A thirty-minute local bus ride north of Xiaguan, DALI draws swarms of holidaying middle-class urban Chinese seeking an “old China” experience, while foreign backpackers drift through a Westerner-friendly theme park of beer gardens and hippified cafés. It’s not hard to see why people flock here: despite the tourist overkill along the main streets, Dali is pretty, interesting and relaxed, full of old houses and an indigenous Bai population rubbing shoulders with local Yi and Muslims. To the east lies the great lake, Er Hai, while the invitingly green valleys and clouded peaks of the Cang Shan range rear up behind town, the perfect setting for a few days’ walking or relaxation. Some visitors, seduced by China’s closest approximation to bohemia (and the local weed) forget to leave, and plenty of resident Westerners run businesses here.
There’s also much more to Dali than its modern profile. Between the eighth and thirteenth centuries, the town was at the centre of the Nanzhao and Dali kingdoms, while in the mid-nineteenth century it briefly became capital of the state declared by Du Wenxiu, who led a Muslim rebellion against Chinese rule. Millions died in the revolt’s suppression and Dali was devastated, never to recover its former political position. An earthquake destroyed the town in 1925, but it was rebuilt in its former style.
If you can, visit during the Spring Fair, held from the fifteenth day of the third lunar month (April or May). The event spans five hectic days of horse trading, wrestling, racing, dancing and singing, attracting thousands of people from all over the region to camp at the fairground just west of town. You’ll probably have to follow suit, as beds in Dali will be in short supply. In addition, an impressive but frankly scary Yi torch festival is held on the 24th day of the sixth lunar month – flaming torches are paraded at night, and people even throw gunpowder at each other.
Lying either side of Dali, Er Hai Lake and the Cang Shan Range can keep you busy for a few days, though the lake itself is probably of less interest than the villages dotting its shore. Some of these also host markets, full of activity and local characters, where you can watch all manner of goods being traded and pick up local tie-dyed cloth.