It was very easy to get a bus from Lijiang’s new bus station over to Dali, particularly since the bus station was literally 2 minutes down the road from Mama Naxi’s Guesthouse. I went to the ticket booth window and was able to grab a ticket for the next bus – they leave every half hour from 7.30am and mine wasn’t even half full so getting a ticket is no problem. The ticket cost me ¥74.
The journey was much quicker than expected, taking about 2 and a bit hours as opposed to the 3+ hours I’d thought. One thing to note is that Dali’s Xiaguan bus station (the new one) is located way out of town and the only way to get into the old town area is by taxi (¥40-60). I’ve been told you can try and let the bus driver know to drop you in the old town area but I forgot. However, fortuitously, the bus stopped close the old town anyway and I was able to hop off. It should be quite easy to tell when you’re approaching Dali as you’ll pass the famous three pagodas area.
I walked through the old town and made it to my guesthouse, Jade Emu, which I’d highly recommend. Apart from having a VPN so Facebook, Whatsapp etc. are accessible (I felt like I’d grown my arm back – I could let people know I was alive! And also… y’know… Instagram), the set up is really cool with delicious food – the pizza is great – and a nice courtyard with plenty of other travellers, young and old, to socialise with. It’s situated just outside the old town and it’s well worth a look.
I have to say that I much preferred Dali to Lijiang. Perhaps it was because it was low season but Lijiang felt quite Trueman Show like – too rehearsed and unnatural. The shops were all very samey, the old town didn’t have quite as much of a buzz and, despite the fact it was very artificial, it was trying to pass itself off as authentic.
There’s an element of that too in Dali but it’s also unapologetically inauthentic and has chosen to embrace that side of itself in a more natural way. The centre of the old town doesn’t just feel like a tourist attraction – it’s a normal, functioning town centre, albeit made to look old and traditional. There’s a more diverse range of shops, a lot more people just wandering round and the atmosphere just felt so much more natural rather than the somewhat forced approach adopted by Lijiang. English seems to be much more widely spoken in Dali and you’ll find many more restaurants with English menus which is always helpful. As a side note, I’d highly recommend Emma in the old town which serves up delicious, cheap and huge meals and Emma is lovely.
Apart from wandering round the old town, Dali is characterised by the two natural wonders on its doorstep – the Cangshan Mountains and Erhai Lake. You’ve got to wander to the west of the town for a bit to find the entrance to the mountains but it’s absolutely worth it when you’re up there. I paid ¥40 entry fee and then opted to hike up to the top rather than take the cableway up. The entrance to the hike is just before the cableway/car park, past the police station. I think my legs still haven’t forgiven me. It takes about 45 minutes up relentless, stone-paved steps to reach the top through forest and the occasional gravestone. It’s not difficult, just long and with no views.
At the top, there was a sign that gave me a choice of going left or right towards Zhongye Temple. The temple was to be my final destination so for now I opted to go left. Even if you’re heading for the temple, go to the left (south) first as this is where the most outstanding views are. The path is called Cloud Traveller’s Path and you certainly feel tall on a clear day when you get a panoramic view of the whole of Dali, the lake and the mountains behind. It was breathtaking. Yunnan just refuses to disappoint where views are concerned.
I then walked back on myself towards the temple. Most of the view is blocked by trees going this way though it does open up occasionally for more fantastic vistas. 2.5km later I arrived at the temple. The path continues but I opted to come down here, opting to take the cableway down from the temple. This is a different cableway to the one on the other side and is a bit more rough and ready – more of a ski lift. It was a long ride down the mountain for ¥30 It was breathtaking, beautiful and pretty terrifying with the contraption occasionally making a worrying creaking sound. Given China’s not top of the league when it comes to safety standards, I did wonder if I should have hiked down instead. However it was all fine and the gorgeous views helped to quell my terror. If you’re not too squeamish I’d recommend it as a way of getting down.
From the bottom it was more or less a straight line down to the western side of the old town and I decided the best way to celebrate yet another glorious Yunnan hike was with a Tsingtao at my hostel’s courtyard. This holiday life is not bad at all…
The next day I enjoyed a lie-in and a delicious BLT sandwich at Bakery 88 on proper, fresh bread. I feel like I’ve been eating a lot of Western food on this trip but it’s so much cheaper than in Hong Kong and most of it tastes so good. It’s not as if fantastic Chinese food is hard to come by where I live.
After this, I wandered through the old town towards Erhai Lake, the gigantic freshwater lake that sits to the east of Dali. There are a number of roads that lead from Dali towards the lake. It’s possible to hire a scooter to get there from loads of shops in town but I opted to walk. I’d say the best road to walk down is the incredibly easy to pronounce Xiaoyizhuang Lane which is just offset from Yu’er Road in the old town. It’s a quiet but paved country lane and there’s more room for you to let cars past than the other roads.
I think you’d have to go much further up to get a proper lake experience but this area still makes for a nice stroll. You can take a boat ride for ¥180 but I just put my headphones in, wandered round and watched the migrating birds fighting over scraps of food. There was the usual collection of Chinese tourist photoshoots going on but other than that it was very peaceful – a great chilled out way to end my time in this brilliant town.
All good things must come to an end though and I had to sort out my train back to Kunming so I could catch my Hong Kong flight. Sorting out train tickets in Dali is pretty straightforward. I headed to the China Post office on Foreigner Street (at the intersection with Fuxing Road opposite KFC) in the old town. Here I was able to order a train ticket with relative ease. The man behind the desk spoke a little English but his computer was angled towards me so I was always able to double check he had entered the details correctly. A day time train from Dali to Kunming cost me ¥69 on a hard seat and would take around 6 hours.
The train station is pretty far out of the old town. To get there, you can take bus number 8 (¥2) from the west side of Dali Old Town (along Dali 1st class road) which will reach the train station in about 40 minutes. Unlike some of the other mammoth Chinese train stations, Dali station is relatively easy to get around and I made it onto my cramped, crowded, smelly train with ease. So much for Chinese bullet trains, eh?