Published on July 16, 2019
by Jim Goodman
Few places can match Dali’s combination of attractions: a magnificent natural environment, numerous historical relics and home to a colorful ethnic minority. It lies on a long plain just under 2000 meters, flanked on one side by the high, serrated, snow-capped peaks of the Azure Mountains (Cangshan) and on the other by the 42 km-long Erhai Lake. Eighteen brooks tumble down from Cangshan, watering the fertile plain and emptying into the lake. East of the lake, which averages around 7 km in width, rise the smaller, ruddier, more barren hills of the Phoenix Mountains.
Historically, Dali was the capital of two independent kingdoms in southwest China; Nanzhao from the 8th to 10th centuries and its successor the Kingdom of Dali, which lasted until Kubilai Khan’s conquest in 1253. Little remains from these vanished kingdoms, but of the city reconstructed in the early Ming Dynasty much is still intact. This includes the general city grid, the northern and southern gates at either end of Fuxinglu, parts of the city wall and its water tank, while the former gates at the eastern and western entrances have been reconstructed. The three-tiered Wuhua Tower and the pavilions around it are also newly rebuilt and the southern half of the old town is now lined with shops catering to tourists, selling local products like marble ware, silver jewelry, tie-dyed textiles and Bai minority clothing, as well as tea, jade, furs and furniture.
This part of Dali is always congested, but if you wake up early, before the shops open, you can get an idea of what the old city looked like before the tourist invasion. When it does get crowded, you can go to the northern part of the old town, which still has shops catering to local residents. Take walks down the narrow side streets, especially towards the lake, past houses of stone and wood, with ornate entry gates and decorations near the apex of the roof, to see what the original kind of Dali was like.
Around Dali are several Hui villages and the hills near Xiaguan are home to many Yi settlements. Some of their people come to the Dali markets, but the predominant minority nationality around Dali is the Bai, who constitute over 60% of the population. A film called Five Golden Flowers, about five pretty Bai girls, publicized Dali to potential Chinese tourists years before westerners were even allowed to come. Yet in spite of the tourist attention, the Bai have proudly clung to their traditions. Bai women of all ages like to wear their ethnic style of clothing. Bai house owners continue to construct their house compounds, somewhat different than the traditional Chinese way, in the Bai style. And the Bai celebrate more annual festivals than any other ethnic minority in the province. The biggest is the week-long Third Month Fair in April, Raosanling for three days in May, and the Torch Festival in August.
Bai villages dominate the plain north of Dali. The largest is Zhoucheng, 26 km north, climbing up the foot of the mountains, a square grid of narrow stone streets and traditional houses. The town is famous for its tie-dyeing industry. Xizhou, 17 km north of Dali from its eastern gate, was a popular stop on the old Tea and Horses Road and retains some of its fine traditional merchants’ mansions. Every Bai village has a temple to its own protector deity, honored in a spring festival. But the main Bai deity is Guan Yin, the Buddhist Goddess of Compassion, credited with saving the Bai from conquest by an ancient invader. Her temple, with its splendid, harmonious layout, lies 5 km south of Dali and is often busy with Bai devotees.
The most famous religious monuments around Dali are the Three Pagodas, just north of the old town. They date from Nanzhao’s heyday in the mid-9th century, still standing in spite of wars and earthquakes in the centuries since. They are visible even from across the lake and are one of the standard images associated with Dali. A similar monument, the Lone Pagoda, nearly as ancient, stands outside the southwest corner of the old town wall.
Also dating to Nanzhao times are the Zhonghe and Gantong Temples, lying on the slopes of Cangshan high above the city. You can take a cable car to the former at the station near Dali’s West Gate and from Zhonghe Temple hike along a high path to Gantong Temple, then ride the cable car back down to the highway. Along the way you get magnificent bird’s eye views of Dali, the streams, farms and villages of the plain, and Erhai and the Phoenix Mountains beyond.
To explore the lake, visitors can hop on morning boats from Xiaguan, at the south end of Erhai, that go all the way to Nanzhao Island, a theme park set up on a small island near the truly charming and picturesque fishing and farming village of Shuanglang. Other boats leave from near Dali for Wase, on the northeast shore, for its market day on calendar dates ending in 0 or 5. Both journeys will pass close to beautiful Xiaoputuo Temple, on an island near Wase.
You can also rent a good bicycle or hire a taxi and ride around the entire lake, exploring its eastern shore more leisurely. Off the southeast shore lies the secluded Golden Shuttle Island, a Bai fishing village. Further north, just past Haidong and directly opposite Dali, the Sky Mirror Pavilion stands on a promontory above the road. And having your own transportation gives you more time to explore the streets and wharves of both Wase and Shuanglang. You then round the northern tip of Erhai, its narrowest and prettiest section, and return to Dali via Xizhou and the Three Pagodas.
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Local specialties to try: the three-kinds-of-tea service at Golden Shuttle Island or in Xizhou, fish casserole in Dali, the huge lake clams, milk fan – a kind of cheese, Xizhou bread, Xiaguan block tea, Cangshan snow green tea, plum wine, Dali beer
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