If you arrive in Dali via train know that you aren’t arriving in the Dali you expect. Where are the ancient buildings and the cobblestone roads? Where are the countless restaurants, bars, and bike rental shops? Visitors to Dali are looking for the Old Town but the train pulls up into New Town aka Xiaguan. Don’t fall prey to the hordes of touts laying in wait for the train to pull up and fares to pour out. You can hop on bus #8 to go to Old Town for a mere 2rmb. If money is no object for you and you grimace at the mere thought of brushing your tooth over less than a gold and marble sink than hop in a car with one of the touts. Ok , ok it isn’t really that bad but make sure you barter a bit first , don’t ruin it for the rest of us! The battle for the bus can be kind of intense though. There is no place to line up and everyone just kind of assembles into a mass and the buses will pull up into different places in the parking lot and then the whole aggregation of people will push, shove, and generally be insanely irritating. Not even the police officer yelling (in Chinese) “don’t push don’t push!!!!” seems to have an effect. I don’t condone pushing people to advance your position in line but if others are pushing (especially trying to butt in when you are clearly in front trying to get onto the bus) then f*** it , push them and don’t let them cut!!
After about 20 or 30 minutes we finally saw the ancient protective stone walls of the Old Town and disembarked from the bus. I could already see the attraction of the Old Town. Tree lined cobblestone streets, old 2 story house architecture , a wide arrange of restaurants , bars, and coffee shops. The setting of the Old Town is also perfect. Large mountains (Canshan, Cang mountains) look up to the west of the town with quite dramatic clouds looming over the top never moving just lurking ominously. To the east of town a few kilometers away separated by some farmland is the big Erhai Lake. Some temples and monasteries also lay nestled in the mountains. 7 years ago my current roommate studied Kung Fu in one of these monasteries. I believe it cost something like $50 USD a week for accommodation , all meals, and training. Expect things to have changed since then but perhaps a great deal may still be found for all you martial arts enthusiasts out there.
There are plenty of guesthouses all over Dali so don’t worry about finding accommodations just pop in to check them out and find one that suits you. Dali has some of the cheapest accommodations in China so again don’t worry. Some highly recommended ones include the Jade Roo and the Jade Emu, I heard people talking about 5 Elements , but I stayed at (and loved) Dali’s Hump Hostel. This is run and owned by artists and features amazing murals painted on nearly all available wall space. I think Simonster would be in heaven here. They also have a music room / bar on the second floor that people can just go into and play with the instruments set up there. Some nights they feature bands and other nights its open mic time. Amazing place with huge rooms!
For now though, we hopped on some horses led by a guide (guesthouse arrangements) for a journey to Zhonghe temple and from there we planned to walk up into the Cang mountains. This was Olivia’s first ever horseback ride and she was thrilled , I’ve been horses a few times so perhaps the novelty has worn off a bit and also probably due in part to my stubborn horse never listening and always bending down to eat and trying to go down the wrong path, but I had a lukewarm enthusiasm for the trip. At the Zhonghe temple we got off and left the guide to play Mahjong for the day. We hiked up into the mountains and found a cool guesthouse. Can’t remember the name (writing this post about 2 months after the fact) but if you are really looking to get away from it all try to find this place and stay there. Located up in the mountains with a beautiful view of Old Town and the lake, there are absolutely no people around , a true getaway spot.
We hiked on the Emerald Belt or Cloud Traveller’s Path , a well-built stone pathway that cuts along the mountain side . This is a nice easy path to walk with little change in elevation and stunning scenery. While walking we found numerous species of flowers growing and I found plenty of occasions to munch on some wild raspberries. Depending on the way you go you can find an ice cold rushing mountain spring to relax by and dip your feet in or you can encounter a series of mountain pools , 7 Dragon Maidens pools, along the path you can also find the Phoenix Eye cave. After being cooped up in Shanghai for the last 6 months this was amazing for me. Wild berries , pine forests, mountains , clean cold streams, wow! Just like my trip to the Philippines , I was happy when I finally got out of the madness of Metro Manila and relaxed in the pristine forests around the village of Sagada.
Coming back into town that night on the street corner next to our hostel was a bongo circle , a frickin’ bongo circle!! This really cemented Dali as the hippie spot in China. And guess what! There wasn’t a single foreigner in this circle of dreadheaded kids wearing colorful clothes clutching guitar beating the night away on bongos. An interesting appropriation of culture to be sure. I’m sure Nixon and Mao are both turning in their graves. Oh yea before I forget , walking around the markets yields a treasure trove of hand crafted tie dye tapestries and shirts. While walking around you will even hear whispered out calls of Ganja Ganja from old red clad Bai women. Wow indeed! A quick note though according to wikitravel Dali used to be a hot spot for the green but it seems like these days one should exercise caution. I didn’t partake but be cautious if you plan on it.
Dali is also a very artsy place. During the daytime you can find local art students painting the relaxing streets and can also find some cool spray paint up on the walls. Be sure to check out waterfall street as well!
The next day we arose fairly early and rented bikes in the insane notion of trying to ride around ErHai Lake. Stay tuned , the next episode will be the ErHai Lake villages! Those pictures from last post are acting kind funky when I view the site from China. So I’ll go back to the gallery style of posting. How do they work for everyone else?
Wikitravel’s guide to Dali is extremely thourough give it a look see to learn more about Dali or to help plan a trip there!