Dali was the first stop of our round trip through Yunnan after leaving Kunming. Dali is located some 350 kilometres Northwest of Kunming, which means a four to five hour bus ride or a five to eight hour train journey. As described in my last post we took the bus and I would very much recommend it to you as well – unless you want to travel overnight. For overnight travel the train is very good option and it obviously saves you another night in a hostel or hotel. Please take in mind that most busses serve Kunming and Xiaguan, a bigger city 20 kilometres South of it. From there you usually need a minibus or a taxi to Dali. Xiaguan itself does not offer any highlights, but maybe worth a thought if there only expensive beds left in Dali.
Dali is together with Lijiang and Shangri-La one of three famous “old cities” along the historical Yunnan-Tibet trade route. The city has today some 600,000 inhabitants – few of them in the old town – of whom most belong to the Bai ethnicity. The area was settled more than 3,000 years ago and was mentioned on a map 200 BC. Dali grew even more important during the time of the Nanzhao empire (738 – 902) and was the centre of the Dali kingdom, which was founded in 938. Some sources say that Dali was among the 13 biggest cities around the year 1000. During the Mongol invasion the city was destroyed, but rebuilt during the Ming dynasty. As Kunming also Dali suffered a lot in the mid 19th century when the city was the centre of the Panthay rebellion when 60 % of the population were slaughtered by troops of general Yang Yu-ko in 1873.
Dali old town is built as a square, each side 1500 metres long bordered by impressive walls. The city walls were between seven and eight metres high and are still mostly intact in the South and West. All four city gates were saved from destruction as well.
Of course Dali is a touristy place, but I still thought that some of the historical flair was preserved. The shops and restaurants were integrated into the historical cityscape and not the other way round. According to some of my travel mates you could even get some pretty good deals on handmade clothing. Don’t be shy and try to bargain a bit. The starting price was CNY 150, my friend ended up with paying CNY 100. She was happy, and when I looked back I saw the salesman was smiling, too. A win-win situation.
I also thought that despite a fair number of tourists, Dali Old Town didn’t feel that crowded. The Bai ethnicity has still a dominant influence on local culture. Every night people are dancing on the big square – I had the impression that they do this, because they want to do so. Not because someone told them to do so. There are also many shops where you can see young people playing the drums, sometimes singing songs in the local Bai language. There is also a strong Tibetan influence in Dali. One of the best dinners during my trip I had at the “Tibetan Cafe”.
Accommodation – MCA Hotel Dali
MCA Hotel Dali is located just five minutes South of the city walls and therefore a very good place to stay overnight: You are close to the old town, but you won’t suffer from any noise associated with it. MCA Hotel was one of the first places in the city where Westerners could stay after China opened up. Service was very friendly and breakfast was quite good as well. Do not expect a hotel in Western sense. I’d rank it more as a better hostel. Some of the rooms were a bit outdated, but they are going to renovate the whole complex in 2016. They can also give you advice on activities – there are plenty in and around Dali -, book tickets for you and organize a guide showing you around. Actually I’d recommend to get a guide as there are many “hidden gems” off the beaten track.
We stayed here for two nights.