Yunnan Travel Guide

Dali & Er Hai

"Dali" inscribed at South Gate

Sandwiched between Er Hai to the east and the Cang Shan range to the west, the picturesque little town of Dali draws innumerable visitors. The old town, surrounded by the remains of the Ming city walls, is characterized by cobbled lanes and stone houses. In the nearby countryside, numerous Bai villages offer a glimpse into traditional culture, and are particularly interesting on market days. Other activities include hiking in the mountains, and watching traditional cormorant fishing on Er Hai. The best time to visit is during the Spring Fair, when hundreds of Bai come for five days of bare-back horse racing, wrestling, dancing, and singing.

Looking north over the city’s rooftops from Nancheng Men
Looking north over the city’s
rooftops from Nancheng Men

Visitors' checklist

  • 261 miles (420 km) NW of Kunming
  • 500,000
  • Xiaguan Airport, 18 miles (30 km) from Dali
  • to Xiaguan, then 30-min by bus to Dali
  • 49 Cangshan Lu, 0872 219 5635
  • Spring Fair (15th day of the 3rd lunar month – April or May)

Exploring Dali
Dali's old town center, just 1.5 sq miles (4 sq km) across, can be explored in a single morning. It takes about half an hour to walk from the South Gate to the North Gate across town. There is plenty to interest visitors, from small souvenir shops to teahouses and traditional masseurs. Crowds of shoppers and farmers also arrive here for the weekly Friday market. The best vantage point is at the top of Nancheng Men (South Gate), from where there are views to Er Hai and Cang Shan.

Huguo Lu & Fuxing Lu
Running east-west through the center of town, Huguo Lu, nicknamed Foreigners’ Street, is full of guesthouses and cafés that serve pizzas and cappuccinos. Most of the old town’s sights lie along the main north-south artery, Fuxing Lu. The Drum Tower, lying close to the Dali Museum, once signalled the close of the city gates each evening. Farther north along Fuxing Lu, the square outside the library is a popular venue for a game of cards or dominoes. Still farther is the quiet Yu’er Park, full of fruit trees and ponds, while tucked away in the streets to its north is Dali’s Catholic church, with a Tang-era tiled roof and painted gables.

The Dali Museum, set in picturesque grounds
The Dali Museum,
set in picturesque grounds

Dali Museum

  • 8 Erhe Nan Lu
  • 8:30am–5:30pm daily

Just inside Nancheng Men, the Dali Museum was originally the mansion of the Qing governor, and later served as the headquarters of Du Wen Xiu, leader of the 1856–1873 Muslim Uprising. It is worth visiting for its tranquil courtyards, filled with bougainvillea and lantana. The huge bronze bell hanging outside in a pavilion came from the old Bell Tower. Inside, the most interesting relics are a collection of Buddhist figurines from the Nanzhao Kingdom, and statues of serving girls and an orchestra excavated from a Ming-dynasty tomb. A hall at the back houses copies of scroll paintings, including one depicting the founding of the Nanzhao Kingdom.

The Nanzhao Kingdom
In the 8th century, the Bai unified under a ruthless prince, Pileguo, who vanquished his rivals by inviting them to a banquet and setting fire to the tent. He then founded the Nanzhao Kingdom, with Dali as its capital. The city’s strategic location, in a valley shielded by mountains, helped protect it against two attacks by invading Tang armies, and established its control over the southern Silk Road trade. At its zenith, the kingdom stretched across Southwest China and into Burma and parts of Vietnam. It survived until the 13th century, when the Great Mongol Kublai Khan founded the Yuan dynasty.

San Ta

  • 1 mile (2 km) NW of Dali
The splendid San Ta just north of town
The splendid San Ta just north of town

The distinctive San Ta (Three Pagodas) that symbolize Dali once stood within the monastery of Chongwen Si, destroyed during the Qing dynasty. A 20-minute walk or short bus ride north of town, the pagodas are best visited early, before the tour buses arrive. The 16-tiered, square-based Qianxun Ta is the tallest of the three at 230 ft (70 m), and is also the oldest, dating to around AD 800. Each tier is embellished with fine marble figures. Buddhist relics including sutras (scriptures), copper mirrors, and gold ornaments were found during a renovation in 1979, and are displayed in a museum behind the pagodas. The two smaller octagonal pagodas were built in the 11th century, and are 138 ft (42 m) high. As well as serving as reliquaries, they were built to appease the gods and thus gain protection against natural disasters. The characters inscribed in front of the Qianxun Ta read "subdue forever mountains and rivers."

