Stumbling through Guizhou #3: Dali Days
As a teacher living and working in China, places to relax and enjoy one’s
surroundings are a nice find. China is not a “laid back” country,
especially for a foreigner. The constant hustle and bustle of Chinese life
as well as the sometimes unwanted attention heaped upon waiguoren can be an
exhausting experience. Beijing and Xi’an are great areas of culture and
history but if a bit of relaxation is what you are after, you had better
look elsewhere. Traveling in China is not the kick back and watch the
scenery go by experience of the west. It is a dirty, noisy, sleepless time
that quite often requires recovery. If you have spent time traveling or
living in China, you may be wondering if you need to leave the country for a
bit of rest and relaxation. If that is the case, the answer is no. In
fact, you need look no farther than northern Yunnan Province and the
charming, small city of Dali.
Dali, located five hours by bus north of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan,
is a small city by Chinese standards. Actually Dali is two different
cities. Xiaguan, the industrial “new Dali” and the walled city of “old
Dali.” Old Dali is the place you will want to head. Dali is an ancient
walled city, mainly inhabited by the Bai minority. It has picturesque
surroundings of Er Hai and the Cang Er range and its laid back attitude
have made Dali a haven for western travelers looking for a respite from “the
real” China. Cafes and guest houses have sprung up all over town to service
the needs of these travelers. Dali is the place to go if you are looking
for a pizza, a chocolate brownie, and a cold beer as well as the place to go
for beautiful, mountain day treks, minority markets, and sailing on a
crystal blue lake.
I had the good fortune to be able to guide my parents around Dali this
summer. I met them in Nanning after they had traveled overland up through
Vietnam. We traveled by train from Nanning to the city of Liupanshui in
western Guizhou Province, where I live teaching English. After all of the
travel and being wined and dined in Liupanshui, we really felt that we
needed a break, a rest. Having been in Dali during the previous winter I
decided it fit the bill. We took the eight hour train trip from Liupanshui to
Kunming. After spending the night in Kunming we took a luxury bus the final
five hours to Dali.
My parents and I arrived in Xiaguan and took the local number 4 bus to old
Dali. Upon exiting the bus in the center of the town, our senses were
overwhelmed. The streets of Dali are narrow and crowded with Western and
Chinese tourists. The shouting of hotel touts, the smell of Er Hai fresh
fish, the local Miao and Bai artwork for sale, and the scent of thousands of
spices gave the feeling of being in an oriental bazaar. My mother and
father were excited about exploring the city but first we had to find a
place to spend the night.
Dali is full of cheap guesthouses open to foreigners. The rooms in the
guesthouses range from $2 to $15 a night depending on the type and
quality of accommodation that interests you. The main difference between the
hotels are the locations, although central Dali is small enough that you are
never too far away from anything. The previous winter I had stayed at a
relatively cheap guesthouse but this time, in honor of my parents credit card,
we decided to upgrade a little bit. In hindsight, I recommend staying cheap.
After checking in and getting our things squared away, it was time to go
out and explore the town a bit. The main part of Dali is approximately four
blocks square. Those four blocks are jammed with trinket boutiques and
restaurants catering to both Western and Chinese palates. For a person in
the market for Chinese and minority trinkets, Dali is a little slice of
heaven. There are batiks, weavings, coins, porcelain, pipes, and any manner
of other doodad you could desire for sale on the streets. There are also
restaurants that serve banana pancakes, brownies, and pizza (GOOD pizza)
along with Chinese and traditional Bai dishes. A personal favorite was
chicken, stir fried with green papaya strips and chili. All of these can be
washed down with Dali’s very own beer, a slightly hoppier brew than most
Along with facilities to appeal to tourists, Dali has all the interests of
a less touristy Chinese town. The local markets are full of fragrant
spices, fresh vegetables, and exotic meats. During late summer the local
fungi is in season. Most of the various fungi are harvested from the slopes
of the 13,000 foot Cang Er range. They came in all shapes and colors from
pale grey wood mushrooms to brightly colored red and blue puff balls
gathered from beneath the pine needle carpet of the forest floor.
