Dali was one of those places in China I’ve heard an abundance about before ever setting foot in the country; first from my guidebook and then from multiple blogs and stories other travellers have shared. After visiting the city for myself on our trip to Yunnan I’ve determined some of these stories to be true while others were just ‘tall tales’. I’ve included in this article my impression of the city and what I was mistaken about before my arrival.
DALI – THE QUINTESSENCE OF YUNNAN
Dali is beautiful. It is the abbreviated version of Yunnan as a whole. It encompasses all aspects of why someone may come to this Province. The city is flanked by a mountain range on the west symbolizing snow and hiking; and a large lake on the east meaning sun and relaxing sightseeing. Also, surrounding the Dali old town there are little romantic villages representing the culture and agriculture of the Province. Inside the old town there are rich, historical sights.
With this being mentioned Dali still comes short in some ways as I didn’t expect it to be. Dali old town lacks the originality it may have held as a point of interest in other days. When I came I was not expecting this from what I’d read and heard. Dali’s old town copies precisely Lijiang’s or Fenghuang’s due to it being full of resembling shops and curios. Only the Catholic church and the overpriced, missable Three Pagodas Park set it apart from the other two cities I’ve visited. There was nothing old about the old town. Just kitsch junk being sold at stores for high prices. The kind of stuff you take back home just to show your friends saying “Oh look where I’ve been to.” Chinese tourism at its blandest.
IS DALI A REAL HIPPIE TOWN?
Another unique feature of Dali I believed existed was a known expat hippie couture thriving in the town with a chilled back scene. While this may have been booming at some point it is all but prevalent today. Other than Renminbi Lu, lined with “artisans” selling “genuine” trinkets, I didn’t observe many locals living in hippiedom. That is not to say this couture doesn’t exist. I simply didn’t see so much of it to think of it as being even mentionable to others. There were some dreadlocked expats and locals walking about but still not a big deal. I did find the Bad Monkey Bar on Renminbi Lu to be true to the scene giving out righteously priced cocktails and beer and having a relaxed atmosphere. Bad Monkey Bar was the best location I saw for this kind of chillin’ vibe.
THAT SPECIAL SOMETHING OF DALI
So what makes Dali special? In truth, it was what surrounded Dali that made it memorable. We spent our best times here going outside of the old town. Walking through the little villages like Lonkan with its impressively clean Bai architectural approach was really amazing. Passing fields west of Dali on a moped and watching dusk approach over the blue mountains all the while women were pulling up their vegetable harvest made for it to be simply great. The villagers who lived around Erhai Hu lake who were warm and open to share conversation even if just a few words could be interpreted. We rang in the Chinese New Year on the banks of the lake, watching fireworks bang full and bright over the town. Dali left its impression on me to be one of those places not where you’ll find full exotic adventure in your face but discovering little moments that make you feel like you are truly on the other side of the world.