Dali is the perfect backdrop for a truly authentic Chinese travel experience. From stunning mountains to decadent gastronomic delights, the city of Dali and its surrounding areas provide visitors with a one-of-a-kind immersion into a China both old and new. Experience Dali like an insider with my six tips only a native would know about
Fighting through the crowds and rushing between tourist attractions in Dali can make for miserable trip. But Dali doesn’t have to make for a stress-inducing vacation.
I was born and raised in Dali, and I’ve made it my mission in life to help tourists experience the authentic and “wild” side of China through my company, WildChina. I’ve quite literally written the book on experiencing the side of Dali that most tourists can’t access by themselves or on a typical tour.
I want to help you learn to enjoy the sunshine, sit around the fire, and experience the relaxing lifestyle of Dali with my exclusive, insider tips:
Chozle via flickr – Chenghuang Temple
Watch people write blessing letters at Chenghuang Temple
Despite thronging crowds of visitors, Chenghuang Temple is not listed as a tourist attraction in guidebooks or popular itineraries because its buildings are relatively new. However, local Bai minority people often come here for prayers.
The Bai families conduct private ceremonies at the temple. The ceremony involves lighting incense on live chickens and honoring the old woman guarding the temple. It might sound a little crazy, but it’s definitely worth seeing first hand.
You can get in on the casual yet religious atmosphere yourself and ask an old man at the gate to customize a blessing letter printed by hand and add your birth date to it, calculated according to Chinese calendar. Like the local Bai villagers, you can use it to ask for blessings on your visit to Chenghuang Temple.
What Brian Eats – Hipster Dali
Visit coffee shops and bookstores at Dali Sheet Factory
Reminiscent of styles from the 70’s and 80’s, the newly renovated Dali Sheet Factory is in the vanguard of art. Similar to the 798 Art Zone in Beijing, this three-floor office building gives you a sneak peek into the burgeoning art community of Dali.
There’s a coffee shop, a bookstore, a gallery, and space for kids on the second floor. The coffee shop is run by five Dali locals who embody the slow , bohemian lifestyle of the art scene. You might see one of the owners, CC, making jam and brownies with a few Bai girls.
On the top floor, there’s the studio of a famous wildlife photographer, Zhinong Xi. If you have time, you can also visit the nature education center that he’s just opened on Cang Mountain.
Liz Phung – Tea Field
Drink tea at Taoxi Valley
Speaking of Cang Mountain, there are 18 valleys near the mountain that provide excellent views of Dali’s picturesque nature.
You can even drive to the gate of a beautiful restaurant and authentic tea house halfway up the mountain in Taoxi Valley.
Luckily, due to the suitable weather conditions, you can pick tea here from spring to autumn. Hike up the mountain to the end of a calming mountain spring and get into the local experience by picking your own tea.
After picking the tea, you can relax in the tea house and imbibe the fresh, locally sourced tea. Most seats in the tea house are outdoors with a beautiful view of the spanning tea plantations, the three pagodas of Chongsheng Temple, and Erhai Lake.
The owner also collects local green tea and cups, and he takes great care to display them on the shelf for sale. If you don’t want to add too much weight to your luggage, you can purchase them on the owner’s Taobao shop as well.
You can easily spend half a day relaxing here.
Go biking for food
Every time I run around Huanhaixi Road, I bump into someone asking me where they should go to bike around Erhai Lake. Most tourists don’t know that biking around Erhai Lake is a 160 kilometer ride that shouldn’t be done on a whim! You must plan on staying near the lake for two nights to bike around the entirety of the lake.
If you want something a little more doable, I’d recommend the biking route from Dali old town to Cai Village. It’s about a 20 kilometer round trip and is perfect for not only cyclists but also marathon enthusiasts. Rent a bike for 20 RMB a day in Dali old town and bike 5 kilometers downhill to Longxi. Travel along Huanhaixi Road to Cai Village for another 5 kilometers while enjoying the distinctive view along the way that varies with different seasons.
