Awestruck in Dali’s Old Town

Dali is so beautiful that it can be downright dangerous.

I was riding a bike through the city’s Old Town, taking in the scenery and historic architecture, but not the giant pothole that lay in front of me. The next thing I saw was concrete.

Fortunately, I landed left knee first, and suffered only a few bruises. I hobbled to a nearby pharmacy and, using broken Chinese and a little point and grimace, described what I needed. I felt embarrassed, but if any Chinese city is going send me head over heels I’m glad it was Dali.

Located in China’s southwestern Yunnan province, Dali is the bombshell blonde of the Middle Kingdom. It is surrounded by mountains. To the west, the 4,000 meter Cangshan Mountain juts into the sky, and the clouds appear as if they are resting on the mountain top, taking a break before floating away.

To the east is another mountain range, and below it, the scenic Erhai Lake, the seventh-largest freshwater lake in China.

A view of Cangshan mountain.

Cangshan Mountain.

Erhai Lake near Dali is the seventh-largest freshwater Lake in China.

Erhai Lake.

The West Gate to Dali Old Town.

The West Gate to Dali Old Town.

One of the main streets in Dali Old Town. It was on this street that I had my bicycle wreck.

One of the main streets in Dali Old Town.

An alley outside the Old Town. The main inhabitants of Dali are the Bai ethnic minority group. According to Lonely Planet, the Bai settled in the region around 3,000 years ago.

An alley outside the Old Town. The main inhabitants of Dali are the Bai ethnic minority group. According to Lonely Planet, the Bai settled in the region 3,000 years ago.

Sunset

The sun sets over Dali.

The main attraction in Dali is the Old Town, an ancient walled city that sits in a valley below Cangshan Mountain. The origins of the town date back to the 8th century, but it was rebuilt in the 1400s, during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Today, it is a popular tourist destination for tourists, with hundreds of restaurants, shops and bars.

I stayed at a hostel called the Jade Emu outside the Old Town’s west gate. It’s owned by an Australian named Dave and his Chinese wife. When I told Dave that I was in the news business, he said he thought China was often wrongly portrayed by Western media.

I asked Dave whether he had ever had any trouble with the local authorities. China is full of stories of expats who have started businesses here but have later become frustrated by all of the under the table deals and corruption.

“The police come here once a year, and we sit down and talk,” he said. Dave said he always expects the meeting to be stressful, “but the police just ask me, ‘What can we do better?'”

Perhaps it’s a small town thing. I found the people in Dali to be a lot like my neighbors and friends back home in the US: trusting and friendly. When I rented a bike, I didn’t have to leave a deposit or passport. That would never happen in a big city like Beijing.

When I asked for directions to a Catholic church in the Old Town, a young Chinese man who gave his English name as Robbie offered to walk me there.

I expected Robbie to lead me to a cafe, where a couple of attractive Chinese girls would ask me to buy an expensive pot of tea and try to scam me out of a couple hundred yuan. Guidebooks warn you about these kinds of scams, so I’m usually skeptical when someone goes out of their way to offer help.

But Robbie led me right to the church. “Have a great journey,” he said, and walked away.

I returned my bike the next day. In Dali, vehicles should really come with a warning: ogle and drive at your own risk.

Renmin Lu, a street in the Old Town known for its restaurants and shops.

Renmin Lu, a street in the Old Town known for its restaurants and shops. Around 40,000 people live in the Old Town, which sits a valley below Cangshan Mountain.

A typical store in the Old Town.

A typical store in the Old Town.

A belly dancer performs in Dali Old Town.

A belly dancer performs outside a shop.

A painting inside a temple.

A painting of the Three Pagodas, one of the main symbols of Dali.

A woman bikes down a country road.

A woman bikes through farmland, just east of the Old Town.

Most of the area outside Dali is farmland.

Most of the area outside Dali is farmland.

Clouds are reflected in a small pond outside Dali.

Clouds are reflected in a pond outside a small village near Dali.

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8 thoughts on “Awestruck in Dali’s Old Town

  1. I’m actively contemplating a return trip to China and can’t determine where to visit. The news reports of the constant smog in Beijing is depressing me as Beijing is a beautiful city. Maybe Dali is the place.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Rindge

  2. Loved your essay. Loved these photos. Your Chinese lessons have paid off in spades. Wish I had found a “Robbie” when Dad and I were there:)

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