Dali, the old hippy haven famous for its chilled out attitude and atmospheric beauty. Set against the stunning backdrop of the ChanShan mountain range, the ancient city is surrounded by endless fields of growing produce and the mysterious ErHai lake.
Although Dali has changed in recent years and is now well on the radar of the youthful Chinese tourists, there is still peace to be found in this little town and lots of back alleys to be explored besides of the main shopping strip. On a visit to Dali six years ago, we fell in love with the place and have the fondest memories of relaxed cafe culture, fresh water streams running through the cobbled lanes, and the beautiful Bai-style architecture that runs throughout the city.
Lots of its mountain village charm still remains, but it is fast becoming a major hub for shopping for the Chinese and the prices do reflect the rise in tourism. We still think it’s worth a visit though, and it’s arguably still more chilled out then the neighbouring Lijiang. We have put together our recommendations from 6 days spent in Dali Ancient City...
Admire The Wood Workers Street
After visiting Dali in 2011, we were anxious that the ancient town would have changed beyond recognition like the rest of rapidly evolving China. So the first place we headed for was the carpenters street we had admired such a long time ago. Just south of the old town lies Wenxian Road, a strip of wood working studios where furniture is elaborately carved by Chinese masters. We were elated to see that many of the studios still exist, and all manner of wooden items are still being carefully constructed from shutters to doors, and desks to cabinets. Watching these guys work is a joy to see, many craftsmen and women are hand carving from hardwoods using a whole range of chisels and files to get the perfect finish. The detailing is exquisite, and there is just so much of it. We can’t help thinking that this must be a dying art form because it would take so much skill and time to do it. This level of quality would never happen at home because it would be far too expensive! If you are into handicrafts and woodwork then we would thoroughly recommend a wonder down this street. From the South Gate of Dali old town, take Wenxian Road and keep walking south for 5-10 minutes.
Eat Authentic Rice Noodles
We got a tip off from our hostel that this restaurant serves delicious rice noodle soup and charges tourists the same price as the locals. For those backpackers on a budget, this is what we love to hear! For the bargain price of 10 yuan (£1.12) for a large and 8 yuan (90p) for a small, you can get yourself a delicious bowl of homemade rice noodles in broth with pork, vegetables, spring onions, parsley, garlic oil, Sichuan pepper oil, soy, chilli, and chopped peanuts. It’s fresh, it’s zingy, it’s spicy and you can top up your seasonings as much as you want! You pretty much won’t find a cheaper lunch or dinner in town. The noodle shop is situated on Yu'er Road a couple of minutes walk west of Dongyu street, and is called 'Qing Shi Qiao'.
Eat Baba Sweet Bread
After spending 2 whole months in China, this culinary discovery was our ultimate favourite. Imagine a freshly made buttery and doughy flat bread charred on a smokey bbq with a gooey jam and rose petal sugar centre? Mmm......! If you’re salivating as much as we are then you are going to LOVE this delightful sweet bread. Bite into a lightly crunchy outside to find a soft doughy centre oozing with sugary goodness. It’s really naughty, but probably one of the most delicious baked goods we have ever eaten, ever. After tasting this bread, we’re not sure how we’re going to live a life without it. To find them, look amongst the street foods on the main strip (Remin Road) in Dali Ancient City for a round flat bread in a display case. Take note that some are sweet and some are savoury, so with meat. If you are heading to Xizhou then you are likely to find one there in the centre of town, and it’s bbq’ed to perfection! It’s totally worth a visit just to taste this bread.
