Dali - Xiaguan
An "I'm not a tourist, I'm a traveler" kind of place ... as if there were a difference.
First Visit, April 1999
There are actually two Dalis. There’s an old Dali and there’s a new Dali. The bus from Kunming went to the new Dali, which is properly called Xiaguan, but I, like most travelers, wanted to go to the old Dali, about ten miles to the north. As soon as I exited the bus some taxi driver offered me a ride to old Dali for 40 yuan ($5), but I already knew I could get a private minibus for Y5 or even a large local bus for Y1.20. I got the Y1.20 bus (15 cents), which in about twenty to thirty minutes had me in old Dali.
steps off the bus some guy on a bicycle shoved a business card in my hand
for one of the more popular backpacker crashpads. Seeing as he was the
only tout, that seemed as good of a reason as any not to stay there. Most
of the backpacker hotels and cafés are on a two-block stretch of Huguo
Lu. I got a room at a place called the Sunny Garden for Y30 ($3.75) a
night, a small homey place with pleasant smiling staff that spoke zero
English. It wasn’t a great guesthouse but it served its purpose and the
water was always hot.
Dali sits just off of Erhai Lake at an elevation of 6,300 feet. The center of the city, an area of maybe a square mile or two is historically preserved as well as anything in China can be, as the Chinese aren’t known for taking care of things. Dali, like Yangshuo, is probably best visited after you’ve been traveling awhile but I’m not sure my opinion of Dali would have changed for it.
I wasn’t particularly impressed with the place and a number of Dali regulars I met were singing the “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” song. Dali has for years been one of those legendary backpacker hangouts with a plethora of small guesthouses and cafés catering to the low budget foreign traveler. But the true attraction of Old Dali is that it is very much an old Chinese city surrounded by an old wall complete with old buildings of old architectural design. Huge Erhai Lake is a short bike ride to the east and behind the city to the west are the 4000-meter (13000+ foot) Cangshan Mountains. The scenery and the amenities of the village have combined to make Dali a great hangout that like Yangshuo could occupy a traveler for days or weeks in a hassle free existence.
that’s the old Old Dali. The new Old Dali is changing. I cannot make my
own comparisons as this was my first time there, but as I said, I wasn’t
overly impressed with the place. Furthermore, the anecdotal information
from travelers who were on return trips, one person had been coming annually
for ten years, all seemed to describe a cool place that’s losing its cool.
soon as I checked into the Sunny Garden I made hand motions about food
and more importantly, a cup of coffee. Coffee is sometimes hard to come
by in China so places like Dali, with its overabundance of foreign cafés,
are a true convenience. But for my first Dali meal I eschewed the foreigner
cafés, instead allowing my hosts to escort me across the street to their
point-and-eat style restaurant. These are common in China, walk into the
kitchen and point at what you want and they cook it in a stir-fry. Have
to be careful though, for it's all too possible that you’ll point to three
or four things expecting it to be skillfully combined in a nice stir-fry
but instead get served four separate plates of food, which is of course
four times the volume of food you wanted. I soon learned to indicate that
I wanted everything “together”. Well, I hadn't learned yet and four separate
plates of vegetables appeared. No, I did not complain and send it back.
After all, I pointed to four things and I got four things. It’s not their
fault they’re not mind readers.
the sidewalk a number of vendors had cots set up displaying their offerings.
Most of them were selling jewelry and assorted crafts. Oh, wow, cool,
authentic Bai minority crafts, wow! Forget it, these things are as bogus
as a three-dollar bill. The most common item is silver jewelry. Not only
are vendors lined up along the sidewalk with the jewelry, still more walk
about the village offering the jewelry to any foreigner they meet. Most
pieces will fetch (or so they try) from Y50 to Y100 depending on the stupidity
of the buyer. You see, the stuff isn’t silver it’s brass and they get
it for pennies a kilogram. I wouldn’t care so much that they’re getting
a 50,000 times mark-up, but that they lie about what they sell. They’ll
swear to their dying breath the stuff’s silver. And on top of all that,
they’re annoying, too.
didn’t take long for one of these ubiquitous souvenir vendors to locate
me. As I’m about to start in on my four mounds of vegetables one of the
vendors sits down at my table.
also has a pair of annoying shoeshine guys. At one street corner works
a whole group that serves mostly the local Chinese, cleaning and repairing
shoes for reasonable prices. While they’ll certainly solicit any foreigner
that walks by, they don’t go looking for them. But two guys work around
the cafés of Huguo Lu talking up the foreigners at prices ten times what
the guys down the street get. They’d be no bother except they were under
the belief that if you didn’t want your shoes cleaned now you’d certainly
want them cleaned in fifteen minutes. I finally gave both of them lectures
about the real meaning of ‘no’ and they eventually left me alone.
