Dali Old Town (大理古城) is a historical city in Yunnan Province of southern China that was first emerged as the capital of Nanzhao Kingdom in the 8th century. I learned about Dali when I was a kid. Dali was one of the places that played a significant role in my favourite Chinese martial arts and chivalry novel written by a Chinese author, Jin Yong (金庸). Later on, the Chinese would describe Dali to me as a place where artists and hippies gather. I let my imagination ran wild before I came to Dali Old Town — Slow pace, small town, tranquil with lots of artistic ventures, rich history, and easy to get around on foot. Heck, little did I know I was very wrong.
However, I was oblivious to the fact that Dali Old Town has become one of China’s most popular destinations. The number of tourists visiting Dali rises every year. I was disappointed, but after spending 4 days in Dali, I began to understand that why some people kept returning or even chose to live in Dali despite its massive tourism.
The charm of Dali Old Town
Dali Old Town is 1.5km x 1.5km big, and although the town super touristy, it was relatively easy to get away from the craziness. Dali is also the home to Bai (or Baip) people, an ethnic minority group in southern China that settled in the region since 3000 years ago. Although most of the people I saw were tourists, I could usually spot the locals behind the fruit stands or on the local buses. I also saw young people wearing traditional Bai clothing, but that was probably just their work outfits for attracting business.
Being surrounded by Cangshan Mountains (蒼山) and Erhai Lake (洱海), most of the tourists also came to Dali for the incredible natural scenery. You could easily spend 2~4 days in the region.
The Bai architecture
Traditional Bai style houses are all around Dali Old Town, and new ones are continuously being built. In fact, you can easily find houses in the style in the entire Dali State. The roof is covered with tiles, and the walls are decorated with Chinese painting and patterns.
Traditional Dali local food
Dali local food is super delicious, and most of the time when people speak about Dali local food, it’s referring to the Bai cuisine. Blessed with the climate, Dali offers a wild variety of fruits and vegetables, especially its mushrooms! Also, if you are a noodle lover, you’re in the right place. You can’t miss their mi xian (米线; rice noodle). Pastry filled with rose petals is also a Yunnan speciality. I brought some rose pastry home for family and friends. People either love it or hate it. Ha!
Renmin Road (人民路) & Fuxing Road (复兴路)
Renmin Road and Fuxing Road are Dali Old Town’s most happening streets. Bars with live music, hotels, identical souvenir shops, African drum shops (?!) and restaurants are all over the place. The streets are lively until 23.00 as it’s forbidden to play loud music after the time. McDonald has also earned its place here. The street is constantly busy and going through this road annoyed the hell out of me, and everything is slightly overpriced.
Foreigner Street (洋人街)
Funny name, right? There’s nothing “foreign” about this street today though. The street got its name because the government used to designate a segregated hotel for foreigners on the street when they first opened up Dali Old Town for tourism.
Yet, surprisingly, I felt that parts of the Foreigner Street actually was more local than other parts of the Old Town. I also found my piece of quietness here at a tiny coffee shop that serves delicious pour-over Yunnan coffee for 20RMB a cup.
Harvest Coffee 丰收咖啡
223 Huguo Road, near the gate of the Foreigner Street (护国路223号)
Hong Long Jing (红龙井)
Like everywhere else in China, the Cultural Revolution (1966~1976) destroyed most parts of Dali Old Town. Dali government reconstructed this part of the town based on how it looked like during the Song Dynasty 1000 year ago. Although everything looks too new for an old town, the stone bridges and tiny waterfalls surely have its charm.
Dali Old Town Travel Tips
- High-speed rail trains run between Kunming and Dali every 10~30 minute. A one-way ticket cost 145 RMB. The travel time takes about 2 hours.
- The bus from Dali train station to Dali Old Town runs between 6:30 am to 8:30 pm often for 2 RMB/ride. Th travel time is about an hour. Get off at Feng Hua Xue Yue Hotel (风花雪月大饭店) stop. The bus will drop you off right at Erhai Gate (洱海门). You can also take a taxi, and it should cost NO MORE than 50~60 RMB for a single ride.
- Erhai (The lake) is approachable by bus, but I highly recommend you to rent an electric scooter or bike, so you can ride around the lake.
- In 2015, Chairman Xi has directly ordered the Dali Government to make it their mission to protect Erhai and make the water clearer. The government has been maintaining the sewage system ever since. Therefore, many roads are under construction. Some of the attractions aren’t open. Check with the locals before you plan your trip in the area.
- Dali’s temperature stays between 16~25 Celsius throughout the year. However, summer weather in Dali (or Yunnan in general) is very unpredictable. It’s also the rainy season. Bring some warm clothes and an umbrella.
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Originally published at Notes of Jo.