South of the Clouds: Dali, Yunnan, China

Pressed by Erhai Lake on one side and the Cangshan mountains on the other, Dali attracts both Western and Chinese tourists drawn to its scenic location and laid-back vibe. Here you’ll see long-haired Chinese hippies and Israeli backpackers throwing back beers in Dali’s many bars, as well old folks from the Bai minority group shuffling along the sidewalks. One of Yunnan’s most popular backpacker destinations, Dali has been on the travelers circuit for longer than most towns in the province.

We visited Dali twice in November, the first trip funded by WildChina. Here’s a little of what we experienced and learned in and about the popular destination.


First of all, there are two Dalis. Dali New Town (Xiaguan) sits about 30 kilometers south of Dali Old Town(Gucheng). Dali Old Town is where you’ll want to head. Here, the town’s original gates, invoking Dali’s grander years, mark entrances to a grid of streets. A few are pedestrian-only, and some are cobbled. Throughout the old town is a mix of new-old architecture; essentially, it’s full of newer buildings that are meant to look old. The result is definitely more attractive than regular new Chinese construction, but it can at times feel fake – especially since many of the shops sell the same mass-produced Chinese crap.

%Gallery-110391%Guesthouses, bars and cafes catering to travelers are clustered on and near what’s called “Foreigner’s Street.” You’ll find yummy home brew at the Bad Monkey as well as possibly the best Western food in Asia at Bakery 88.

Things to do and see

Walking around the old city is an activity in itself; the photogenic streets with rushing streams canal-ed on the sides are a good place to plant yourself and people watch.

Bicycles are for rent everywhere, offering the intrepid traveler (cycling in China is not for the unbrave) access to the countryside. Cycle out to the Three Pagodas, Tang Dynasty relics that are some of the best preserved Buddhist architecture in the country; the Central Pagoda is nearly 1200 years old.

Hike Cangshan mountain (more on this later). A chairlift and gondolas are separated by 11.5 kilometers of paved trail, so you can ride up, enjoy a mostly-flat path that winds in and out of steep, lush valleys, and then ride back down.

Go rock climbing. Climb Dali offers guide services and equipment to sites throughout the area, and even has a climbing wall.

How to get there

Dali is a 4-6 hour bus ride from Kunming, Yunnan’s capital. You can also catch regular buses to Lijiang. It has its own airport, with flights to Kunming, (and beyond, though most will stop in Kunming). Trains to Kunming and Lijiang are also available.

Note that the airport and train station are both in Dali New Town.

Read more about my travels in Yunnan here.

Though my trip to Dali was partially funded by WildChina, my opinions are all my own.