We love Dali. We like the artist, but we love the city in Yunnan. After a couple days here we’re seriously thinking of this as a place to spend a month in a year or two so Mark can study Chinese. A city of about 83,000 people some 150 miles northwest of Kunming, it’s a stunning place. Years ago it was the original Western backpacker hangout in Yunnan but maybe 10 or 15 years ago Chinese tourists discovered it; these days there are a lot of Chinese tourists here.
I continue to be amazed at the results of the economic boom in China. Think of it this way: If just 10 percent of Chinese moved into the middle class over the last decade – a number I’m just making up, but not implausible – that’s 150 million new middle class people who can afford to travel domestically, at least, if not internationally. And that’s what you see in places like Dali and even Jianshui and Xinjie, lots and lots and lots of middle class Chinese starting to explore the world. The implications for the future, unless the Chinese economy collapses, are jaw-dropping. Of course, if the Chinese economy does collapse then all bets are off everywhere.
There’s a good reason it’s so popular. It sits between Erhai Lake on one side and the Yun mountains on the eastern end of the Tibetan plateau. At about 6,700 feet elevation, the climate is a little colder than Kunming but still glorious here in mid-March at least. It was raining when we first got here and overcast our first full day, but then our second morning was beautifully clear and crisp. For the first time we saw the snow-capped mountains behind the town and now it was true love.
Getting there was hell. Staff at the Sofitel said they’d arrange for a taxi at 9:00 AM to take us to the train station; they made a big deal the night before making sure which station we were supposed to go to as there are now two stations in Kunming. Come 9 o’clock and we’ve checked out of the hotel, but no taxi. Something got messed up so – in the rain – they had to get another. A little late, then, we climb into the taxi and the concierge tells the driver where to go.Except he told him the wrong station, which we figured out 20 minutes into what was supposed to be a 10-minute ride. He then turned around but by then it was too late; we were going to miss our train. And unfortunately the next two trains to Dali had only third-class seats available compared to the “soft sleeper” seats we’d reserved. And it would take 30 minutes longer, presumably because it would make more stops. Ugh.
Ultimately it wasn’t that bad. Our assigned seats were pretty bad in a crowded, loud, and slightly smelly car. Shortly after leaving, though, I took a walk through the train and discovered a car that was nearly empty and – a particular blessing – the speaker at one end wasn’t working. So most of the long trip I was blissfully alone, stretched out on a third-class mattress, with only the faint noise of too-loud music at the other end of the car.
Once we got settled, though, we discovered a colorful, vibrant city. With nightlife. Serious nightlife. One stretch we walked along the first night had live music at pretty much every door. Live music just BLASTING out onto the street, often what sounded like bad music blasting out. We haven’t been back down that street.
But other streets are nearly as lively; I’m not sure I’ve ever been in any town with more live music at night. Just dozens of places to stop for a drink and the opportunity to breathe in massive amounts of second-hand smoke. We even found one restaurant that reached nearly Western standards in terms of decor and atmosphere, with French wine and everything.
So besides eating and drinking and listening to music what is there to do in Dali? Part of the joy here is just walking around and watching all the Chinese tourists and admiring the beautiful architecture. Beyond that, the biggest tourist attraction is the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple just a mile or so out of town.
We started our tour having been warned that the $18 tickets seemed a little high compared to other costs in Yunnan. And thinking the main attraction was the three pagodas for which the site is named, it did seem kind of steep. The tallest of the three stands at 227 feet and dates from the ninth century AD; during repair work in the 1970s they discovered copper plates describing specific repairs undertaken in 1000, 1142, and 1145. So yeah, it’s pretty old. Mark in particular was enamored of the beauty of the pagodas.After we’d admired all that for a while, we saw that there were other buildings behind the pagodas, heading up the foothills that led into the mountains. So we started climbing up. And each time we got to one of the big, gorgeous buildings we’d see there was another further up the hill, behind it. And another, and another. The genius of the design was that you never saw more than the next building. And then there was another, each of the them somewhat different but all of them beautiful. We ended up spending way more time there than we’d expected and I found myself wishing we could come back in a couple weeks to see it all deeper into spring. We’ll just have to wait a year or two.
The other highlight was the town of Xizhou, 11 miles north of Dali right on Erhai Lake. A fun British couple we met back in Jianshui and who were traveling pretty much along the same route as us, Derrick & Irene, had gone up there a day or two before we did and told us about the biking and a great hotel/restaurant for lunch. So off we went, sharing a taxi with a French couple who we met while waiting for a bus. (We’ve had great fun here in Yunnan meeting other interesting Occidental tourists.)
After mistakenly wasting nearly $20 on tickets for a tour of some historic buildings that we thought was an entry price for the town itself – we rarely make dumb mistakes like that – we found a place to rent bikes and off we went. The lake itself is pretty and it was fun just riding through some tiny little villages. The unique part of the ride, though, is that the primary crop of the area is … garlic. So you’re riding along, the lake on one side and untold acre after acre of garlic fields. The smell was really something, not overpowering but a distinct onion/garlic smell through the whole area. Cool.
And then lunch at the Linden Center, a boutique hotel and cultural exchange center founded by an American Sanford PhD guy who’s obviously in love with Chinese culture and art. According to Wikipedia, the American couple who own the property are “the only foreigners to have possession of a nationally protected heritage site in China.” The building itself is not unlike the Silver Chest hotel we stayed at in Kunming, a classic Chinese building with rooms arrayed around multiple courtyards. As this property, though, is on the edge of town, the sun terrace has great views of the garlic fields and mountains and all that.
Lunch there itself was fantastic. The cuisine in this area makes intense use of both local mushrooms and, interestingly, local flowers. So one of our dishes had, if you can believe it, pomegranate flowers and another some great fresh, seasonal ferns. Delightful.
So there you have Dali – more nightlife than anywhere except notorious Bangkok than we’ve seen in months, color, excitement, and great food. Definitely a place we’d come back to for a longer stay. Still 10 days to go in Yunnan and so far we’re loving it.