Occupying fertile plains that are hemmed in by a long line of mountains on one side and an expansive lake on the other, the ancient city of Dali has long been the preeminent backpacker destination in China’s Yunnan province.
The overwhelmingly beautiful natural surroundings combine with an artistic counter-culture to form one of China’s most unique combinations of tourism and local culture. Let’s explore the region through four different lenses.
Dali Ancient Town
For our first 36 hours in Dali, a steady downpour warned us that China’s rainy season was almost upon us. But of all the places we’ve been to in China, Dali is definitely the best place to be caught when there’s bad weather.
Yunnan is China’s original coffee growing region, so there are plenty of hip coffee bars serving cappuccinos with freshly ground local beans. With almost an entire month of tea and sugary instant coffee behind us, we were immensely pleased to see almost every other storefront prominently display the shiny veneer of espresso machines.
Curiously, few of the coffee shops were only cafes. Some doubled as barber shops, others served as workshops where handmade leather goods were on display, but my favorite were the bookstores. For the entirety of our time in China we had barely seen a single book for sale, let alone one in English. We were overjoyed with the prospect of sitting inside all day and discovering new titles while the rain poured down.
Our pursuit of books and coffee led us to Dali’s art district. A small open mall consisting of art installations and stalls occupied by everything from jewelry makers to a rock climbing wall, we were happy to uncover this enclave of expression that felt more like Berkeley or Brooklyn than China.
When the rain finally subsided, we explored the streets of the old town. As with many tourist destination, the real estate can be grouped into a few predictable groups.
Flower pancakes: these flaky baked goods were everywhere in Dali, stuffed with petals and purple flowers and proving surprisingly delicious to our palates!
Boutique shops: always sporting a vase or two of fresh flowers out front, boutique shops sold everything from tea to handbags, all with detailed decorations and cute designs.
High-end shopping: something new in Dali was the prominence of luxury shops. Whether the product was ancient teapots or fancy dresses, these minimalist and austere shops offered plenty that was outside our price range
Fruit stalls: the area around Dali is a treasure trove of exotic fruits, so we did our best to sample the entire spread of local delicacies, which spread from wax berries to bitter melons.
Restaurants: each restaurant in town displayed their fresh vegetables out front, giving us an absurd number to choose from. Amongst the plentiful variety of leafy greens and herbs, there were also eggplants, cucumber, tomatoes, broccoli, and many other unknown local vegetables which spoke to the bountiful diversity of the nearby farmland.
Undoubtedly our most memorable dining experience was at a Buddhist temple in town. Their twice daily $1 vegetarian buffet serves up an interesting sample of beans, vegetables, and spices while spawning a line that winds around the block.
Guesthouses: the booming domestic tourism industry in Dali means that almost every residence in quieter neighborhoods has been transformed into a youth hostel or high-end hotel, each one featuring a lovely courtyard garden bursting with flowers.
Dumpling and noodle stalls: acceptable to eat any time between 5am and midnight, it seems like most of Dali runs on noodles cooked in beef broth. They are always served alongside dumplings, noticeable from afar because of their high stacks of steaming metal baskets.
Craft beer stores: the most unexpected addition to the retail scene of Dali was the plethora of tiny places that stocked craft beers from far flung places like Belgium, New Zealand, and San Diego. Although we were disappointed not to find any Keegan Ales, the choices were far superior to the standard Tsingtao.
With two full days of indulging in the comforts of the old town under our belt, Stefje and I took advantage of a break in the rainy weather to set off for some exploration of the countryside. We began by walking towards the postcard-worthy three pagodas temple which graces the outside of town. Due to the fact that almost no buildings in town breach the 5 story mark, the structures are even more impressive in their symmetrical construction as they raise above the city’s suburbs.
A surprisingly strenuous walk from the pagoda led to a chairlift that brought us high above the chaos of Dali. Instantly we were propelled upwards, our feet dangling above the treetops and our eyes gazing further up as the lake came into focus behind us.
