Dali, in southwest China’s Yunnan province, has always been an idyllic getaway, but in recent years it can feel overcrowded by tourists. How can travelers to Dali rediscover and immerse themselves in the relaxing, slow-paced lifestyle that this town is known for? As a Dali native, let me give you some tips.
After years of travel between the US and Beijing and beyond, I still come back to Dali whenever I can to find the treasures hidden in between the alleyways and backstreets. Here are my personal favorite finds:
1. Chenghuang Temple (City God Temple) in Dali Old Town
The temple itself is not that old, so you won’t find much information about it in guidebooks or on online trip advisories. But this is the hub of local Bai people’s community and prayer activities. It’s the perfect place to learn about the Bai lifestyle and religion. At the entrance, you’ll meet an old man who can write beautiful Chinese calligraphy for you on red paper with a personalized message or prayer, then you can take it into the temple to pray or kowtow. The red paper is handmade and printed by the man’s own family. If you don’t want to pray, it’s also enjoyable just to sit and do some people-watching.
Bai families will come and perform their worship ceremonies. The women will present a plate of whole, cooked chicken with a knife still sticking in it, then burn some incense. Later on, they will serve the chicken to the old woman who takes care of the temple. The entire ceremony is not so much formal as it is rich with casual local customs, yet everyone is very pious and sincere.
2. The Old Linen Factory Coffee Shop
Similar to the 798 Art District in Beijing, this shop is built inside an old, converted factory. Now the second floor has been repurposed as a coffee house, combined with a bookshop and an art gallery. On the side, it offers a bit more space for the kids to play. Jointly owned and run by five Dali families this place embodies the slow-paced lifestyle. When we arrived, one of the owners, CC, was making jam and brownies with a few Bai folk girls. Her husband Jason, a British cartoonist, was nearby, busy with his drawings. His studio is right next door to the coffee shop. And it’s here that he creates cartoons with a sharp, artistic exaggeration of Dali life. At the south end of the top floor sits the studio of a renowned wildlife photographer, Xi Zhinong. His studio is always filled with sunlight; it’s hard not to be envious.
3. Biking around Er Hai Lake
Every time I go jogging around the Er Hai Huanhai West Road, bikers always ask me how to get around lake. The road around Er Hai Lake is about 160 miles, and not an easy route for the casual biker. Usually, you will need to plan for a two-night stay along the lake. For people who are simply interested in enjoying some time outdoors in the sun, it’s a bit too intense of a plan. I would recommend the trail from the Longsheng Old Town to Cai Village, about 20 miles, round trip. The countryside scenery along the way is absolutely beautiful and changes with each new season. If you continue north past Cai Village for about three to five miles, you’ll arrive at what I think are some of the best views of Er Hai lake. Gazing into the distance, the lake and the blue sky seem to melt together. After the workout, you can visit the newly opened Green Field Kitchen for some Spanish cuisine. Or, in Longsheng, there is a Dali family restaurant called Mr. Li’s Courtyard Bed and Breakfast.
4. Hiking at Cang Mountain
Near the Wuwei Temple, at Cang mountain, along a narrow path, you can find mills and workshops for Dali stonework. They are quite fun to check out. The paved rock stairs up the path will lead you through towering trees. Shade covers the path, until it reveals the 600-year old temple. The whole trip takes about an hour. The springwater along this route is said to contain healing properties. You can collect some alongside the old people from the town. If you crave more hiking, you can drive to the end of the road and keep walking along the mountain. No need for a ticket, you can enjoy the streams of water along the trail, and kids can pick up their favorite shaped cobblestones.
5. Tea Tasting at Taoxi Valley
Taoxi Valley is one of eighteen valleys beneath the Cang Mountain. If you have your own car, you can drive up all the way to a restaurant on the hillside and park there. Depending on the weather, the Mo Cui Tea House is open for tea picking from Spring to Autumn. The teahouse is mostly open air seating, facing the tea plantation. You can also spot the famous Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple and Er Hai lake in the distance. The owner collects and displays local teas with are available for purchase. After hiking around Cang Mountain and reaching the end of the spring, you can come back here for lunch and enjoy a pot of tea.
6. Spring Flowers
Yunnan is known for its year-round warm weather and its flowers that blossom early in the year. Around the Chinese New Year, all the tea flowers (the Camellia) are blooming, followed by the cherry blossoms in early March. The best places to view flowers are the spots that are free. North of the Old Town, cherry trees are planted all over the Dali College campus. Crossing through the college towards Cang Mountain, you can find a path that is next to the Dali College Hotel. It leads up a hiking trail that is covered in many varieties of flower trees.
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