Along with the market goods, the back alleys of Dali hold numerous small
treasures for people willing to step off the more well touristed
thoroughfares. One of these is a small Christian church located in an
alleyway off of Renmin Lu (People’s Road). The church appears to be ancient
and does not utilize traditional western religious architecture. Instead, it
uses the upswung eaves and dragon carvings of traditional Chinese temples.
The only things differentiating this place of worship from a Taoist temple
are a cross on the roof, the rows of pews, and pictures of Christ inside.
When I was there in both February and August, the church seemed to be
undergoing renovation but both times an ancient and kind woman took out a
set of keys to allow my companions and I to see the inside.
After checking out the streets of Dali for a few hours, my parents and I ate
a dinner of local fish stew and then retired to our musty, dark hotel room
for a rest.
We had determined that we would spend the next day climbing the Cang Er
range to a temple nestled on the slopes. The Cang Er range is an outlier of the
Himalaya located directly to the Northeast of Dali. It is approximately 20
miles long and is made up of 19 separate peaks which are often snow covered late
into summer. The peak directly behind Dali town is Zhonghe Si Mountain and
is the home of Zhonghe temple, our destination for the day.
The temple is located about 2000 feet above the town. It is serviced by a
chair lift but my mother decided that she wanted to climb to the temple. We
set out none too early and took a horse cart to the base of the mountain
near the chair lift. From there, we took a steep winding path up the
mountain. The dirt path wound up the mountain through pine forests and
Chinese graveyards. The only sounds were the songs of birds (rare in China)
and the shouts of my mother as she told my father and I to slow down. The
only other people we saw on the way up were a couple from Singapore making
the trip on horseback.
The guidebook claimed that the trail to the temple was relatively easy. I
have done quite a bit of hiking before and I found the trail challenging.
My poor mother was about done in. After about two hours of hiking, we heard
a tinkling sound behind us and after a few minutes a local man came into
view leading two horses. Well, Mom just about burst into tears and began
thanking God for answering her prayers. She said, “Pay him whatever he
asks, just get me on one of those horses.” I paid the man about a dollar
and helped boost my mom onto the horse. My father and I followed the man,
the horse, and my mother around a bend in the trail and onto the front steps
of the temple.
After getting my Mom off the horse we went into the temple, drank some
water, recovered from the climb, and looked at the gorgeous views of Dali
and Er Hai. When we once again felt like we could walk, we climbed some
stairs above the temple and found what looked like a trail running past the
top of the stairs. Located at the top of the stairs were several small
stalls serving local dishes. We met the couple from Singapore up there and
they joined us for a lunch of local black chicken and a vegetable that
looked like some kind of grub and tasted something like french fries.
When we finished lunch we decided to follow the path we had found. It was
a cobbled, well established path that we would later find to be called the
Cloud Highway. My parents and I followed the path south about a quarter of
a mile with views of Dali to our left and the wall of Zhonghe mountain to
our right. Presently we came to bend in the trail where it went into the
valley between two peaks. It was quite a dramatic canyon with both pine
trees and bamboo covering the slopes. We followed the trail back into the
canyon and found a beautiful waterfall where the trail crossed a small
stream. We stayed for a half an hour admiring the stellar view before
making our way back to the temple. By the time we arrived back at the
temple, evening was approaching. However, as we rode the chair lift down we
vowed we would be back to explore the Cloud Highway further.
We had signed up for a tour of some local villages the next day so we awoke
early to meet our tour group. I generally don’t like organized tours but as
parts of Yunnan province have only recently been opened to foreigners
sometimes they are the only feasible way to see things. The tour guide with
whom we had arranged to spend our day was a fixture in Dali – a large, hearty
man, claiming to be of Tibetan descent, and going by the English name Jim.
