Nestled along the picturesque shoreline of Erhai Lake and in the shadow of the imposing Changshan range, Dali exemplifies the backpacker vibes that have faded into oblivion in so many of China’s larger cities.
With stunning natural beauty, vibrant cultural heritage and some of the country’s most delicious culinary creations, exploring China without touring Dali is like visiting Canada and not stopping off in Banff.
As the central hub of Dali Autonomous Prefecture, the city is split between Dali New City and Dali Old Town – the latter of which is often hailed as one of Yunnan province’s most popular tourist destinations.
The area is populated predominantly by the Bai ethnic minority, who earn their name from an adoration of the color white, which decorates many traditional homes, particularly in the old town. Around 80 percent of the Bai ethnic minority’s population live in settlements within the Dali prefecture. The rest are distributed between Xichang and Bijie in neighboring Sichuan and Guizhou provinces.
Dali is a prime location to dive into Yunnan’s distinctive and varied cuisine, which, to our surprise, utilizes plenty of flowers, ferns and algae, as well as local insects.
The markets and small shopping streets of Dali Old Town are the best places to explore the area’s edibles, and pack in hundreds of shops and street food vendors offering everything from fermented pu’er tea to the Bai people’s renowned cheeses and yogurts. That’s right: cheese exists in Chinese cuisine.
Perhaps the tastiest of Dali’s cheesy offerings is the ru shan or ‘fan cheese,’ which, as its name suggests, is presented in the shape of a fan, generally on a small bamboo stick. Plain and unsalted, it tastes a bit like thickened milk cooked on a grill.
Yunnan’s mixian, or thin noodles, are also worthy of gastronomic investigation and can be enjoyed in a broth or stir-fried. Condiments like diced chili peppers, garlic, salt, vinegar, Sichuan spices and oils and soy sauce for the noodles are presented on the side, allowing diners to spin the dish’s flavor as desired.
From ancient temples and alleyways to mountain trails and boating trips, Dali boasts an impressive array of outdoor excursions.
The culture-hungry traveler would be wise to spend at least a day wandering the city’s old town, which is home to a seemingly endless array of coffee shops, restaurants, expat pubs and souvenir shops.
Though Dali’s old town is undoubtedly its most popular (and therefore most crowded) tourist attraction, there are also ample opportunities to slip down discreet back alleys in search of silver jewelry, a Burmese jade trinket or traditional tie-dye cloth.
Buddhist temples are also a popular sight in Dali. A place to relish beautiful architecture, cultural heritage and, of course, spirituality, Dali’s temples have long played an important role in China’s dance with Buddhism as one of the major transit points for the religion’s dissemination on the mainland. The most notable of these religious sites is the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple, located just over a kilometer north of Dali, at the base of the Changshan range.
For those more interested in nature-oriented activities, we recommend a leisurely bike ride around Erhai Lake’s scenic shoreline. Numerous bicycle rental companies operate in town and the wheels they lease appear well-serviced and relatively new. A lakeside cycle is a truly captivating experience, offering adventurers a humbling glance at mountain vistas while weaving along narrow waterfront lanes.
A backpacker’s paradise, Dali is bordered by rocky highlands and offers numerous tours for hardcore hikers looking to ascend the 4,122-meter Malong – the highest peak in the Changshan range. Zhao Zhi Qiang, a Bai tour guide in Dali, estimates a hike to Malong’s summit is at least a two-day endeavor.
Wherever your adventures lead you in Dali, the land will instill you with a greater appreciation for the diversity, both culturally and geographically, that resides within the borders of the Middle Kingdom.
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