When tourists and tour guides refer to Dali, likely as not, they're talking about Dali Old Town (大理古城) or "da li gu cheng". The city, sitting at the foothills of the Cang Shan mountains is a new old town. This means that upon the ruins of the ancient city that was once surrounded by a city wall, one can now see new and renovated "old" buildings and walk down cobblestone streets with views of the ancient (but recently renovated) city gates. What transpires for the visitor is the feeling that you've stepped off the map and landed somewhere between ancient China and Southeast Asia Backpacker Central.
Dali Old Town is nestled at the foot of the Cang Shan mountains west of Lake Erhai. To get there, you can fly into Dali (officially Xiaguan airport) or drive from Lijiang or Kunming. It is in the central western part of Yunnan Province.
See also Geography & Maps of China from our Geography Guide.
The area around Dali in this part of Yunnan Province has a majority Bai population. The autonomous Kingdom of Dali was founded in 937 and lasted outside Han-run China until the Yuan Dynasty
when the Mongol rulers
finally breached the Dali fortifications and brought Dali into the province of Yunnan.
See also Dali Old Town on gokunming.com.
Dali has all the features of any backpacker hangout in Southeast Asia
. Here's what I found in Dali:
- travel agencies advertising cheap flights & hostels,
- young white guys with dreadlocks,
- baggy pants in many colors for sale,
- souvenir shops - both nice and tacky,
- ancient & interesting surroundings,
- colorful locals,
- wacky snacks, cheap eats and Western restaurants catering to the white guys with dreadlocks,
- tour groups,
- foreigners acting inappropriately,
- locals acting inappropriately,
- great beer,
- access to herbal alternatives to beer,
- dogs with no owners,
- photogenic children,
- good baked goods, coffee and tea.
Old Town Scheme:
Pick up a map from one of the tourist shops but it's hard to get lost. The old city is laid out on a typical north-south, east-west axis. There are four main city gates (that were once the only portals into the city through the wall) on each of the axes. The main roads to meander down are "Foreigners' Street" where the Chinese tourists hang and "Renmin Street" where the tourists hang, both are east-west roads.
What to Do & See:
You can make a nice walking tour through the city stopping at shop after bar after cafe after tea shop. There are some nice temples, old courtyard homes-turned-hotels, cafes, shops and bars. The city gates are something to see - especially at night when lit up. There's an old Catholic church from French missionary days.
After your souvenir shopping is finished, I'd advise popping yourself down aside an outdoor table at one of the restaurants or bars on Renmin Road around about sundown and just sit for several hours catching the vibe. Dali Old Town seems to be a place to soak up over hours, or better, days.