Stroll Along The Mountain Pass
Looking for a scenic stroll around the Dali area? Well look no further then the mountain pass that connects Zhonghe Temple with Gantong Temple. The stretch is flat and paved for 11km which makes it a very leisurely stroll, and winds nicely around the edge of the CangShan mountain range. From there you can see a hazy view of ErHai lake, Dali old town and the surrounding villages that scatter the large valley. Getting up to the route from Dali ancient city is relatively straight forward, just exit out of the West Gate and make your way up to Zhonghe Temple, following the route on maps me or google maps. The path can be a bit steep in places although it is still very manageable. Keep walking on past the temple and onto a flat paved path, take a left when you get there and follow the signs towards Gantong cablecar and continue on until you get to Qingbi stream. From there, there is a path all the way down to Gantong temple and Gantong mountain gate, where you can either take a cab back to Dali old town, or get to the main road and either walk back or flag down one of the buses. We paid 10 yuan each for a cab share back to the old town. The whole walk took us only the morning and we were back by 1pm.
Cycle To Erhai Lake
Dali has become somewhat of a tourist trap in recent years, and although that’s ok for some of the time, it’s nice to leave the town and head into the countryside around it. The second biggest lake in China can be found only kilometres away from Dali, and scattered around it in the valley is a mixture of old villages, crops fields and minority cultures. Locals smile as you cycle past as they continue on with their daily lives. A nice cycling route would be to head east out of East Gate and keep on going until you reach the town of Caicun by the water. From there you can do a windy route north along the back roads following the signs for ‘west ring road’ all the way up to Jinguisi where you can then head west to the town of Xizhou. The ring road is quite developed in places, and locals set up their stalls along the way hoping to sell a trinket or two to the tourists that pass. A day on the bike can be really fun, and as you cycle along the sometimes bumpy gravel paths, you see many Chinese tourists riding along on rented scooters with plastic flowers in their hair looking all ‘hippy’, or hippy in a contrived ASOS kind of way. There are hilarious sections by the water that have been set up for photo shoots and selfies (which has gone down a treat with the Chinese tourists), look out for the clear plastic bubble chairs and red heart props. After you escape these weird built up sections there can be nothing but dirt tracks, little villages and the peace that surrounds ErHai lake. If you make time to break away from the ring road, there is a lot of nature to be seen here, including many species of bird, plants and the stunning CangShan mountain range. There are many places to rent bikes in Dali, expect to pay around 20-30 yuan (£2.25-£3.38) for a days hire.
Eat Treats From The Local Bakery
All backpackers on a budget know that the best way to get a good deal on tasty food is to watch where the locals go. Well that’s exactly what we did in Dali and found ourselves an amazing bakery at really low prices. The display shelves are stacked with tons of tasty baked goods from cookies to cakes, bread rolls to pastries. We have somewhat been impressed with China’s baking skills, and nearly everything we tried over 2 months of being there was delicious and freshly made that day. This bakery was the same, and the most brilliant thing about it is that the price is done by weight. So just fill up your bag with the light stuff and pay peanuts! We opted for a sponge cake (which was honestly about the size of a small birthday cake), a large custard pastry and about 4 small cookies to munch on later, and all of that came to 7 yuan (79p)! What a bargain. The bakery is situated near the Yincang Rd and Bo’ed Rd crossover.
Get A Massage
You can’t come to the laid-back town of Dali without treating yourself to a massage. Dali has been known for some time as the hippy expat capital of Yunnan and travellers have been coming here for decades to soak up the chilled out lifestyle of bars, cafes and the incredible natural scenery. How better to relax into this culture other than to get a massage in one of the local salons. The cheapest one we found was 88 yuan (£9.90) for 1 hour 20 mins which included a foot soak, an oil foot massage and a full body local massage (through clothes). It was actually pretty good, although we always find that many environments in China aren’t particularly relaxing, what with a kid running round hitting the massagers as they were trying to work! Be prepared for some firm hands also, particularly with the cheaper local massages. You probably get what you pay for. There are many massage parlours on Bo’ed Road in Dali ancient city.
