Yunnan Province, located in the southwest of China is known as the ‘Wild West’ and is considered a natural and off-the-beaten-path destination due to the far-flung Himalayas and the large number of ethnic minorities that reside in this destination. Starting at Yunnan’s capital city, Kunming, most local and international tourists head northwest to Dali, Lijiang, and Shangri-La (formerly known as Zhongdian).
Dali is typically the first stop on a northwest itinerary and is notable due to the Bai ethnic minority who lives there. The whitewashed houses of Bai people can be seen in and around Dali and you may even notice the colorful dress or colorful headdress with white fringe worn by Bai women. Read on to learn about what else you can see in Dali.
If you have any interest in botany whatsoever, hiking Cangshan (Cang Mountain) should be your first stop in Dali. Part of the mountain has been built up for tourism and includes a cable car to bring you up and down the mountain as well as a long, paved path for walking. Various admission and cable car fees apply, and prices start at approximately 40 CNY (6.10 USD). Opening up a small portion of the mountain to mass tourism will hopefully act to protect the rest of the mountain from such numbers while still allowing visitors to appreciate the flora of the region.
If visiting Dali in February through April, you’ll enjoy several species of rhododendron and fruit trees all in bloom. Also of interest is the large mahjong board and views of the city and Erhai (Er Lake).
Please keep in mind that this is a nature preserve so trash should be carried with you and the flora should not be picked. While the trail is paved, you will want to wear comfortable walking or hiking shoes and bring water and food with you. Bathrooms are available at the visitor’s center near the cable car. You should plan on spending approximately 4 hours on Cangshan in the morning.
View the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple
The Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple is located about 1 km (0.6 miles) away from the ancient city of Dali and you can get here via taxi or on foot. Of my time spent living in and traveling through China, I found the Three Pagodas to be one of the most impressive man-made sites that I’ve seen in the country (other than the Great Wall, the Ancient City Wall of Xi’an, and the Terracotta Army).
True to its name, there are Three Pagodas within the vicinity of Chongsheng Temple, which are arranged in a triangle. The tallest of the pagodas is 69.13 m (227 feet) tall. After walking past the pagodas, you’ll be able to walk up many flights of stairs and see numerous Buddhist statues and temples, with the highest most temple rewarding you with great views.
Don’t forget to bring along a fully charged camera and extra memory card for this visit! Entrance to the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple costs approximately 121 CNY (~18.50 USD). You should allocate approximately three hours to visit the Three Pagodas.
Enjoy the "ancient" city
This walled city, with 4 gates as entrances, is the main draw for tourists to Dali. The ancient city is actually not that ancient, but was modeled after what an ancient Bai city would have looked liked. The gates are all impressive due to their massive size, so seeking out each gate is worth it.
Immerse in a 'flower-eating culture'
The ancient city can be easily explored on foot and getting lost in the winding streets is a treat. Look for Foreigner Street for cafes and restaurants serving Western food, or go local by trying Bai dishes cooked with flowers. The Bai have long been considered a ‘flower-eating culture’ as several of their traditional dishes incorporate flowers. Explore the streets named Renmin Lu or Bo Ai Lu in the ancient town for several restaurants that serve dishes, such as soup or eggs, cooked with flowers. To learn more about culture via food, visit the morning market on Renmin Lu.
Get a marble souvenir
If you are looking for a souvenir, there are numerous vendors around the ancient city who sell housewares made out of marble. Marble is excavated near Dali; therefore, this is one of the most popular souvenirs of the area. I found the best marble vendors near the Dali Museum between the Wuhua Building and the South Gate on Fu Xing Lu.
For somewhere to stay near the Dali ancient city, try The Jade Emu International Hostel. I stayed here many times, and found the rooms comfortable, staff pleasant, and they are able to book excursions for guests, which is helpful if you don’t speak Mandarin.
You could easily explore the ancient city on foot in one day.
Getting to and from Dali
You can get to Dali via bus, train, or flight from Kunming. To save money, the sleeper train is a good option, or alternatively, to see the beautiful scenery, I always prefered traveling to Dali via bus during the day. This may not be the most ideal option; however, if you are restricted by time or if you get carsick as the roads are windy.
Dali is a great place to begin your journey in China’s so-called Wild West!
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