The hillside that leads towards Changshan mountain also serves as the final resting place for many of the region’s ancestors, so we were graced by the presence of many lovely stone tombs while safety instructions blared on repeat from a series of loudspeakers.
The forest has begun the process of reclaiming may of the older remains; pine needles landing on the tops and moss creeping up the sides have enabled many new ferns to sprout up.
Once at the top of the chairlift, we began a long, flat walk across the mountain. The trail led us straight alongside a steep cliff face with the constant threat of falling rocks from our right side while excellent views opened up on our left. Sun-soaked and glistening in the morning light, this was our first broad look at Erwhal lake.
Directly in front of us, we were now deep within the embrace of a pine forest. It was deeply quiet and pleasantly cool, giving us plenty of time to enjoy the abundance of nature. The walk was marked by the presence of three crisp streams which carved paths out of the mountain, providing us with spectacular views of steep gorges and clear waterfalls.
From high above, we could glimpse down to see both the winding river and the clusters of trees which serve as home to the protected area’s wild variety of birds.
By the time we reached another cable car at the other side of the mountain 4 hours later, we were sufficiently famished and our legs were ready for another afternoon of relaxation back on our sunny rooftop.
Having admired the jewel of Dali from afar, we were expected to inspect Erwhal Lake from close by on our last full day in the city. Progressing away from both the mountains and the city meant our view opened up with abundant agricultural fields as we cruised towards the water.
Cauliflower, corn, rice, and garlic were all on display, but the most striking vegetation was the bright fields of flowers which flowed in the wind. Once skirting along the edge of the lake, every few minutes offered another viewpoint of unparalleled beauty. White clouds perched in the sky like immovable ornaments, reflecting off the clear blue water which seemed so placid that its calmness penetrated our brains.
With abundant sunshine, we took immense joy in riding slowly, exploring the rocky peninsulas, and eventually posting up for a cup of coffee at a fancy lakeside hotel with a glass porch.
While draining the last few sips, clouds encroached on our sunny mood and a light rain shower patterned on the outdoor umbrellas, so we moved on in search of blue skies. We got a good taste of the small lakeside towns, each one a sleepy combination of farmers and fishermen that lived their lives in quiet harmony with nature. The back streets were quiet on a Saturday afternoon: back alleyways curved through narrow passageways to keep us close to the water’s edge.
Our route ended at a peninsula that jutted out into the middle of the lake. We walked through bamboo and forested groves to reach a sandy beach just as a long unbroken stretch of sunlight graced the water.
In the distance, low hills rolled across the horizon and the air was filled with crisp warm air which dropped me into a state of utter bliss. This was the paradise we had been searching for! The calm surface of the lake contrasted sharply against the unbridled chaos of the old town, which made us linger longer than expected and let the serenity envelop us.
Having spent the greater part of our mindshare thinking about and consuming plenty of vegetables from Dali, we spent our last few hours in the town learning how to properly prepare some of them. Our cooking class with the Rice & Friends school started by purchasing ingredients from the local market, where I was amazed by the diversity of two humble ingredients.
First was garlic, which appeared in no less than 5 different forms and is used from the flowering buds through the crunchy stalks all the way to the pungent bulbs.
Second was tofu, as the market redefined my perspective of this concoction. The tofu makers of Dali wake up at 3 AM each morning to prepare their tofu in more than a dozen different ways: fried, spongy silken, and thinly pressed are all available.
We began our class by glancing a thin strip of the fried tofu, then serving it up in a delectable cold and crunchy salad with bell peppers, scallions, and a sauce consisting of soy sauce, garlic, and homemade toasted sesame oil.
Despite the excellent flavors and textures of this appetizer, the main dish was much more rewarding. Having consumed spicy cold cucumber salad and stir-fried eggplant almost daily for the entirety of our time in China, we finally got the opportunity to prepare the two dishes ourselves. With the careful tutelage of our detailed instructor, we balanced the flavors and fried up the eggplant until it was soft and succulent, leaving us with an excellent aftertaste of spices long after the lesson was over.
Within a few hours we had departed from Dali, with our stomachs content and our bodies relaxed after 5 days dallying in this unique destination.