Things to Do in Dali
‘Erhai’ (Lake Er) is a 97-square-mile (250-square-kilometer) lake sandwiched between the town of Dali and the Cangshan Mountains in China’s Yunnan Province. Erhai is one of the seven biggest freshwater lakes in all of China and the second largest highland lake after Dianchi.
The local Bai people — one of China’s 56 recognized ethnic minority groups — have long used the waters of the lake for fishing using a rather unusual method. Fisherman train cormorants to catch fish (mostly carp) and return them to the fishing boat. Parks along the banks of the lake offer hiking and cycling opportunities, but most visitors choose to explore the lake by boat. These tours allow visitors to see cormorant fishing in action as well as visit some of the lake’s many islands and temples.
Famous for its colorful azalea flowers, Cangshan Mountain rises over the city of Dali and the shores of Lake Erhai beyond. Visitors can either hike or take a cable car up the mountain, where a paved road leads down past various points of interest. From Zhonghe Temple at the top of the cable car, various hiking trails branch out into the surrounding forests toward smaller temples, pools, waterfalls and scenic areas.
Cangshan Mountain is also a famous producer of a variety of marble called Cangshan Stone, recognizable by the unique patterns in the smooth rock. Local artists carve the marble into animals, people or natural scenes — popular souvenirs available on the mountain or in shops in Dali Old Town.
Sandwiched between Cangshan Mountain and Erhai Lake sits one of China’s most spectacular ancient cities, Dali. Dating back to the late fourteenth century, Dali got its start as a gateway to the Silk Road from Southwest China. Today, Dali Old Town (Dali Ancient City) — navigable on foot — is ringed by a 25-foot (7.5-meter) stone wall with grand gates facing in each direction. Within those walls, traditional Bai ethnic minority architecture now house shops, cafes and guest houses.
Fuxing Road, the busiest street through Dali Old Town, links the South and North Gates and is a popular spot for buying souvenirs. The upper portion of Huguo Road, nicknamed ‘Foreigner Street,’ is lined with Chinese and Western restaurants, art galleries, antique shops and small boutiques.
Once an important caravan town on the Tea Horse Road between Yunnan and Tibet, Shaxi Ancient Town (Shaxizhen) ranks among the most beautiful village squares in China and offers a rare glimpse at what one of these ancient trading hubs might have looked like in its heyday. Many of the wooden facades surrounding the Sideng Village’s old trading market and caravansary have been painstakingly restored. And while Tibetan horses are no longer being traded for Chinese tea, visitors will find old-style cafes, traditional restaurants, shops and a few locals selling horse rides for a small fee.
One of the most picturesque towns in the vicinity of Dali, as well as one of the best places to see traditional Bai architecture, is the town of Xizhou. Formerly a military stronghold of the Nanzhou Kingdom, Xizhou began to flourish during the first half of the twentieth century when a group of over 100 wealthy nationalist families relocated there, calling themselves the Xizhou Chamber of Commerce.
While much of Dali’s traditional Bai architecture has been “updated” to suit the tastes of modern Chinese travelers, Xizhou remains relatively untouched — it’s home to the largest collection of Bai residential houses in China, over a hundred of which are considered registered cultural relics.
Most visitors come to Xizhou on a day trip from Dali, but those who choose to stay overnight can sleep in a Bai-style courtyard home, as several have been converted into guest houses.
Located on the fringes of Dali Old Town, the iconic Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple date back to the ninth and tenth centuries. The middle of the three, named the Qianxun Pagoda, was erected in the ninth century during the Tang Dynasty as one of the tallest pagodas ever built in China. The two other pagodas went up about a century later, and their architectural styles are more similar to buildings of the Song Dynasty.
While Dali has endured numerous earthquakes through the centuries, including a severe one in 1925, the Three Pagodas were some of the few buildings to survive undamaged (though one now leans slightly). The well-maintained park that houses the pagodas is also dotted with smaller Buddhist temples, statues and several small lakes, all with the Cangshan Mountains as a backdrop.