Jim owns a guesthouse and restaurant in Dali, while also serving as a guide
on various tours. The particular tour my parents and I had arranged to go
on with Jim was supposed to take us to a Yi minority village, a country
market held every ten days, and a temple.
At eight in the morning we climbed into a van with several other sleepy
foreigners and headed off into the countryside. It was a rainy morning as
we climbed slowly into the misty hills southeast of Dali. After about 45
minutes we pulled off to the side of the road and Jim led us up a muddy path
into the hills. As we walked the mist started to lift and wooded slopes and
rice paddies in the valley came into view. It was a beautiful sight with rice
paddies, banana groves, rushing streams intermingling in a classic picture
of rural Asia.
The trail eventually lead to a small village peopled by the
Yi minority, the most numerous non-Han people in Yunnan Province. The
village was composed of perhaps 20 houses and a small elementary school.
The village was poor but not to the point of destitution. In fact, by rural
Chinese standards it seemed pretty prosperous with several motorcycles and
tractors in evidence. Jim lead all of us into the house of some people he
obviously had a deal with, allowing groups of tourists to see the inside of
a genuine minority house in exchange for cash or favors. The owners of the
house were hospitable enough, inviting several funny looking strangers out
of the rain, serving them tea, and letting us watch them feed their pigs on
the terrace. Since I am not an anthropologist I don’t exactly feel
comfortable doing this sort of thing and after fifteen minutes or so we left
the home owners to their lives and hiked back to the van.
Next up was a market held every ten days in a county recently opened to
foreigners and inhabited by members of the Yi and Hui (Chinese Muslim)
minorities. The market was quite a scene with people walking in from the
mountains for miles to be able to buy and sell necessities. Markets like
these are found all over southwest China and invariably prove fascinating.
A person can buy anything from hot pepper to paper money, from machetes to
If you are looking for touristy knick-knacks to buy, these
markets won’t do you much good, but if you are looking for a truly
interesting China experience, they are the place to be. We wandered around
the market looking at the bags of Yunnanese angel-hair tobacco, the water
pipes to smoke it with, traditional medicines, and admiring the intricate
dress of the Yi girls in from the mountains. My father, who is a
veterinarian, was especially interested in the livestock and I found out
that I could buy a water buffalo for between 400 and 800 yuan (about
$50-100), marked up for foreigners of course. As we wandered through the
market the weather started to clear and the sight of the clouds rising off
the mountains provided a glorious sight.
By the time we were finished in the market, the members of the tour group
had worked up quite an appetite so Jim arranged a meal for us at a Muslim
restaurant. It was delicious, and unlike most Chinese cuisine, pork free.
Then we went to the local mosque where noon prayers were just finishing.
The mosque was a sight to behold. Like the Christian church in Dali, it was
designed like a traditional Chinese temple but decorated with Arabic script
and intricate Eastern designs. The upstairs has a special window for
calling the faithful to prayer and the downstairs was a large, open room for
the prayers themselves. The members of the mosque were very welcoming in
the traditional Islamic manner and seemed happy to have visitors.
Following the visit to the mosque, we piled back into the van and drove
back out into the countryside. In his restaurant, Jim serves a potent mix
of Chinese corn whiskey and Chinese herbs known as the Number 1 Special.
The next stop was the distillery where Jim buys his whisky. This was an
establishment to make Kentucky proud. It was a personal residence where
whiskey was distilled by a wife and her daughter by slow drip. These ladies
didn’t mess around with the niceties of oak barrel aging, instead selling
the potent, clear liquid fresh in recycled liter water bottles for about a
buck. Jim brought 15. I am not normally a fan of Chinese liquor but since
I have a predilection for corn squeezings I decided to try a nip. I am
happy to report it wasn’t bad and I didn’t go blind.
Up the road from the distillery was our last destination, a temple
dedicated to one of the local religions, a cross between Taoism and
Buddhism. It was a nice temple with a very symmetrical pagoda but after all
the other sights of the day, rather anti-climatic. After seeing the temple,
our intrepid tour group went back to Dali where we went our separate ways.
