Dali is one of those special places in China that everyone seems to love, westerners and locals alike. To those that have been there, Dali is synonymous with tranquility, nature, yummy food, and of course, beauty. And unlike its somewhat chaotic neighbor, Lijiang, Dali has a chillness about it. Yes, there are a fair share of tourist shops in the Old City （大理古城）, but the surrounding area feels authentic and connected to the stunning landscape.
For us, Dali was a two night visit, but one could easily spend a week. For many, Dali is one of those places that makes you wish you could just quit everything and go live there permanently.
The nice part about taking a bus from Kunming is you get to see the countryside, which is picturesque to say the least – one farm after another and a red flag here and there zooming by through the window. We left Kunming in the late afternoon, so by the time we approached Dali we were treated to an orange baked sky.
The common thing to do in Dali is to take a walk on the wonderful Jade Cloud Path. Starting at Zhonghe temple, you head south and follow an impeccably maintained stone path for about 11 kilometers to the end. If you’re feeling particularly energetic you can hike up and down to the path, though there is a cable-car as well. The path itself sits about 2,500 meters up, and provides great panoramic views of Dali and Erhai lake.
The path should only take about 4 hours to walk at a slow pace, so this is a perfect excursion if you’re getting a late start after a healthy brunch at The Bakery No. 88.
Our favorite part of Dali was riding bikes through the farms. Much like in Yangshuo, this area has infinite paths to ride along. You can ride around the entire lake if you’re up for a more involved trip (planning a route ahead of time is highly advised), or like us, you can just go get lost in the farms for a while.
Dali is quite small and flat, so there’s no easy way to really get lost as you can almost always see a major landmark. Riding through the farms is great because you get amazing views of both Cangshan and Erhai. You also get to pass lots of locals who are very friendly and super used to tourists rumbling by on bikes. And definitely get a mountain bike if you plan on riding through the fields.
After eating about a billion little bugs because we’d been riding around all day through farmlands with stupid grins on our faces, the sun began to set. This is really the best time to be out in the fields, especially on a day with white puffy clouds. The sun sets behind Cangshan and litters the fields with beams of light piercing through the clouds.
Eventually we circled around to the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple （崇圣寺三塔）. The tallest and oldest of the three pagodas dates back to around 820 A.D. (though it looks totally new now). We didn’t actually go inside, as it was the end of the day and the 121 RMB per person ticket price seemed a little steep. People will give you conflicting reviews of the pagodas and exhibits inside the compound. If you like looking at artifacts and relaxing in a park, then it might be worth it. If you’re looking for something to blow you away, then you won’t really find it and you can probably do with just enjoying a view of the pagodas from the outside. That said, we didn’t go in, so it’s difficult for us to judge.
On our last day before taking the bus back to Kunming, we decided to go visit some local villages and markets. There are over a dozen villages around Dali and they offer a great way to experience rural living at its best. Biking to and through the villages is probably the best way to do it, starting by heading to Caicun （才村） village and then continuing on from there.
We also visited a weekly market called Shaping （沙坪）market. Double-check with your hotel/hostel to make sure it’s open on the day you want to go (you’ll probably also want to get a driver, as it’s 30km north of Dali). This is a real local’s market, so you won’t find tourist trinkets. Instead, you’ll get a flavor for the produce and livestock that people in Dali sell. You’ll also get to see all the colorful baskets and clothing that the locals (especially the older generation) still wear today. The colors in the attire come from the Bai tradition, though there are certainly other minorities in the area as well. If you’re not already in the habit of visiting local markets, you definitely should start. As markets across China are a great way to pickup the sounds, smells, and color of a place, especially if time is tight.
There’s no shortage of online information out there on Dali, so definitely do some comparison shopping when choosing restaurants, hostels, and excursion companies. We stayed at the Laughing Lotus Inn, which was terrific. The owners are super nice and helpful and the place is really cute. They even offered us their kayaks to take out on Erhai lake (we didn’t do it, but if you have time that might be really fun). Just know that the rooms are small and don’t have much in the way of amenities. But if you’re in a backpacker mode you’ll be quite pleased. As for Dali, like so many places in China, it will only get more and more developed, so go as soon as you can!
Finding Dali on a Map