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Exploring Dali Posted by on Feb 15, 2016 in Uncategorized

Dali (大理 – dà lǐ) is a city in southwest China’s Yunnan province. Mention this name to anyone in China and they will know exactly where you are talking about. It’s no surprise that it is one of China’s most popular tourist destinations with its tall mountains surrounding the city along with the beautiful Er Hai Lake (洱海 – Ěr hǎi) – perfect for swimming or fishing.

Dali Yunnan

Beautiful Dali

Just about every travel itinerary through Yunnan province includes a stop here. Home to the Bai minority, it is rich in culture, history and delicious food. Although it is very much on the beaten path, it’s not impossible to escape the crowds in Dali. Let’s explore some things to do in this historical city:

The Old Town

Dali Old Town

Beautiful mountains, elaborate doorways, and ridiculous tourists.

Dali is actually a county-size area but is called a city for administrative reasons. Most of the things travelers will want to see are located in and around the Old Town. In the past Huguo Lu – or ‘Foreigner’s Street’ – was the place where everything was happening because of its popularity with travelers to the area. However, because of rising rent costs many places’ profit margin dwindled to nothing and they were forced to move. Many of them moved to Renmin Lu which is where most foreign visitors gravitate towards today.

Bai food in Dali.

Delicious Bai food in Dali.

Here you will find many food options. The Bai restaurants are characterized by a display of fresh vegetables and other ingredients in front of the restaurant. You will also find Dali’s two most popular nightlife spots – Bad Monkey and Phoenix Bar. You will likely see many domestic tourists riding around on tandem bicycles wearing cowboy hats – selfie sticks in hand. You can also rent normal bicycles or e-bikes to see the Old Town and surrounding areas on two wheels. The Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple (崇圣寺三塔 – chóng shèng sì sān tǎ) are only one kilometer away from the Old Town. They have a lot of historical importance and could be interesting to see if you don’t mind paying the high entrance fee (121 RMB).

Cangshan Mountain

Cangshan Mountain

Walking the Cloud Traveler’s Path.

Towering over Dali is the Cangshan Mountain (苍山 – cāng shān) range. No trip to Dali is complete without a visit to this mountain. It’s possible to hike up but as with most places in China there is not one, but two cable cars. On the mountain you can find the Cloud Forest Path which is a very well maintained walking path that goes from one cable car to the other and offers some amazing views of the town and Erhai Lake.

Dali waterfalls

Don’t go chasing waterfalls.

Cangshan Temple

Temple atop Cangshan.

Along the walk are some things of note such as a few waterfalls and temples. If it is total seclusion you are looking for there is a guest house at the top of the mountain called Highland Inn. For those wanting to hike to the peak, they have maps as well as a restaurant at Highland.

Erhai Lake

Erhai Lake

Does it look like an ear? Check the map to see it.

The name means ‘sea shaped like an ear’ because of its crescent shape and because it is one of the largest fresh water lakes in China. The shores are dotted with small villages, many of which are worth a visit for their minority cultures, tasty food and architecture.

Dali village

Exploring a village on the lake.

Village at Erhai Lake.

Not far from the Old Town, but feels world’s apart.

It is possible to cycle, e-bike, motorbike, trek or take boats to go around the lake. Trekking will take anywhere from 6-8 hours from the Old Town, and is probably the least popular option for various reasons. Bikes of all varieties (peddle, electric, and motor) are readily available in the Old Town and even in lakeside villages.

Cycling in Dali

Cycling to the lake.

Dali electric bike

Awesome American flag e-bike.

There are a few hostels and guest houses around the lake where you could stop and stay for a night making the trip more relaxing and enjoyable. There are also several small islands with temples that can be visited. Staying on the lake offers a much more quiet experience than staying in the Old Town, and comes highly recommended based on our two trips there. We enjoyed ourselves much more staying on the lake rather than in the crowded Old Town.

Erhai Lake hotel

Room with a view in Dali.

Dali Mou Mou Cafe

Drinking some good beer… in the village!

Although Dali is one of the most popular destinations in China for domestic and international tourists alike, don’t let that scare you away. Stay at a lakeside village, rent some wheels, hike up the mountain rather than take the cable car, take your time exploring the lake, and stay out of overpriced tourist traps like the Three Pagodas and you can have an awesome trip. It’s possible to do everything in 2-3 days, but a few extra will give you more time to take in the stunning scenery and relax a bit.

Dali sunrise

Sunrise on Erhai Lake.

Have you ever been to Dali? What did you think of it? Do you have any tips or suggestions for people who haven’t been there yet?

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About the Author: sasha

Sasha is an English teacher, writer, photographer, and videographer from the great state of Michigan. Upon graduating from Michigan State University, he moved to China and spent 5+ years living, working, studying, and traveling there. He also studied Indonesian Language & Culture in Bali for a year. He and his wife run the travel blog Grateful Gypsies, and they're currently trying the digital nomad lifestyle across Latin America.


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