the historical atmosphere of Old Dali is preserved, this is only applicable
to the two square miles or so within the city walls. The rest of the area
is open season for construction and it’s coming along quite nicely, thank
you very much. Dali was a dustbowl. Peaceful rural bike rides a la Yangshuo
weren’t possible. Not only was the dust choking, but leaving Dali north
or south required navigating a busy highway where trucks bombard me with
a constant blaring of horns. Off the highway are a number of small village
lanes but they quickly deteriorated after a few hundred meters at great
expense to the comfort of my wrists.
But the center of Dali, except for the dust, is still an attractive old city with plenty of traditional Chinese architecture and busy street markets. I devoted the remainder of my first afternoon in Dali to walking around this old town and orientating myself. Several main streets have been closed off to vehicular traffic, Huguo Lane and also the main east-west street, Fuxing Lu, which due to its generous width is now a large pedestrian plaza. Several magnificent gates that are presently receiving extensive restoration mark the entrance to the city. I also continued to wonder where all the mountains were. There were supposed to be 4,000-meter mountains behind the city but extremely hazy dusty conditions concealed them. But if I couldn’t see the mountains I could certainly see the tour groups. Dali is a very popular destination with the Chinese, hence large groups of florescent hat-clad Chinese can be seen wandering the old streets of Dali.
was awoken early the next morning by shouts and chanting that seemed to
come from some compound adjacent to my guesthouse. This yelling would
begin daily shortly after 6:00 a.m. Turns out, the PLA (People’s Liberation
Army - the Chinese military) had barracks next to my guesthouse. Popular
activities of the PLA, aside from running a multi-billion dollar business
empire, invading city squares, and pointing missiles at Taiwan, are marching
and shouting. I saw and heard a lot of both in Dali, sometimes simultaneously,
as a group of soldiers marched through the streets carrying shovels, pick-axes,
and other decrepit garden tools setting out to do the People’s work.
breakfast I rented a bicycle and set out to see all the great scenery
that is supposed to be around Dali. I could at least now verify that the
Cangshan Mountains were in fact still there and that the marching soldiers
with the shovels and pick-axes had not torn them down. But within a few
hours the haze and dust kicked up by all the construction pretty much
I started by heading north with the plan to go as far as the spirit moved me. However the spirit was usually a ten-wheel truck with a loud horn. This got old quickly and there was no other alternative. Although there were little back roads that headed towards the mountains they soon turned to bumpy dirt lanes that were a nightmare on my wrists. Other lanes disappeared into fields becoming completely impassable, but I did find some respite from the clamor of the highway by spending about an hour lazing upon a rock in one of those fields.
Just north of town are the Three Pagodas. These are three pagodas (duh!) with the oldest being nearly 1,000 years old. The oldest is a thin, almost obelisk-like structure built in sixteen tiers and standing 230 feet in height. Two shorter, ten-tiered towers of 140 feet each, stand nearby. The guidebook advice is they are far more impressive seen from afar than up close and personal. Seeing as the pagoda complex carried a Y20 ($2.50) price tag I decided not to verify if this advice was true or not. I opted instead to ride around the back streets surrounding the pagodas attracting the giggles of the local children.
was a nice little village of old houses with traditional roofs, white
walls concealing intimate courtyards, and narrow cobblestone lanes. Once
back on the highway I found a good vantage point for photographing the
pagodas. Unfortunately it was also at the entrance of another PLA compound
where just showing my camera brought loud protests from the guards standing
out front. But I did find an almost equally suitable spot down the road
that wasn’t fronted by a PLA compound.
then turned east and rode down towards Erhai Lake. The haze was already
beginning to envelop the mountains so perhaps the lake would provide something
more scenic. Getting to the lake first requires navigating some of Dali’s
old village streets until coming to a brand new highway. I crossed the
highway and then rode along a gravel road for a mile or two through fields
growing whatever. Then by the lake is another small village that was wonderful
to explore on bike despite one xenophobic dog which I successfully outran.
If the souvenir vendors in Dali are annoying there’s another annoyance by Erhai Lake: boat operators. Along the shore are scores of people ready to ferry tourists across the lake, a relatively popular excursion that I never took. Along the waterfront are small walls suitable for sitting upon and watching life along the lake. But once on one, I became an easy target for the boat operators. Previously they were easily avoided as I was on a bicycle and they weren’t. One of the operators broke the sacred Gordon rule: sitting down between myself and a scene I was trying to photograph - a young boy who was standing on the wall looking out upon the lake. Once I chased off the vendor the boy was of course, gone, now joined up with three friends preparing to launch an inner tube into the lake with the three of them on it.
