With vivid memories from my childhood's visit to the beautiful province of Yunnan, for long I dreamed of going back and exploring other parts of the region. After exactly ten years, my plans finally came true and in June 2016 I was on a plane to Kunming, Yunnan’s biggest city.
I decided to spend the first few days in Kunming. The city has developed a great deal over the years, but thankfully hasn’t lost its charm and is definitely worth staying for a few days.
Eager to explore new parts of the province, I embarked on a 4-hour bus ride to Dali, which is located 300 kilometres (186 miles) northwest of Kunming. The bus actually goes to the new district called Xiaguan.
From there a public bus (No. 4 or 8, about 1 hour) or taxi (50 RMB) will take you directly to the Ancient Town of Dali.
Surrounded by Cangshan Mountain to the west and Erhai Lake to the east, the city’s beautiful scenery and relaxed atmosphere are absolutely breathtaking!
It has long been a popular spot with independent travellers and foreigners. There’s even a small community of expats, with most teaching English and studying Chinese.
Formerly the capital of Nanzhao Kingdom, Dali region is also home to the Bai ethnic minority.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
I think what I liked the most about Dali, was that it's a small and calm (for Chinese standards;) town. It's enjoyable to get away from the big and busy Chinese cities and experience a different side of China. There's a lot of fun outdoor activities you can do and chances of interaction with ethnic minorities. Below is my quick guide to Dali.
1. Dali Ancient City
Unlike the old town in Lijiang, Dali is free to visit. It’s smaller and more spacious, but still very charming and with beautiful old Ming architecture. You can enter the ancient city through one of the old city walls. The famous Foreigner Street is a good place for buying souvenirs and handicrafts.
2. Erhai Lake
The scenery of Erhai Lake is truly amazing. The best way to get there is renting a bicycle, electric bike or electric car. You can also take bus no. 2 from Dali Old Town. Once there, you can walk around the lakeshore park and Caicun village. If you like, take a boat trip across the lake to a small island.
3. Bai minority villages (Xizhou)
A great way to see more of the Bai ethnic minority culture is to head about 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of Dali along the lake to the village of Xizhou. It takes about an hour by bicycle. Make sure to try “Baba”, a local pancake with sweet or salty stuffing (10 RMB for one).
4. Biking around Erhai Lake
If You have more time and want to get further away from the tourist spots, you can bike all around the lake. This is definitely my favourite. A great chance to see more of the countryside and the local culture. The loop is exactly 120 kilometers (75 miles) long and can be done over 2-3 days, if not in a rush. Start northwards. The terrain is mostly flat, but there are some small uphills.
Shuanglang and Wase villages (at 52km and 65km) are worth a visit or overnight stay, the second being known for its morning market. Guesthouses are available in both villages and also all other villages you will pass on the way.
5. Cangshan Mountain
With 18 peaks, the mountain range offers lots of hiking trails and great views of the city and Erhai Lake. You can hike up (2 hrs, mostly stairs) or take the chair lift (30 RMB one way) to the Zhong He Temple. From there, you may walk along the Jade Cloud Pass.
There are other cable cars (prices vary, from 40-230 RMB) which can take you to various spots, including to the mountain top. The entry ticket to the whole mountain area is 40 RMB.
Being a centre of art and culture, the city offers many boutique hostels and guesthouses at different price points.
I stayed at the Jade Emu International Guesthouse, which is run by an Australian expat and his Chinese partner. It’s cheap and comfortable, with a large common area, pool table and movie room, but can get a bit loud in the evenings. Dorms 25-50 RMB, private rooms 100-300 RMB
Wase Village - Purple Xianju Guesthouse（挖色镇紫贤居客栈 ）
A great, small guesthouse run by a Bai ethnic minority family. The owners are very friendly and offer home-made dinner (we paid 100 RMB for three persons). A 3-bedroom with bathroom was 120RMB. Single, double and quadruple rooms are also available.
The place is on a side street, but ask around and show the Chinese name of the guesthouse. The town is small and you’ll definitely find it.
More touristy than Wase, this village has a good choice of accommodation, including hostels and boutique hotels. Accommodation here books out considerably fast.
There’s a great variety of places to choose from, both Chinese and Western.
Food is tourist-oriented and slightly more expensive within Dali’s Ancient Town. You can find some cheap eateries opposite of the western city gate on Guanyin Road. I went to Shishang Mong Kok Crazy Barbecue twice. It has delicious BBQ and is open in the evenings.
Many bars around the old town have live music in the evenings. The Bad Monkey is popular with foreigners.
There’re many rental shops in Dali Old Town, I rented a bicycle near the east gate. Mountain bikes cost 30-50 RMB/day depending on quality. You can usually get a helmet, cycling gloves and a frame bag free of charge, or for a small additional fee.
You can also rent tandems, electric bicycles and electric cars (which look like a smaller version of a Smart).