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Beijing Getaways: Dali 大理

Dali History | Dali Minority Peoples | Dali Access

To Dally in Dali: Chill out in Yunnan's backpacker haven

Daniel Allen

Dali, Yunnan, China

The picturesque town of Dali in southwest China's Yunnan Province is one of those places, like Yangshuo and Lijiang, which has really taken Western backpacker culture to heart. The town's colorful ethnic minorities, host of sightseeing options and traveler-friendly environment make it one of the most popular spots for foreign travelers, and also long-term China residents.

It's possible to visit Dali all year round, although in autumn and winter the weather can be windy and cold. Try to avoid visiting the town in the Chinese holiday period because it will be overrun with tour groups.

Thankfully most of these groups choose to accommodate themselves in the more modern and traditionally Han town of Xiaguan about 25 minutes drive from Dali so in the evenings the Old Town is a lot quieter.

Dali History

Dali has a history. In 738 the kingdom of Nanzhao was established, covering a large area of Yunnan, northern Myanmar, and parts of Sichuan and Guizhou.

The original capital of the Nanzhao Kingdom was located in Weishan (within Dali Prefecture) and later moved to sites around the Erhai Lake. The Nanzhao kingdom lasted almost 200 years before collapsing, only to be replaced by the Kingdom of Dali in 937.

The Kingdom of Dali was controlled by the powerful Duan clan and survived until conquered by the Mongols in the 12th century - unfortunately most of the records of the Nanzhao and Dali kingdoms were destroyed by the Mongols. The Kingdom retained a close alliance with the Tang dynasty, and was one of the major conduits for Buddhism as it spread to the Chinese interior.

Dali, Yunnan, China.Dali, Yunnan Province, China.

Dali, Yunnan, China

The old Dali Town was rebuilt in the early 1400s during the Ming Dynasty, and what is seen today is the reconstructed Ming town. In recent times the fortunes of Dali have declined and its importance as an economic centre in Yunnan have been superseded by Kunming, the provincial capital.

Dali is a short hop from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan - it is less than an hour by plane, and can also be reached by comfortable overnight train (which will soon continue on to Lijiang). Dali is the economic and cultural center of the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture, and is located on the edge of Erhai Lake (which in Chinese means ear-shaped sea). Behind the town the town Mount Cangshan rise us sharply and gives the area a stunning alpine backdrop.

Dali, Yunnan, PRC.Dali, Yunnan.

Erhai Lake, Dali, Yunnan, China.Erhai Lake, Dali, Yunnan.

Dali Minorities

Although there are 25 ethnic minorities living in the Dali area, the Bai are the most predominant. With their bright clothing, attractive architecture and numerous festivals, the Bai give Dali a vibrancy that is absent in many larger Chinese cities - Bai women in Dali traditionally wear a white coat trimmed with a black or purple collar, baggy blue trousers, embroidered shoes, silver bracelets and earrings.

With its quaint cobbled streets, spectacular mountain backdrop, traditional architecture and fast-flowing miniature canals, most foreign visitors to Dali unsurprisingly choose to base themselves in the Old Town. Numerous backpacker-friendly hotels and restaurants have sprung up to cater to this trade, with wireless internet, free laundry, yak steaks, Western breakfasts and cheap laundry as standard. Many hotels and hostels also provide good value group and individual tours.

Dali, Yunnan Province, China.Dali, Yunnan.

Highlights of Dali include Mount Cangshan, which can be ascended on foot (only for the superfit) or via cable car. The cable car, which costs 60 RMB for a return trip, takes travelers up to the mildly interesting Zhong He Temple. From the temple there is a choice of paths running North or South, each offering spectacular views of the mountains, valley and lake, and the energetic can hike for hours in splendid isolation.

From the side of Mount Cangshan visitors can look down on the distinctive Three Pagodas, just north of the Old Town. At nearly 70 meters, the middle pagoda, Qianxun Pagoda, is one of the highest remaining pagodas from the Tang Dynasty. Although they have a history of 1800 years and are certainly picturesque, many foreigners balk at paying the exorbitant 120 RMB entrance fee. It is possible to get cheaper tickets outside from Bai touts, although these do not guarantee trouble-free entry.

Dali, Yunnan, China

Another must-see nearby Dali is Shaping Market and Xizhou. About half an hour's drive north of Dali, Shaping town has a colorful weekly market with locals trading everything from dried chili peppers to horses. The market has become popular with tourists so arrive early to capture the market's full authenticity. On the way to Shaping is Xizhou, which contains almost 200 national heritage listed private houses dating back to the Qing Dynasty - these are beautifully constructed and decorated, and some of the best examples of traditional Qing architecture in China.

With its fascinating islands, temples and villages, no visit to Dali is complete without a trip on or around Erhai. Most hotels can organize boat tours which generally last a whole day. Xiaoputuo Dao (Little Grape Island), which houses a tiny Buddhist temple, can be very picturesque on a sunny day, although to reach the island you may have to pay a local fisherman to row you out. Between Shaping and Xiaoputuo Dao there are a number of interesting villages where travelers can stop and wander through narrow alleyways and check out rural Bai culture up close.

Dali Essentials

  • Transport
  • Regular overnight trains from Kunming (10.30pm) to Xiaguan (6.00am) – approx. 80 RMB for a sleeper bunk (three or four to a cabin). NB: You will need to take a taxi from Xiaguan to Dali Old Town (no more than 40 RMB) or get Bus No.8 (1 RMB). Regular buses – luxury 120 RMB / ordinary 70 RMB – takes approx. 6 hours, also arriving in Xiaguan. Regular flights from Kunming to Dali (less than one hour) – 300 RMB+ both ways, cheaper with advanced bookings. Check for details.

Accommodation in Dali

Book the Golden Dali Hotel
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Dali, Yunnan, PRC.Dali Temple Pagodas.

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