Destination: Dali, China
Number of Days Spent: 5 days
Where we stayed: Sleepy Fish – 120 RMB per night ($25-$30). This was our favorite guest house in China. It was Immaculately clean, had English native hosts, western beds (read: not hard as rocks), hot water with excellent pressure, WiFi, tourist information, a DVD selection, book exchange (pretty limited though) and best of all, real Western coffee for breakfast! And pancakes, peanut butter toast & local yogurt to boot! After weeks of Nescafe & noodle soup we were in breakfast heaven! We could have stayed for a LONG time if we didn’t have other pressing things to see and made the best of our situation by lingering over breakfast every single morning (one more coffee please)!
Best restaurant: Dali is somewhat of a tourist haven and as such, has a great selection of restaurants, including the best gyoza restaurant we tried in China (this retired couple made them fresh right in front of us and had a yummy menu with lots of meat and vegetarian options). Here are some of our favorite restaurants:
- Dumplings/Gyoza – Ask at Sleepy FIsh! Cheap gyoza (both steamed & fried) & cold beer. We were the only westerners there when we visited and received the recommendation from the folks at Sleepy Fish (they also translated the menu for the couple that own it). If you like gyoza try this place! The dumplings are made on order so prepare for a bit of a wait that’s well worth it.
- Indian – Of your craving some spicy masala then look no further than Om Shanti. We came here a couple of times and the food was excellent.
- Coffee, cakes & sandwiches (also cheese & western bread for picnics)- Bakery 88, our second choice was Black Dragon Cafe – nothing out of this world about either, but if you are needing a real cheese and wine fix, then look no further.
- Pizza – Stella’s Pizzeria – above average pizza with an above average price tag to match
Best of: Western comfort at our hotel after 5 months of traveling through Burma, India & China. For Dali we enjoyed doing the walk around the mountain for great views of the city. The market we visited (about 90 minutes outside of Dali) wasn’t touristy at all and was quite interesting.
Worst of: Worst toilets in the WORLD!!!! They were so disgusting I can’t even describe them because remembering it makes me feel sick to my stomach. And they charged us 0.10 RMB to use them (about $.03)…the audacity! This is a photo of a “normal” toilet, this one found on the hiking trail on the mountain…now imagine the bad ones!
Most Memorable: Watching the man at the gyoza shop roll out his hand-made gyoza and trying out our (very) limited Chinese with him. We went multiple times and he never failed to have a smile for us!
Rounding out our time in the Yunnan Province, we made our last real stop in the town of Dali. Proving that all things are cyclical, this town in the 70’s and 80’s was the hot stop to get in touch with the local Bai minority tribe without any crowds. Word got out and by the mid 90’s Dali was ‘the next big thing’. Today, the increase of Lijang’s popularity has stolen some of the spotlight away and Dali is not as crowded as perhaps it once was not so long ago. Perhaps in 10 years that statement will be reversed once again, but until that day comes, enjoy Dali as it is now.
With all the talk of being overrun it’s easy to overlook what made Dali so popular in the first place. Dali lies nestled between the Green mountains and beautiful Erhai Lake. With an elevation change of around 2000M (6500 feet) the scene is quite stunning. Despite the rapid change, the town itself is pancake flat making it a pleasure to explore by foot or bike.
Being home to the Yunnan government for centuries, Dali also boasts a rich and storied past. Its iconic three pagodas not only serves as a symbol for the town, but the region as well. Getting outside the historic city walls, one can find one of the largest ethnic minority in China – the Bai. Dressed in iconic blue garbs, the villages around the lake boast weekly/biweekly markets on a rotation so it makes it fairly easy to check out one of the markets.
We took a couple of days to explore the villages and markets around Dali, a couple of days to explore the town itself and on the last day, we headed up the mountain for our eye in the sky view.
The villages around the lake proved to be no less interesting than similar size villages we had visited from other minorities. A common theme throughout rural China remains: the older inhabitants LOVE games. Cards, chess, and apparently in this area, bocce ball, are all favorite past times that any self-respecting Chinese worth their weight in dice practice faithfully.
Many of these villages are located along the tranquil shores of the lake making for a pleasant stroll down cobblestone streets. We may have taken the dusty local bus to get there, but the tour groups take in the villages in style – boat cruises are increasing in popularity and in amongst the abject poverty, a couple of fancy hotels have cropped up taking advantage of the scenery and year round moderate climate.
Colorful, festive, and cheap. . .well. . . made in China goods abound in the local markets. These days the markets are heavier on industrial goods than handy crafts but if you are after how the average Chinese citizen shops and lives, then look no further. Local produce and ‘fresh’ meat can always be found. This market was also home to the worst bathroom visit to date. Concrete trough, no water and literally piles of feces on what I suppose could be called a floor. To top it off they charged a nominal fee for the pleasure.
As with many parts of China, the rice patty is never too far away. I am always amazed that each and every plant is still transplanted by hand and meticulously cared for. Once again, tending the rice fields seems to be the work of women as rarely will you find men working the rice fields.
Not to be overshadowed by the minority villages and the lake, the town of Dali is a well designed grid of streets protected by a wall, much of which has been reproduced in a tasteful way.
The Green Mountains that loom high over the town scream out “hey don’t forget about us up here.” The government has taken steps to make sure that doesn’t happen. Gondolas have been installed complete with piped in nature sounds. 15 minutes later you arrive high up the mountain where a paved path snakes along the ridge providing sweeping panoramas of the town, lake, and pagodas below. The path is relatively flat making for a highly enjoyable stroll. We packed along some wine and cheese we picked up at the delightful Bakery 88. Once at the other end, we boarded a rather rickety chairlift that returned us back to earth.
From Dali, the first leg of our Visa was complete so we had to make a visa run. We took a bus back to Kunming for the night, flew to Shenzhen, crossed the border into Hong Kong, turned around and went back to the Shenzhen airport that afternoon to catch a flight to our next destination – Chengdu!