In an effort to recover from the miserable experience that was Emei Shan, Mia and I hopped a short plane flight from Chengdu straight to Dali in the Yunnan Province in the south west of China. Almost instantly, we were happier people. It was about 20 degrees cooler and there were gorgeous mountains surrounding us. We made our way through the smallest and quickest airport I’ve ever been to and made our way to our hostel. Since I’m writing this well after the fact, I can tell you that the Jade Emu hostel was our favorite hostel by far in Dali. It was clean, close to town, had an incredibly helpful staff, and great internet. There’s nothing else to ask for!
That afternoon we just decided to spend some time walking around picturesque Dali. The old town, which is just a bit over 1 square mile, has been preserved/constructed to look like the old town would have a thousand years ago. This allows for two components at completely different opposite ends of the spectrum. First, the town is beautiful. As you walk through the town you pass little streams and bridges and fountains. The gray stone work all feels anciently charming as you walk through the giant walls once fortifying the town. It also is a town with a lot of upkeep, with small walking paths lined with manicured trees. The other competing phenomenon is that since it is so nice, is has become a top spot for tourists. Well, really just Chinese tourists. While for many, a place over run by tourists sounds miserable and that they would rather get off the beaten path, I would argue that the tourist culture actually makes Dali even better. This means that all of those streets are lined with trendy backpacker cafes, chinese brand clothing stores, and a hundred little curio shops for all of your souvenir needs. And it doesn’t feel touristy at all since all of the tourists are Chinese. I think that there might be some value in going to the places where people from that country go on vacation.
We just spent the whole day walking around, tasting delicious street food, and then making our way just outside of town to the famous three pagodas. These gorgeous towers stand tall above the surrounding landscape and you can spot them from miles away. We decided that the entry fee to just get a closer look (you can’t even go up them!) was just too high, so we walked around the outskirts of the area and still got some great pictures.
The next day, we took a bus tour of Er Hai lake and the surrounding towns. Er Hai Lake is a thin sliver of a lake, almost like the Finger Lakes, that stretches for about 50 km alongside Dali. While it was nice to get out of Dali, we weren’t too impressed with the neighboring towns. We did learn a little more about one of the local minority groups, the Bai people. Along the way, we stopped at the Shuangguan Monday market, and found some unique crafts in the busy makeshift market place. We also stopped by a small, indistinct temple where three Bai women were conducting a ritual. The Bai culture is matrilineal, meaning the women have most of the power, including all religious responsibilities. It was really interesting getting to eavesdrop on a bit of real life. The steely cobalt blue lake was breathtaking against the mountains, but none of the other towns really excited us and the constant scattered rain showers tempted us back to our dry hostel.
That evening, we finally treated ourselves to foot massages after the painful climb up Emei Shan. It was extremely relaxing and I got a great opportunity to practice speaking Chinese with our masseurs. We learned that in Dali, you could pay 300 yuan for rent each month and live off of 300 yuan for food each month. 300 yuan is roughly 45 dollars! It gave us a bit of insight in to how cheap the place was and how lacking the Chinese people were.
On our last morning in Dali, we decided to take a cooking class! This cooking class was a little more hands on then my class in Vietnam which certainly gave me pause, but since Mia and I were the only students, I got a lot of special attention. It seems par for the course is starting with a trip to the market. There we learned a lot about the local fruits and vegetables and what was in season. Fun fact: the longer and thinner a pepper is, the spicier it will be! Who knew? The class was a lot of fun and our teacher’s English was incredible! I learned to make a light tofu salad, another eggplant dish, and my all-time favorite, Kung Pow Chicken (Yes! It’s actually authentic Chinese!).
That afternoon we took a bus through the stunning mountains of Yunnan to Dali’s big sister city, Lijiang.