Dali (大理) is one of the most popular destinations in Yunnan. Don’t miss this post if you want to visit the old capital of the Nanzhao kingdom.
In my blog, I have often talked about Yunnan, one of the most beautiful provinces in China. But my list of places to visit can’t be complete without mentioning Dali the ancient capital of the Nanzhao kingdom and the old capital of Yunnan (don’t miss my Yunnan travel guide).
Dali is a city with a millenary history. Located at a strategic point along the ancient Tea Horse Road (also known as the South Silk Road) is naturally protected by the Erhai lake on one side and the Changshan mountains on the other side (whose peaks reach about 4000 meters). Despite being about 2000 meters above sea level the climate is mild all year round and the land is very fertile. Dali is the most important center for the Bai minority, one of the largest in China and Yunnan.
The Bai population (Bai means white in Chinese) is famous for their ability in working silver, marble and for being able to create many incredible decorations. Bai houses are generally white with beautiful paintings on the exterior walls. A whole book would not be enough to talk about the Bai culture so the best thing to do is to actually visit Dali and Lijiang.
Things to see in Dali
The old town of Dali
Dali’s main attraction is the old town, one of the few in China surrounded by walls. Unlike Lijiang, Dali is a little more authentic because there are still many families living there. For a panoramic view, I recommend a walk along the walls so that you can also enjoy the view of the lake on one side and the mountains on the other.
The two main streets within the city are really crowded and full of shops but if you start wandering around a bit you will see immediately why many agree that Dali is more authentic than Lijiang. My suggestion is to find accommodation inside the old town.
The three Pagodas
The three pagodas are a complex of temples about 1.5km from the old town of Dali. They can be reached on foot or by taxi. Apart from the three pagodas, you’ll find a complex of temples and it takes at least a couple of hours to see them all. The three pagodas are different from most of the other religious buildings in China because they are truly ancient (unfortunately after the cultural revolution in China many ancient buildings have been destroyed).
If you want to know more about the Three Pagodas here you will find more info. Don’t miss the small pond on the right side of the pagodas walking towards the mountain where you can photograph the three pagodas reflected in the water.
A visit to the houses of the craftsmen
As I said at the beginning of the article, the Bai are excellent craftsmen and their fame is well deserved. In the area of Dali, you can see different forms of craftsmanship. The most interesting one is the processing of Batik fabric. There are different methods to achieve the same objective, namely to color the fabric. In Guizhou Province, the Miao minority uses wax, while in the surroundings of Dali, Bai women sew the fabric in such a way as to create a design that will not absorb the color during the next stage of the production process.
It is a fascinating process that requires a great deal of work and demonstrates once again that there is a lot to discover in China.
China is the home of silk and being able to see with my own eyes the process that for centuries has remained a secret in the rest of the world was very exciting.
The paintings created by those who know how to work silk are art masterpieces and as such have very high prices. One of the paintings on display has a price of 13000€ and it took 13 months to make it.
A visit to the local markets
If you’re used to visiting Asia, a visit to a local market it’s not a fundamental experience. If on the other end, this is your first time, I recommend visiting a local market. It is always interesting to see how local people live and the market is the ideal place. I visited the one in Xizhou, which is not open every day. For accurate information, I recommend you again to contact a local agency as I said in the previous paragraph.
A day trip to Shaxi (沙溪)
Halfway between Dali and Lijian you can find one of the best-preserved old-town along the ancient south silk road also known as tea horse road: Shaxi. Even though it’s very small compared to Dali, it’s basically without tourists. If you have enough time don’t miss it!
Final considerations and tips
Dali is definitely a place worth a visit for first-time visitors to Yunnan. But even if you’ve been there before it’s still nice to come back from time to time to enjoy a bit of rural Chinese life without sacrificing comfort.
Getting there is very easy as there are many trains and buses departing from Kunming every day. One very important thing to remember is that Dali is divided into two parts: there is Dali Old Town (the one I talked about in this post) and the new city of Dali which is called Xiaguan. All means of transport, or almost all of them, arrive in Xiaguan and NOT in Dali Old Town. From there you will have to take a taxi to the Old Town which is 10 km away.
For the accommodation, I recommend Trip.com since it has way more options than other search engines.
To conclude, as always, before visiting China, get a VPN or you will lose access to all social media and Google, including Gmail.