I’m lucky enough to have friends who own a guesthouse in Dali (Sleepy Fish Lodge – check it out!) so have visited three times now – once at Christmas which was awesome!
The original backpacker hang-out in Yunnan province, Dali’s scenery is pretty stunning, surrounded by mountains and the nearby Erhai Lake. There are four scenic areas in the Dali region, including the Cangshan Mountains, Erhai Lake and Butterfly Spring. In Dali city there is Jizu Mountain (in Bingchuan County), Shibao Mountain (in Jianchuan County) and Weibao Mountain (in Weishan County).
Dali’s Ancient City has a bit of everything with historic sites, ancient buildings and temples, local crafts, and even a popular road named “Foreigners’ Street” with Western-style restaurants and bars and English-speaking owners. The nearby Cangshan Mountain is a great, scenic hiking area and a natural reserve.
The Ancient City is cornered with four gates – North, East, South and West which helps when trying to familiarise yourself with the area. There are lots of shops and local markets, where you can buy anything and everything. There are even street ‘dentists’ complete with wires and pliers (and usually a pile of teeth) – bleuugh!
There isn’t a great deal of things to do in Dali except chill out, drink beer and eat great food! Food in China was nothing at all like I expected; silly me to assume it would resemble anything that you peel out of a carton on a Saturday night. The produce is always local and fresh and menus are almost non-existent in most local restaurants. ‘Local restaurants’ usually involves a family converting their house by opening up the front entrance and adding a few tables and chairs to sit and sip complimentary loose leaf green tea whilst you await your order. Each entrance is usually framed with two shelving units – one displaying a bunch of fruit and vegetables and other (most of the time) a fridge containing meat products. Fish is also available but it will be found swimming in a large bucket on the floor… You don’t need to learn Mandarin to order food (although I did try, much to most people’s amusement) – you just need to be able to point! The process usually involves pointing at one or two vegetables that take your fancy and then again at a unidentifiable meat product. The smiling lady who’s front room you are standing in will then scoop up the ingredients, hand you a green tea and usher you over to a slightly wobbly plastic chair, before disappearing to the kitchen. The Chef will then rustle up something delicious using your ingredients; each time something new! We were regularly eating a feast between three of us, costing £3 per head.
I learnt how to say ‘No MSG’ and ‘No chilli’ in Mandarin which came in useful. MSG is massive in China. It’s a salt-like flavour enhancer and you’ll find whole aisles of the stuff in the bigger supermarkets. There’s a lot of debate going on as to whether MSG is harmful or not, so I chose to avoid eating it as much as possible during my stay. It’s impossible to avoid altogether but in local places where they are making your food from scratch, it’s easier to pass on. As for ‘No chilli’, I can handle a fair amount of spice in my food. However, there is a particular chilli used abundantly in Chinese cooking which I cannot stand! The ‘wild peppercorn’ has a very distinctive, almost medicinal taste and when bitten in to, makes your teeth tingle and your whole mouth go numb. So, for obvious reasons, I tried to avoid them too! They’re fairly easy to pick out and spot but it would just take one to ruin my meal!
Aside from local eateries, many of the more westernised restaurants that line some streets also serve great food, including a bakery that did incredible melt in the middle chocolate brownies!
We took a trip to the mountains one day for a hike which was pretty cool too – amazing scenery and a pleasant walk up the mountain’s side and back down through thick woodland. We also took a boat out on the river, tried some local seafood delicacies (mostly on sticks!) and also to a nearby fishing village.
We also took a trip with our friends in to the countryside to visit a local Bai village during a prayer ceremony / dance. It was a lot of fun and the people could not have been more welcoming. We got on just fine, despite the language barrier! Something like this may be slightly trickier to do independently as our friends can speak a little Mandarin and had visited the village before. I wouldn’t advise rocking up to a local village and taking photos of local people as this can cause offense (as it would for us!).
All in all, Dali is definitely worth a visit! This post doesn’t really do it much justice but it still remains my favourite place, despite visiting lots of places since! I plan to head back there on our way through China, to show Gary around and spend a few weeks hiking, kayaking and chilling out in Foreigner Street! My posts whilst travelling will be a lot more detailed, so stay tuned! 🙂