Once upon a time, Dali was more important then Kunming, the present capital of Yunnan. Dali was the capital of the Nanchao Kingdom. In the mid-19th century, Dali was a Muslim stronghold from were the Yunnan capital of Kunming had been raided several times.
Dali is predominantly inhabited by Bai people, one of the strongest ethnic minorities in Yunnan province. The Bais are closely related to the Thais of Thailand, as well as to another ethnic minority in Yunnan province, the Dais.
An interesting aspect of the Bais is that when Kublai Khan had defeated the Nanchao Kingdom, many of them migrated to Cambodia and Thailand (it was the time the Khmers in Cambodia were ruling south east Asia). Even nowadays the Thais have a strong awareness of their historical background.
Dali is located on the south west shores of the Erhai Lake at an altitude of 1900 meter.
West of Dali lies the Cangshan Mountain Range, a mountain range that stretches hundreds of kilometers from north to south and in effect separates China from Myanmar (Burma). West of these mountains there is a stretch of land belonging to China which borders Myanmar.
The tops of the Cangshan Mountain Range go to 4000 meter and beyond.
All along the countryside you will find temples and unlike the Han, the Dais and Bais are Hinayana Buddhists (like Thailand).
Dali is since the early 1980's a backpackers favorite until Lijiang took over the role in the early 1990's when Dali "became too touristy". While Lijiang grew in popularity, Dali seemed to decline.
It was not surprising because Dali seemed to be a specific tourist town while Lijiang was "more authentic". In some ways it was good for Dali as it became a bit less touristy and more pleasant (and less Kao Sahn Road-ish).
In town you will find plenty of coffee shops and souvenir stalls. The main street is closed for traffic and has plenty of souvenir shops and stalls.
Accommodation in Dali
Dali was one of the very first places backpackers sought solitude in Yunnan. Some of the guesthouses still bare the names of those days: Guesthouse 4 (Yu'an Garden Hotel) and Guesthouse 5 were popular destinations. These days the most popular of the cheapos is Jim's Peace Cafe & Guest House. In reality there are plenty of guesthouses and hotels to choose from.
Dali is a good base to explore the area. The Erhai Lake is nearby, you can get a boat and make a trip to the other side and visit some of the villages and markets.
Of all markets, probably Shaping at the northern end of the Erhai Lake is the most popular and easiest to reach. Although a chunk of the market is nowadays dedicated to tourism, another chunk is still for locals. It's an interesting market where villagers from all over the surrounding come to do their shopping. The market moves around the lake so everyone around the lake has it's market day.
Shaping market, north of Dali on the shores of Erhai Lake
The market is a good stop over if you are on the way to Lijiang and Zhongdian (Shangrila). But even if you have no bicycle, it's worth the effort to visit this traditional market.
The Three Pagodas, though not as famous as those on the Three Pagodas Pass between Thailand and Myanmar, are among the oldest still-existing architectural structures in all of Southwestern China.
The tallest of the three was built in the 9th century and is 70 meters high. The two smaller pagodas are about 42 meters high. A temple behind the pagodas is a fine example of traditional Yunnanese architecture.
The Three Pagodas are to be found just outside the Dali city center and a nice afternoon out of the city.
Getting to Dali
Dali is located 400 km west of Kunming and you can cycle all the way although some parts of the main road are transformed in motorway. Best is to pick up a local map and follow directions along the main road.
Alternatively you can take either a bus or train to reach Dali as the scenery from Kunming to Dali is not much worth.
From Dali going north to Lijiang and Zhongdian is quite easy, the road is in excellent condition and you will find easy places to stay. After Shaping you can try to get the road to Heqing and from there going north to Lijiang. I have no experience with this road but my Chinese Yunnan map says it is a possible road though it seems to cross some high mountains.
If you decide to cycle further to Lijiang and need to go back, you can take the bus back to Kunming or you can take a much nicer road east out of Lijiang to Yongsheng and then follow the river south to Kunming.
Dali versus Xiaguan
Dali is a small town right at the shores of Erhai Lake. Some people confuse Xiaguan (also named Dali, I did make that mistake once) with Dali. Dali (Zhonghe) lies about 25km north of Xiaguan and Xiaguan is not a good place to explore the beauty of Dali. So, if you arrive in Xiaguan, consider going straight to Dali.
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Lijiang, heart of the Naxi Culture
North Yunnan's Lijiang is one of the "must go to" towns in Yunnan, if not in China at all. Rebuild after an earthquake in the 1980's and now part of World Heritage, Lijiang is fantastic.
Accommodation in Yunnan
During my last visit to China I found that many mid and low end hotels now too take internet bookings. Several popular hotels and guesthouses were full even in off season due to internet bookings.
I guess it's best to book in advance for the popular tourist destinations like Lijiang, Dali, Shangri-La and Kunming.
Entrance Tickets in China
The Chinese give you value for your money when you buy an entrance ticket to visit a sight. Here's some results:
Baoshan is a kind of "forgotten" province in Yunnan. Not many people visit this really beautiful and very different part of China. Which is not fair as Baoshan has plenty to offer in terms of culture, spectacular nature and most of the year warm weather.
Tiger Leaping Gorge
One of the spectacular hiking which anyone can do, the Tiger Leaping Gorge, a must for all who seek real beauty
Map of Yunnan