals and travelers. We could see how people really living, visit local markets, talk to the locals, and eat their food. They re-built the parts of the town due to the earthquake, but it felt like a real Chinese town to me.
So, in Dali, what can you do? Here are some suggestions.
Enjoy laid-back atmosphere
“You must love the place!” That’s the comment we hear every time we mention that I stayed in Dali for 10 days. Well yes, I really liked it. It was so different then rest of the China; people are laid-back. With the magnificent view of Cangshan range and Erhai Lake, the atmosphere is the biggest selling point of Dali.
It is a good place for digital nomads. There are plenty of cafes that you can work and most of them have reliable Internet connection. For 10 days, I was drinking coffee, having western breakfast with fine bread, taking photography of the beautiful scenery, café hopping in bohemian street (Renmin Ru) and drinking Dali beer while working.
Hiking in Cangshan
Cangshan is a mountain range immediately west of Dali City in Yunnan province of China. The highest summit, Malong, is 4,122 m, but the mountain includes another 18 peaks all over 3,500 m altitude. But don’t worry; Dali is already 2,000 m high and it’s a well managed hiking path.
There are two main entrances to Cangshan: Gantong Si (Gantong Temple) and Zhonghe Si (Zhonghe Temple). And you can decide either taking cable car or walking. Both of the entrances are not too far from the city centre. You can catch a taxi to take you to the trailhead under 10 CNY. I went hiking through Gangong Si.
Hiking to the Qingbi Stream is little tricky. It’s not so easy to find the trail and it looked like we were descending; but actually we were going around the mountain. The cable car is operating between Gantong Si and Qingbi Stream. When you reach the Qingbi Stream, You’ll meet the Jade Cloud Traveler’s Path. It is a 9 km long, well paved walking path.
The scenery along the way is the best part. I couldn’t help but thinking ‘how did they built this path way up here?’ But it’s helping people to enjoy the view for sure.
Cycling around Erhai Lake
North-South length of the lake is 40 km and the East-West width is roughly 7–8 km. Its area is 250 square kilometres, making it the second largest highland lake of China
Dali is just one of the small ancient towns locates around Erhai Lake. If you are staying in Dali for few days, don’t forget to grab a bike and explore Erhai Lake region. There are a numbers of biking courses you can enjoy: a half day, a full day, or even two full days.
Xizhou, a charming small town located 20km northwest from Dali is a good place to visit by bicycle. Xizhou is not the major travelers’ destination, but it’s a good size to spend a day. I bought some tie-dye products here cheaper than Dali. Seeing the Bai architecture is the not to miss in Xizhou. Don’t forget to visit the market and their bread; it’s fantastic.
The cycling path is following Erhai Lake and passing the little villages on the road. Thankfully I had a really clear-warm day. Cycling in between Cangshan and Erhai Lake, it took way longer than it was supposed to because I had to keep taking photos of the beautiful scenery.
Visiting Local Markets
Every weekday is a market day in different villages. The time schedule will be in most of the tourist information booth in town. Most of the markets happening around Erhai Lake is not for us travelers; for local farmers and villagers. Someone would describe it as ‘The place not much to buy if you are not a farmer’ and I have to agree with that.
For Monday, it was a market day in Shaping, 30 km north from Dali. I visited Shaping market by taking a bus for about an hour. It was an interesting market. Cangshan in the back, the market creates fantastic background for photographers. I wandered around and bought some fruits. There is the photo essay from Shaping Monday Market.
Explore the Historic Area
Three Pagodas, the most famous landmark of Dali, is worth to spend your time. Although entrance fee will make you reevaluate about the place; is it really 121 CNY worth it? Check out my guide: How to visit Three Pagodas for free before you go.
And not only Three Pagodas, there is One Pagoda, in south of the city: Yi Ta. Smaller then the Three Pagodas and there’s only one. But this one is free, since no one seems taking care of the area.
Although Dali is partially rebuilt, still there are old houses and architectures we can enjoy. Walking in small alleyways to see the beautiful old buildings and gates. Try not to be frustrated by Chinese group tourists, it’s the part of the fun in Dali.