While China may not be nearly as popular as Southeast Asia or South America with backpackers, that doesn’t mean there aren’t great places there for independent, adventure-seeking travelers. Yunnan province is one of the most popular areas in China for backpackers. Home to stunning mountain scenery, vibrant ethnic minority culture, and delicious cuisine, it’s no wonder travelers have been falling in love with this corner of China for decades. Let’s take a closer look at one of Yunnan’s hotspots – Dali. Here are a few of the things that Dali has to offer – exploring the old city, a hike in the clouds, cycling and swimming around the lake, and a bustling street festival.
Just about every travel itinerary through Yunnan province includes a stop here. Home to the Bai minority, it is rich in culture, history and delicious food. Although it is very much on the beaten path, it’s not impossible to escape the crowds in Dali. We’ve been to Dali twice and both times were a different experience.
Exploring the Old Town
The first time we came to Dali, we stayed at the Sleepy Fish hostel in the Old Town. The Australian owners and their beautiful dogs were very welcoming, and it’s one of our favorite hostels we’ve ever stayed in. Our friend and TV star/chef extraordinaire, Jun, just so happened to be filming an episode of his TV show while we were there. The premise was that he was going to build a brick pizza oven from scratch. When the original location for the oven fell through we introduced him to the hostel owners and they really hit it off.
Long story short, they agreed to let him build his pizza oven in their courtyard! So now, if you stay at the Sleepy Fish, you’ll be treated to a delicious pizza pie.
Most of the things travelers will want to see are in the Old Town. It’s full of quaint buildings, shops, and restaurants. There are also some museums, temples, and night markets to explore. The Bai restaurants are characterized by a display of fresh vegetables and other ingredients in front of the restaurant. They often don’t have a menu, so if you can speak a little Chinese, it’s helpful in this situation. Don’t let that deter you, though, as they make some really delicious food.
The two most popular spots for nightlife are Bad Monkey and Phoenix Bar. They are both often buzzing with travelers and usually have live music in the evenings.
To be honest, we didn’t care for the Old Town too much. It’s more of a new town, really – many of the buildings are quite new but are meant to look old. It may seem odd, but this is popular all across China. The real reason to love Dali is its beautiful surroundings. Rent a bicycle or e-bike and explore the area on your own two wheels!
One of the main attractions is this massive lake. The name means “sea shaped like an ear” due to its crescent shape and because it’s one of the largest freshwater lakes in China. The shores are dotted with small villages, many of which are worth a visit for their minority cultures, tasty food, and architecture. This is where we stayed the second time we came to Dali.
There are a few hostels and guest houses around the lake with amazing views without the steep price you would expect to find. You can also hop a boat and visit temples on small islands in the lake. Staying on the lake offers a much more quiet experience than staying in the Old Town, and comes highly recommended based on our two trips there. We enjoyed ourselves much more staying on the lake rather than with the crowds.
It is possible to cycle, e-bike, motorbike, trek or take boats to go around the lake. Trekking will take anywhere from 6-8 hours from the Old Town, and is probably the least popular option for various reasons. Bikes of all varieties (peddle, electric, and motor) are readily available in the Old Town and even in lakeside villages.
See more of the village in Sasha’s video:
Towering over Dali is the Cangshan Mountain range. No trip to Dali is complete without a visit to this mountain. It’s possible to hike up, but you won’t see many people doing so; as with most places in China there is not only one, but two cable cars. On our first trip to Dali, we went up and down in the cable car. On our second trip, we hiked up and down. They are both great options with stunning views. It just depends on how energetic you’re feeling.
On the mountain, you can find the Cloud Forest Path which is a very well maintained walking path that goes from one cable car to the other and offers some amazing views of the town and Erhai Lake.
Along the walk are some things of note such as a few waterfalls and temples. If it is total seclusion you are looking for, there is a guest house at the top of the mountain called Highland Inn. For those wanting to hike to the peak, they have maps as well as a restaurant at Highland.
San Yue Jie Festival
San Yue Jie or “Third Month Street”, is the biggest festival of the year for the local Bai people. It takes place on the third full moon of the lunar year. The celebration is named after the street on which the giant marketplace sets up. Merchants come from far and wide to sell an interesting array of items — everything from ethnic minority garb to endangered animal parts.
If the chaotic street market isn’t for you, there’s also horse racing, archery, and other competitions throughout the day. The festivities begin on the night before the full moon and last for an entire week. Be sure and check the lunar calendar if you’re planning a visit. Some may enjoy wandering through the festival snapping photos, while others may want to stay far, far away from the massive crowds.
Check out Sasha’s video about it:
Although Dali is one of the most popular destinations in China for domestic and international tourists alike, don’t let that scare you away. Stay at a lakeside village, rent some wheels, hike up the mountain rather than take the cable car, take your time exploring the lake, and you can have an awesome trip.
Transportation: The best way to get there if you don’t have a car is to take a 3-4 hour bus ride from Kunming. There is also an overnight train with sleepers that takes 6-7 hours from Kunming.
Get Around: In Dali, your best bet is renting a bicycle and cruising around at your own leisure.
Accommodation: We got a triple room for 210 RMB per night total at the awesome Sleepy Fish hostel. The owners are super nice, they have great dogs, and thanks to us (well mostly thanks to Jun) they have a brick pizza oven. At the guest house in the village, we paid about the same but we can’t remember the name as it was only in Chinese.
Activities: In Dali, you can cycle around the old town, swim in the Ear Lake, or hike in the Cloud Traveler’s Path of the Cangshan Mountains. There are also a few sights to see here such as the Three Pagodas, but the overpriced ticket discouraged us from visiting.
Food/Drink: Yunnan food is incredibly delicious and diverse, so eating locally is the best way to go. A bowl of the famous “Over the Bridge Rice Noodles” is good any time of year. You’ll find plenty of bars, and you’ll even find Beer Laos Dark in convenience stores.
Recommended Time: You should have at least 2-3 full days in Dali to do a mix of cycling, climbing, swimming, and relaxing. A trip here is best viewed as part of a bigger Yunnan adventure, which we’d recommend at least 2-3 weeks for.