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Dali - Xiaguan

An "I'm not a tourist, I'm a traveler" kind of place ... as if there were a difference.

April 22-24, 1999
April 28-29, 2002

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.

Three 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.

But 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.

As 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.

Along 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.

It 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.
“Hello, you have a look?” She says, pointing to her wares laid out on a cot across the narrow lane.
“No, I’m eating.”
She was fortyish and dressed in the costume of the Bai minority. There are a lot of women in Dali dressed in traditional Bai costume. Most are souvenir vendors, tour guides, or hotel staff. If you want authentic Bai you have to either wait until market day or get way out into the surrounding area.
“Just a look, okay?”
“I’m eating.”
And so it went for the next few minutes. Finally she got the hint and left me alone, but she still kept a close eye on me. No sooner did I finish my meal that she’s right in my face imploring me to come look at her ‘silver’. I humor her by giving her about twenty seconds of my attention before walking away.
“Later, later,” I tell her.
For the entire following day, every time she saw me she reminded me of my promise to come by ‘later’. I explained to her that later simply means later and not to peg me to a time. When that didn’t work I told her I’d buy something from her the afternoon of the day I would be leaving not bothering to tell her that I was in fact leaving in the morning of that day.

Dali 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.

While 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.

I 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.

After 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 obliterated them.

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.

It 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.

I 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.

I 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.

Around 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.

Dali 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.

A 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.”

Sitting 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.

The 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.

During 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.

After 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.

April 28
The bus from Lijiang was a comfortable Iveco, a bus that seats all of sixteen people. As usual I was the only foreigner, but it didn't take long before I was the center of attention as several passengers spoke fairly good English, leading to a lengthy discussion of everything I ever thought about China and how China differs from the USA.

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.

April 29
The following morning I boarded an 8:45 a.m. bus (Y26) for what would be a six-hour bus ride to Baoshan. It was your usual 25-or-so seat bus with the floor jam-packed with goods. I strategically sat myself on the aisle availing myself of the reclining capabilities a floor raised a foot with lumber will provide. This bus did, unfortunately, have more than the usual amount of chain smoking passengers.

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

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All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.