After dining on a dinner of chicken, green papaya, and chilies, my parents
and myself fell into a contented sleep.
The next morning, after a breakfast of scrambled eggs and exquisitely salty
Yunnanese ham, we made good on our promise to explore the Cloud Highway
further. Instead of putting my mother through the rigors of another climb
up Zhonghe, we decided to take the chair lift to the temple. The chair lift
cost about five dollars and provided a silent trip over gullies and through
the woods on the mountain slope. The further we went the grander the views
of the Er Hai valley became. After about a half an hour the chair lift
deposited us on the front stairs of the temple.
We immediately set out going south along the Cloud Highway, the opposite
direction from the path we had followed previously. Within ten minutes the
trail was following an edge, dangling over precipice leaving my parents and
I looking over a drop of some thousand feet. Instead of the gentle slope
we had encountered on our foray two days ago, we were edging along a sheer
granite cliff. Below us we could hear the rushing of a strong mountain
stream, while above us, on the opposite side of the canyon, the mountain
tops were wreathed in clouds with a pagoda peaking out of the trees another
thousand feet higher. Where the slope of the canyon grew somewhat less
severe, it’s sides were cloaked in glistening green bushes, poplar trees,
pine, and rustling bamboo.
Like a group of pilgrims, my parents and I followed the Cloud Highway as it
made it’s way further into the recesses of the canyon. The trail meandered
past small springs coming out of the limestone and granite, flowing under
stone bridges. Around these springs gathered ferns, moss, and tiny
translucent butterflies drinking from the cold clear water. At one point we
saw a rustling in the foliage on the far side of the canyon below the trail.
For a few minutes, we were positive we were going to spot the elusive
Asiatic sun bear or perhaps a yeti because, surely, humans couldn’t cling to
so sheer a surface. But sure enough, close inspection revealed two people
clinging to the trees and chopping at something with machetes. I don’t know
what was so important for them to be risking their lives so casually.
Perhaps roots for traditional medicine or perhaps the mushrooms we had seen
in the markets. All I know is that merely looking at them gave me vertigo.
The trail went for about a half a mile before it reached the back of the
canyon, where it crossed the roaring mountain stream on an arched stone
bridge. Following the south bank of the stream was a smaller, less defined
trail branching off from the Cloud Highway. My parents and I followed this
trail as it progressed slippery step after slippery step up the slope above
the stream. After about five minutes the trail lead us to a place where the
stream plummeted down a shoot the size of a chimney flew. It then rested in
a small, clear, rock-bottomed pool before falling off a smooth, rounded edge
and out of sight. It was an idyllic spot.
We rested for a half an hour,
taking pictures of the waterfalls, the towering cliff walls, and peaks
above. We also washed our sweaty feet in the bracing water of the pool
between the falls. If we would have had a picnic lunch, things would have
been perfect. As it was, we had to make do with the small amount of water
we had carried with us. Finally the sun began to slide behind the Cang Er
range and we made our way down the trail, back along the Cloud Highway, and
finally descended in the chair lift.
The next morning my parents and I had to return to Kunming so that they
could catch a plane to Chiang Mai, Thailand and I could return to Liupanshui
to work. We had spent three full days in Dali and had not begun to exhaust
the possibilities there. We had not made it to Er Hai, the main attraction
of Dali. Er Hai is the realm of cormorant fishermen, wooden sailing
vessels, and Bai villages along the lake banks. We had not rented bikes and
ridden them up and down the myriad of minority villages in the Er Hai
valley. We had not visited the dozens of pagodas and stelae memorializing
the various rulers and minor gods of the valley. We had not even explored a
quarter of the length of the Cloud Highway.
As my mother and father
discovered, Dali and its surroundings are a laid back wonderland. A person
could spend weeks without exhausting the things to do there. I have about
six months before my stint in China is over and I hope to get back to Dali
one more time and at least finish hiking the Cloud Highway.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our Asia Insiders page.