Though the air was clear enough to see across the lake, about three miles, looking north or south yielded nothing but water disappearing into the haze. Erhai Lake averages about three to four miles in width and is about 25 miles long, making it China’s seventh largest lake. I sat and relaxed at the edge of the lake for about an hour regularly chasing off the “boat, boat, want boat?” people.
returned to Dali for a late lunch and then headed south. I stopped by
a small snack shop to buy a bottle of water replacing the one I had just
finished. I motioned to the women about a place to dispose of my old empty
bottle. She took the plastic bottle from me and with a laugh tossed the
thing in the road as if to say ‘how could you be so silly?’. Yup, I was
back in China. Unfortunately, litter is a major problem in China. Most
Chinese seem to think it’s perfectly okay to throw garbage anywhere -
in the street, out the bus or train windows, wherever. After all, it so
often magically disappears. But in reality a lot of it doesn’t, and any
bike ride along one of China’s highways confirms this.
China one often encounters some rather comical translations of Chinese
to English, some decipherable, some not. One of the more interesting ones
can be found on a sign outside a hotel in Dali just outside the southern
gate. At the Chahua Hotel the sign reads (exactly): “Consitof Normal Bester
Room Stop. bath”
Back in Dali I walked around a little, stopping to take a few photos here and there. In the evening I sat at a café chatting with a group of other foreign travelers, several of whom had been in Dali before. They all agreed that Dali was losing its appeal. The air was dirtier, the streets were more crowded, the opportunists were more plentiful, and the guesthouses were deteriorating.
is also facing new competition for the backpacker market as Lijiang, a
cleaner more scenic alternative just a few hours to the north, is now
siphoning off many of the longer stays. Many backpackers looking for a
place to settle in for a week or ten days are turning to Lijiang now.
There are now three legitimate backpacker ‘hangouts’ in China: Yangshuo,
Lijiang, and Dali. In terms of popularity the consensus places Yangshuo
first, Lijiang second, and Dali now a solid third. Having spent time in
all three places I agree completely, with Yangshuo my runaway favorite.
Of course no discussion about Yangshuo would be complete without a few
comments about Guilin.
Last year as I traveled about China, I hadn’t yet experienced the horrors of being an independent traveler in Guilin. This year I knew better. It came as no surprise then, that in Dali, Lijiang, or anywhere I was talking with other experienced independent China travelers, nobody seemed to recall having a good experience with Guilin and we all delighted in exchanging our horror stories of rip-offs, slimy touts, aggressive prostitutes, and the like. I also happily related my tales to travelers not yet familiar with Guilin, advising anyone upon arrival in Guilin to immediately grab the first minibus to Yangshuo.
haggard old woman with torn clothing and tattered shoes wanders the streets
of Old Dali. “Hey, lao wai,” (a Chinese word for foreigner) she yells
in an ill-mannered voice, pointing to her torn shoes and dirty old toes
before sticking her hand out. One foreigner who had been coming to Dali
every year or so for the last ten years laid into her, “Haven’t you died
yet? Why don’t you go find a toilet and flush yourself down. Do us all
a favor. Just die, okay?” He turned to the several shocked faces looking
at him and proceeded to tell us a few tales of her and a few other old
beggar ladies in town. “You know, last week someone bought that old witch
a new pair of shoes. You know what the old #%$@ did? Sold ‘em, that’s
what she did. Hell, I used to buy her and the others sodas. I always wondered
why they never opened them. Found out the #%$@s were selling them. Next
time I bought them drinks, I opened the cans. You shoulda seen their faces.
Now I don’t buy ‘em anything, the old bitches. Hope she does everybody
a favor and dies tomorrow. Hell, that woman’s got a bank account with
more money then most of the people out here working for a living.”
around the outdoor cafés created another tourist attraction: us. Countless
times a group of perhaps four or six of us foreigners would be sitting
at a table eating food and drinking beer when along walks a Chinese tour
group. One, two, maybe three of them would stop and start photographing
(or filming) us. Personally, I’m not really bothered by it except for
the utter lack of tact displayed by some of these people. Granted, I do
a lot of photography of people but I at least knock my shots off in a
second or less. But we’d be sitting at a table when some guy would stop
ten feet away pointing his camera at us and spend fifteen seconds, twenty
seconds, a minute diddling with it. Absolutely no discretion whatsoever.
