Dali: An Enchanted Ancient Town in China's Yunnan Province
January 1, 1970
Have you ever heard of Dali? No, I’m not referring to the surrealist artist of the early 20th century. Dali, the small ancient town nestled in China’s Yunnan Province is a departure from the bigger cities in the People’s Republic that will make you feel like you stepped back in time, to a slower paced China. It also happens to be the place many young Chinese artists and bohemians alike are calling home these days.
The quaint village was rebuilt in the early 1400’s by the Ming Dynasty after Mongol invasion by Ghengis Khan’s successor in 1253, but dates back to the 700’s and was part of the Ancient Tea Horse Road (the southwest silk road). It is completely surrounded by a 25 foot stone wall, with four main entrance gates. The town spans the distance of three square kilometers, making it easy to get around by foot. Walking through the fairy tale like cobblestone streets and alleyways you will find many artisan shops, fresh produce markets, small cafe’s, restaurants, a museum, and traditional Chinese medicinal pharmacies. Go down Yangren Street (also known as Foreigners Street) in the evening and you will see musicians singing and playing instruments, artisans of all types with makeshift stalls and a handful of foreigners, some of who got to Dali and decided not to leave, hence the name of the street. If you are lucky, you will run into the man from the mountain, with his long black hair and beard who appears every once in a while on Foreigner Street with a tray of beautiful jewelry made of talons, beaks, and crystals he finds while hunting in the surrounding mountains.
The Bai ethnic minority group of China played a big part in the architecture and culture that you see throughout the town. You can spot the older generation of the Bai people in their colorful traditional dresses and headpieces. You will also notice beautiful indigo tie-dyed cotton fabric that’s a Bai specialty. I was lucky enough to watch one being made, it takes a lot of time, and skill to achieve the patterns seen on the fabric. Each piece is stitched to perfection to make the most elaborate designs. The cotton is dyed using herbs and a local flower which has a deep blue hue. Not only is it made by the Bai minority group, but it’s also ethical and eco-friendly!
With the backdrop of Mount Cangshan and Lake Erhai, Dali offers more than just a picturesque setting. If you want a day adventure, take a cable car to the top of Mount Cangshan and make your way down by foot while passing through the beautiful wildlife. There are plenty of waterfalls and a hot spring which can only be accessed during certain times of the year. If you don’t mind the hike up, it’s worth the extra effort. There is also the option of going up by horseback which takes about an hour.
Rent an electric motorcycle or bike to Lake Erhai while passing local farmland. If you are a fan of fresh fruit, stop by one of the strawberry farms to pick your own basket of strawberries, or make a pit stop at one of the small cafes near the lake for some tea. Once you arrive at the lake, you can take a boat ride or simply sit in one of the gazebos on the water and watch time slow down. If you are up for an adventure make a day trip through the small towns surrounding Lake Erhai.
Dali offers plenty of options on local eats, and international cuisine, making it a great place for a foodie. If you are a vegetarian like myself it’s going to be a little more difficult, but there are vegetarian gems scattered throughout the town. Down one alley there is a small vegetarian dumpling house that offers only four options, it quickly became a favorite, I ended up there almost daily, unfortunately the name is only in Chinese characters, and not on google, so in order to find it you would have to roam around, and be on the lookout! Yinshi Restaurant, a local favorite amongst Chinese foodies, and my personal favorite had the best teriyaki-glazed chicken, eggplant sizzler, that comes with an unlimited amount of rice. Ask for eggplant only if you are vegetarian, it’s so good! There’s one thing that you can’t miss while in Dali ancient town, and that’s trying the array of “Flower Cakes”. These small round delicacies are baked to flaky perfection and filled with rose petals, they are delicious!
The Yunnan province is known for its medicinal herbs, and the people in the area take eastern medicine seriously. When you go to a traditional pharmacy, your illness will be treated with a mixed assortment of dried roots, fungi, and herbs that are to be eaten or made into a tea. Really cool for anyone interested in alternative medicine. The people here have been treating ailments for centuries with these ancient recipes, make sure to stop into a traditional pharmacy to check it out! On a similar note, Dali was once the stop for tea traders, and you can still see the influence of the trading route in the small town. There are many tea shops where you can buy quality Chinese tea, focusing mainly on green tea infusions.
Although Dali might seem out of the way, there are plenty of places to visit nearby making it a great stop if you are visiting the Yunnan province. Whether you decide to do the Northwestern route, that takes you through Lijiang, Tiger Leaping Gorge, and Shangri – La, or Southern Yunnan, to visit the many ethnic tribes, and the magical Honghe Hani Rice Terrace, Yunnan offers many things to do and see. Dali is definitely one of the places that shouldn’t be missed, plan on being in the ancient town during the Third Moon Fair, it is a carnival-like festivity of the Bai People held between the 15-21 of the third lunar month. Kunming, the Yunnan capital is a great starting point, where there is easy access by train, bus, or plane to all the wonderful places in Yunnan. Just don’t forget to download a Mandarin translating app, this will make your travels in China much easier!