Drink The Cheapest Beer On Remin Road
This is the main strip in Dali and tourists flock here to shop, sip coffee in fancy coffee shops and drink cocktails in bars. Well we love a cheeky drink every now and again too, but what with being budget travellers sometimes touristy bars are totally out of our price range. A small beer in one of the bars here would normally set you back around 20 yuan (£2.25) for the cheapest one, but we figured out a way to drink on the main strip without paying more than 6 yuan (70p) for a large beer. Just head to one of the cheap cafe style eateries, they are the open front Chinese rice kitchens with basic decor inside, grab a cheap beer from the fridge and sit out front and watch the world go by. This is a great way of soaking up the atmosphere, and the sun, without breaking the budget. We did this several times on our visit!
Eat A Serendipity Burger
It’s not often that we eat western food on the road, and as we have discovered it is nearly always overpriced compared to the local alternative which is mostly very tasty. Western food can be very hit and miss (mostly a miss to be honest), and to make sure we were picking a well reviewed burger place we decided to look on the loved/hated Trip Advisor. Out of 7 burger joints in Dali, Serendipity has made it to no. 1 and we can easily see why. Each burger is made using good quality beef, cooked medium rare, with a homemade sweet brioche bun and whatever topping you choose. Each comes with a pickle and handful of fries. Not the biggest portion but definitely the biggest treat! We would recommend heading on down for a laid-back dinner in the diner style restaurant or on one of the tables outside. A burger will set you back 55 yuan (£6.20), a little steep but we think worth the splash out. You can find Serendipity at 53 Guangwu Lu.
Stay At A Rooftop Hostel
One of the coolest things about the accommodation in Dali is that loads of the hostels and guesthouses have rooftop spaces. From there you can glimpse the impending CangShan mountain range and the beautiful Bai-style oriental architecture of the surrounding buildings. You may just spot a few other lucky ones doing the same thing. Being up so high makes you feel detached from the Dali below, the busyness fades away and you are left with the tranquility of the sun gleaming on the plant-lined terraces. We stayed in the Meet Inn Hostel for the bargain price of 98 yuan (£11) per night, and the hostel itself was well decorated and had a nice relaxed feel to it. Catching a sunrise or sunset on the terrace is a must, and maybe a few hours spent chilling reading a book is a great way to unwind from China’s tourist hotspots.
All You Can Eat At The Vegetarian Buffet
Most dishes in China involve some sort of meat, whether that be pork in a noodle broth or a meaty stir fry with seasoning, and so when we found this vegetarian restaurant serving an all you can eat buffet for lunch and dinner we were very excited. For the unbelievable price of 20 yuan (£2.25) per person, you can munch your way through a whole range of speciality vegetarian dishes: from 5 different types of tofu to slow cooked aubergine, and steamed Chinese buns to seasoned fried rice. There are about 20 different dishes to choose from and they change on a daily basis. We ate there for lunch 2 days in a row and it actually worked out cheaper than most of our meals in local rice kitchens and you also get a whole lot more variety on your plate. If you are looking for some fresh and tasty vegetarian food then this is the place for you. The restaurant is called Lovely Lotus Delicious Vegetarian and can be found at B2-1 Jiulongju, Fuxing Rd.
Get Into Dali Life
This is by no means a complete list of everything you can do in Dali but they are the things that we enjoyed the most. All are suited to those backpacking on a budget. There is also the famous Three Pagodas that you can visit by bike or foot and many popular bars on the main strip, but for us the bars were a bit out of our price range for both food and drink. We enjoyed dining in the rice and noodle kitchens on the side roads where the locals were eating, and at the end of our trip to China these were some of our fondest memories.
You can reach Dali by train or bus from Kunming and Lijiang. It’s worth noting that the old town is called Dali Ancient City and that Dali is the modern part of the city just south of there where most of the transport links go to. If you do get a train into Dali then it will drop you off in the modern city and you will have to get a bus into the old town. If travelling from Lijiang by bus, you can ask to be dropped off in the old town.
Why not watch travel video from our Dali?
We hope you found this helpful! If there is anything you enjoyed doing on your trip to Dali then let us know, we would love to hear about it.
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