Old China: Disney-fied

What is it about fame that changes people…or towns for that matter? As if I hadn’t experienced enough of a town gone famous in Lijiang, I’m now getting a full dose of it in Dali (pronounced Daw-lee), another of Yunnan’s “must see” sights. Touristy barely begins to describe this town (and Lijiang, for that matter); it has a Disneyland-like feel to it, even down to the faux stone streets that are actually textured cement! Yes, this old town, just like Lijiang’s, has been spruced up for the tourists and throws its heart and soul into giving them everything they would stereotypically want. I can’t even begin to count the times I’ve been approached by a local woman (child in tow, nonetheless) saying, “Hello? Smokey?”

The good news though is that Dali has some real redeeming qualities that I was unable to find in Lijiang. Tourists here stick primarily to the walled old town’s main street and the one block to the west of it, leaving plenty of untouched, authentic life to be found. Just wander down any street heading east and soon it will be just you and the locals with not a souvenir shop to be found. This is where Dali’s true charm comes out!

Unfortunately, Dali’s old town and new town are not located right next to each other, as they are in Shangri-La and Lijiang. In fact, they’re some 20km apart and new Dali is in fact called Xiaguan (except nobody calls it that). So after a truly beautiful 3 hour bus ride that passed countless individuals working away in the newly flooded rice paddies, I spent 20 minutes on the back of a motorbike getting to the Dali I actually wanted to see!

While Lijiang’s strong minority were the Naxi, Dali’s are the Bai, which actually means the architectural style is significantly different here. (I should take this opportunity to note that the vast majority of Chinese are ethnically Han, who make up something like 92% of the population.)

Dali’s star attraction is the nearby “Three Pagodas,” whose name is fairly self explanatory. These pagodas stunningly date back to the 9th century (having survived the Cultural Revolution unscathed). I went to check them out, though the hefty admission fee (121 RMB or almost US$18) was enough to keep me outside the gates, especially considering that you can’t even go inside the pagodas themselves! $18 for a closer look when I could see them perfectly fine from the street? No thank you!

The old town of Dali is situated amongst some truly stunning scenery, with epic peaks to the west and one of China’s largest lakes (Erhai Lake) to the east. The whole area is surrounded by supposedly lovely (and more authentic) Bai villages. This is a wonderful place to get a bike and go exploring. Unfortunately, as I’m still on the road to recovery, I figured it was probably best to take it easy during my time here. Maybe next time…

While I have certainly rather enjoyed my time in Dali, today I move on to my penultimate Chinese destination…Yunnan’s provincial capital, Kunming.

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