Zhonghé Si

  • W of Dali

Situated an hour’s walk from town, Zhonghe Si can be reached by heading past the small bridge to the north of Dali into the cedar and eucalyptus woods at the foothills of Zhonghe Feng. From here, zigzag paths lead up the mountain to the temple. An easier approach is via the chairlift from the main road. Originally built in the Ming-era, the temple has been reconstructed and serves both Daoists and Buddhists. The views from here over the lake and town are superb. Locals offer horse trips farther up the mountain, and for the ambitious, there is a 6-mile (9-km) hike along a stone path to Wuwei Si, where monks study tai ji quan. Visitors can stay the night before heading back.

Guanyin Si & Gantong Si

  • Approx 3 miles (5 km) S of Dali

Dedicated to the Buddhist Goddess of Compassion, Guanyin Si sits at the foot of Foding Shan. It has a colorful new entrance, and within the grounds are fine wood and stone carvings. At the back of the temple, a 2-mile (3-km) path leads uphill to Gantong Si. Alternatively, you can hike the spectacular 7-mile (11-km) Jade Belt trail from Zhonghe Si. Once Gantong Si was the largest shrine in the area. Today, despite only two partially-restored halls surviving, the temple remains impressive.

Er Hai Area Map
Er Hai Area Map

Er Hai

  • daily

Located 2 miles (3 km) east of Dali, Er Hai (Ear Lake), a symbol of natural fecundity to the Bai, is named after its shape. The 25-mile (40-km) long lake has numerous ferry services and is home to 50-odd species of fish. Any café in Dali can arrange a tour on the lake; most trips usually involve visits to small temples, or excursions to scenic spots on the eastern shore. Visitors can also accompany a cormorant fisherman and watch the trained birds catch fish. A variety of tour boats, from big, virtual floating pagodas for large groups, to smaller craft, leave from Caicun on Er Hai’s western shore.

A fisherman and his cormorants in Er Hai’s jade waters, Dali
A fisherman and his cormorants
in Er Hai’s jade waters, Dali

Tours usually take in Jinsuo Dao, across the lake near its eastern shore. Once a summer retreat for Nanzhao royalty, it is now home to a fishing village. Farther north lies Xia Putao, a tiny rocky crag with a Buddhist temple.

At the southern tip of the lake, Er Hai Park was once a royal deer ranch during the Nanzhao Kingdom. A lush path leads up to a peak, which offers splendid views.

A Bai woman from Shaping
A Bai woman
from Shaping

Surrounding Villages
Dotting the shore of Er Hai are several villages worth exploring, especially on market days. One of the numerous minibuses, which congregate just outside Dali’s North Gate, can easily be flagged down as they hop from village to village. Lying 12 miles (20 km) north of Dali, Xizhou was an important military outpost during the Nanzhao period. Today, it has about 90 significant Bai mansions with rooms arranged around a courtyard. Most lie northeast of the central square, and one of them has been converted into the pleasant Tianzhuang Hotel. A few miles northeast of Xizhou is Zhoucheng, the largest lakeside Bai village with several tie-dye cottage industries. Just north of here, Shaping is a sleepy village that transforms into an indigenous metropolis every Monday, when it hosts a huge market. On sale are a variety of local produce and livestock, besides delicious wild honey, condiments, and traditional Bai clothing. The scale, bustle, and color make this one of the great highlights of the area.

On the eastern side of the lake, Wase village is a maze of narrow back lanes. It has a simple government guesthouse and its own Monday market, which is less touristy than the one at Shaping. Boats return to Dali from Haidong, 6 miles (10 km) south of Shaping.

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