Not hippie, but still hip by Mike Peters (China Daily)
There are many getaways in China that promise to be far from the maddening crowd, where the living is easy, laid-back, like the old days. Few deliver a really relaxing experience the way that Dali does.
Some will laugh at that, since this ancient town in Yunnan province is hardly “undiscovered”. A Silk Road hub when the area was a separate (Nanzhao) kingdom a few centuries back, by the 1980s Dali had become “the original funky banana-pancake backpacker hangout in Yunnan”, the writers of the Lonely Planet guide say. “Loafing here for a couple of weeks was an essential Yunnan experience.”
Things have changed－most dramatically because Chinese tourists have also discovered the hippy-dippy old artists’ community that Western students have long sought as a rite of passage. But compared with the Disneyland veneer that nearby Lijiang has been given, Dali still has a lot of its old magic.
Yes, the usual Chinese snacks and shops selling Yunnan coffee and pu’er tea have become a little too numerous and repetitive in the charming old town. And gone are the colorfully dressed little old ladies who once openly peddled “Ganja! Ganja!” to tourists－that chorus so weirdly similar to the incessant “Lady bar! Lady bar!” one hears near tourist hangouts in Beijing.
But local snacks and crafts are still plentiful, and even within the well-preserved walls of the old city, visitors easily interact with locals in their daily life.
Get out of the city center and it’s even easier to blend into the local color.
The nearby old town of Xizhou, 18 kilometers away, is both a treasure trove of old Bai ethnic architecture and a pastoral escape into the near-countryside.
“It’s not on the way anywhere,” says Brian Linden, the outgoing American who runs the Linden Centre in Xizhou with his wife, Jeanee. “You can come here and just let yourself be absorbed into the rhythm of the community around you.”
If you’re a little shy－or language-challenged－the center can be your social launching pad. The Lindens operate a boutique hotel, a culture center and a study-tour education center for American high-school kids in three well-preserved and refurbished homes once inhabited by Bai nobles. The hotel is lovingly furnished with art and antiques with sleekly integrated modern bathrooms.
We spent a charming morning roaming the nearby produce market, a literal bazaar of fresh vegetables, tropical fruits, live chickens, dried spices, and vendors pressing pomegranates into fresh juice and rapeseed into cooking oil. Weston, our guide from the Linden Centre, also took us for leisurely strolls through a tie-dye market, a cheese-making center and a small noodle factory.
On another day, we followed Brian Linden and a visiting movie star to see local antiques dealers before joining a group heading for a family dinner to welcome home a returning student who had been studying in the US for a year. The center also offers small-group hikes to a nearby temple, a tea plantation and a 10-hour day hike up to a yak meadow on a nearby mountain.
The temple was typically charming, but stood out for its personality: At most Chinese temples, foreigners tend to stand aside as onlookers while locals burn incense and make offerings. Here the monks eagerly invited us to participate, showing us how to join in the rituals and, for a small cash offering, reading our palms afterwards.
We mixed these casual events with plenty of roaming on our own.
One evening walk took us to the studio of Bill Yu, who gives new life to old tree wood with his carvings of figures and faces. On another day we roamed through fields of fresh garlic until we came to Erhai, the huge lake that is the hub of life for Dali’s residents. After a quiet morning, we “went tourist”, joining a ticket line for a boating trip. That included an encounter with fishermen who put on a show with trained cormorants, “fish eagles” that dove for piscine treats and brought them back to the waiting boats. We had the option of cooking one for our lunch (100 yuan, or $16) once on shore.
In Dali proper, such touristy moments still pack charm, too. At the Dali museum, we enjoyed watching a lady in ornate Bai dress demonstrate how tea is packed into bell-shaped bricks for long storing.
The Three Pagodas, originally built in the ninth century, and the temple behind it are beautiful restorations of very distinctive architecture. The Catholic Church is a fusion of Bai architecture and European church design of a century ago.
There is a festive market open somewhere nearby every day. Regular festivals include July’s Torch Festival－a crazy scene in which revelers throw pine resin at the torches, creating little explosions and lively photo ops.
We ended our trip with a couple of nights at Jim’s Tibetan Hotel, a funky old favorite packed with delightful antiques and unusually tourist-friendly bathrooms. You can have a quiet Lao or Dali beer on the terrace outside your room, overlooking a pleasant garden, or enjoy the rooftop terrace and bar. Complimentary breakfast includes fresh local yogurt, fruits and huge crepe-style pancakes－the sort of pure, simple delight that makes Dali something special.