Continue northward for another 3 to 5 kilometers on a road close to Erhai Lake to see the willow trees growing in the lake. They blend seamlessly into the sky that give the old trees a majestic quality.
You can enjoy a meal of Spanish food at the newly-opened Green Field Kitchen. If you choose to go in the opposite direction, from north to south, you can go to Lijiazhang for Dali food before starting your journey.
Le Hong Ha via flickr
Climb up Cang Mountain during spring
Dali people usually collect their drinking water from the springs on Cang Mountain. Head up to Cang Mountain with two five-liter plastic bottles and wrap a piece of fabric around the handle to protect your hand.
Like the locals, you can fill your bottles with fresh mountain spring water. The water here is known as the “spring that cures diseases.” The spring is concealed at the center of a village near a few stones. If you can’t find it, just ask one of the locals.
After tasting the clear, clean water. There are a few temples nearby that are worth visiting.
Guanyin Temple, 5 kilometers from the south gate of Dali old town, is frequented by many locals. Right on the side of highway No. 314, this temple’s easily accessible by bike.
Five kilometers north of the old town, Wuwei Temple is another must-see temple. Drive along highway No. 214 and turn left at the foot of Cang Mountain. It might be interesting to stop by some of the shops carrying stoneware somewhere along the way. However, I’d suggest window-shopping as buying a piece of stone will be quite heavy. Park your car and start climbing up the mountain to see the 600-year-old temple and giant trees along the stairs.
Drinking natural spring water and viewing centuries old temples makes for a great day trip.
Circled Up for Grilled Yogurt
Treat yourself to grilled yogurt like a typical Dali family
Grilled yogurt is a typical snack of Dali natives.The numerous grilled yogurt stalls along the street testify to their love of this sweet and savory snack. Grilling yogurt is a common way for Dali people to spend their evenings.
You can practice this traditional way of preparing yogurt by finding a rooftop bar with a view and doing it with friends.
You can find everything you need at a grocery store in the market near the north gate: a mud stove for 15 RMB, coal for 3.5 RMB, and a grilling shelf for 10RMB. Then wander through the market to get a dozen of Erkuai for 4 RMB, a piece of fermented bean curd for 1 RMB, and some yogurt for 10 RMB. Of course, the night might be a little more fun if you also get some Dali beer on your way out.
Start with placing the Erkuai in the grilling stove. Sit around a fire with friends and watch the Erkuai puff up with yellow surface. All you need to do next is to spread some fermented bean curd on it and enjoy this tasty treat.
Grilling yogurt requires slightly more technique than grilling Erkuai. After you place the yogurt on the grill, you’ll need to roll it with a chopstick as you grill; otherwise it gets too soft and shapeless.
After having a good night, you can give your equipment to the bar owner and make a new friend from your generous gift.
九间 via flickr
Watching cherry blossoms bloom in spring
With the warm climate in Yunnan, the camellia flower starts to blossom during Spring Festival. Reminiscent of similar cherry blossom festivals in Japan, Dali is a great place to practice hanami, the traditional Japanese custom of enjoying the transient beauty of flowers. You don’t have to be Japanese to practice this calming custom, and Dali’s cherry blossoms provide a perfect backdrop to contemplating life and honoring nature.
In Dali, cherry blossoms reach peak bloom around March 8th. Dali University is the best place for enjoying the blossoming of these flowers. There’s hundreds of cherry trees on campus which is only one kilometer south of Dali’s old town.
Go through Dali University towards Cang Mountain and you can hike up Cang Mountain on a sidewalk. Alternatively you can go to a villa area with beautiful cherry blossoms. Either way, you’re in for a uniquely beautiful flower-viewing experience.
Ready to get off the beaten path in Yunnan and have an insider’s view of Dali? I personally recommend WildChina’s Artisanal Dali tour. It’s the perfect chance to be immersed in an authentic Dali experience that you’ll never forget