For the most part I just laughed it off but some of the others sitting
at the table were less amused. In response I took my own camera, 300mm
lens, and pointed it back at the camera-toting tourists who really couldn't
have cared less that I did.
haze and dust were no better the next day. Even the local café owners
were complaining about the dust, adding that the rising popularity of
Lijiang wasn’t helping their business either. But committed to another
day in Dali I rented a bicycle again, and again I didn’t get far. I found
a stream that I wasn’t able to find the previous day that could be followed
by foot to the base of the mountain. But I would have had to abandon my
bike to follow it, so I repeated yesterday’s activity of sitting in the
middle of a field. This time I took a short nap, an activity I noticed
an elderly farmer across the stream partaking in as well.
my bike ride this day, I met a young Russian on a five-month bicycle tour
of Asia. He was actually Latvian but had nothing good to say about Latvia.
He had Russian citizenship, was proud of it, and displayed the Russian
flag on the back of his bicycle. I only spoke with him briefly this day,
but did meet up with him again in Lijiang where we had a meal together.
He was a travel writer but I didn’t catch where in Russia he worked. It
didn’t seem important though; his real office was his bicycle. His route
was Malaysia -> Thailand -> Cambodia -> Laos -> China ->
Tibet -> Nepal -> India, finishing in Calcutta. He was an incredibly
friendly generous person who unfortunately departed as quickly as he came;
one of those people you meet every now and then and just wish you could
have gotten to know better.
two days and an afternoon I was thoroughly finished with Dali. I bought
an express bus ticket for the following morning to take me to Lijiang.
I was disappointed with Dali. Much of this disappointment can certainly
be traced to the incredible hype that’s been bestowed upon this old city.
Sadly, it would seem not to live up to this hype anymore, but it’s still
a nice place to visit. The old city really is charming and I’m sure there
are times of the year when the air is better. Unfortunately for Dali,
Lijiang also has an old city, even better natural scenery, and cleaner
air. Do I recommend Dali? Conditionally, yes. If you have the time, go.
But if you’re on a tight schedule I’d say skip it and go to Lijiang.
Second Visit, April 2002
Story continues from Zhongdian.
The bus driver assumed I wanted to get off at the old Dali and was a little surprised that I didn't, but I was only spending the night before I'd take a morning bus to Baoshan. Seeing as the buses leave from Xiaguan, the new and bigger Dali, it didn't seem to make any sense to hang out in the old Dali. I'd been there already and still thought it overrated.
Finding a hotel in Xiaguan was a little confusing because I was following LP guidebook advice. There are two similarly named hotels on opposite sides of the street. In English both hotels are called the Xiaguan Hotel, but in Chinese one is the Xiaguan Fandian and the other is the Xiaguan Binguan, as the Chinese have words to distinguish in greater detail what kind of hotel it is, or more accurately supposed to be, for as a westerner you'll be forgiven for not noticing a difference. The Xiaguan Fandian seemed like the better deal but in trying to match up the Chinese characters in the LP book with the Chinese characters displayed on the building and asking a couple of the guys I rode on the bus with which was which, it was only determined that the guidebook had it all backwards. So I walked into the Xiaguan Fandian, hoping it wasn't the Xiaguan Binguan, but at least knowing with full confidence I was walking into the Xiaguan Hotel.
Y188 the woman, speaking adequate English, tells me the room rate is. I try a little bargaining and rather than offering a lower rate she suggests I go to another hotel. I tell her that's a silly idea to which her response is to give me a room for Y130. That was easy. Very nice room, too. Entry to the room is by key card and in reference to the key card a sign informs you to "make amends if you lost."
Around the corner from the hotel are numerous point and eat restaurants so I chose one at random, pointed, and ate.
A wonderful new highway will very soon connect Xiaguan and Baoshan (and may be open by the time you read this) and numerous times I looked down in envy at the nearly completed road, all the while we were winding our way up and down and around mountains and slow trucks and livestock and all the other things that slow speeds to an average of 30 km/hour in many parts of China.
Story continues in Tengchong-Baoshan.
Beijing / Chengdu / Dali-Xiaguan / Deqin / Guangzhou / Guilin / Haba-Baishuitai / Hailuogou-Moxi / Hong Kong / Huashan / Kangding-Luding / Kunming / Lijiang / Shanghai / Simatai / Songpan / Suzhou / Tengchong-Baoshan / Tiger Leaping Gorge / Xi'an / Yangshuo / Zhangjiajie-Wulingyuan / Zhongdian
All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.