Is Dali, Yunnan the very best place in the world to visit right now?

It has just that right mix of exotic and comfort, and is mostly unfrequented by Western tourists.  You can spend a day in the center of town and not see ten of them.  Here are a few points:

1. Except for the rainy season, the weather is perfect pretty much every day, all year round.  Unlike much of China, there is virtually no air pollution.

2. The town is set on a gorgeous lake, backed by lovely green mountains.  Dali has about one million people, and so it feels very manageable.  Yet it offers virtually every amenity and convenience.

3. Driving to the local villages around the lake is highly worthwhile.  Track down the local ceremonies and rituals.

4. The town and the surrounding region is full of ethnic minority groups, most prominently the Bai.  You can eat their food and buy their crafts.  There are other minority groups too, including various kinds of Muslims.  This is where Han Chinese and southeast Asian and Tibetan influences intersect.

5. The local cuisine features fish soups, cured ham, flowers, lotus root, and mushrooms mushrooms mushrooms.  For breakfast, bread is served with honey.  You can’t get these dishes anywhere else, not even in other parts of China, and yet none of this food is expensive.

6. You can stay at a luxurious five-star Hilton for $130 a night, or spend less and still do well.

7. The old town has crafts and curios and clothes shopping at very good prices.

8. The level of crime and other mishaps is extremely low.

For a good treatment of all of Yunnan, I recommend Jim Goodman, The Exploration of Yunnan.  Here is Wikitravel on Dali.


Peter Goullart, Forgotten Kingdom, is a fascinating account of his time in Yunnan before the Communists took over. Yunnan has many ethnic minorities and different climates depending both on latitude and altitude. I found Yunnan to have more air pollution than I had expected, perhaps due to the fact that I visited at the end of the dry season.

Some recommendations:

* Rather than staying in Dali Old Town, spend the night in one of the surrounding villages, where you'lI be exposed to the culture of local ethnic minorities and the agrarian roots of the region. One recommendation is Xizhou. It has gorgeous small alleys, beautiful temples and food markets with local old ladies in traditional garb buying groceries. There are barely any tourists. Rent a bike or scooter, spend at least a few hours in Xizhou itself, then find your way along ErHai lake to the other surrounding villages. Be observant, some of the nicest neighbourhood temples are hidden in uninviting alleys or behind large wooden doors. Locals are very welcoming.
A good place to stay in Xizhou is Linden Centre, based it a beautiful listed building. Ask for a tour of the owner's collection of Chinese antiquities.

* Dali Old Town is separated from the city itself. However, for a dedicated tourist venue it feels quite charming. While still very commercial, contrary to many gimmicky Chinese 'Old Town™'s, the one in Dali is able to attract Chinese youth coming from afar to set up coffee shops, restaurants, galleries etc. Be sure to wander off the main commercial streets. A great place to try the local cuisine is ShiJing (石井私房菜), ideally bring someone who can speak Chinese.

* If you're finding your way to Lijiang, which is what you should be doing (even if only for Tiger Leaping Gorge), consider stopping by Shaxi 沙溪, which is on the way between Dali and Lijiang. Find your way to the surrounding villages. A good place to stay is Old Theatre Inn, a small hotel set in a gorgeous old theatre temple. Make a day trip to nearby ShiBaoShan 石宝山, a nature reserve with some remarkable 1200y old sculptures of the NanZhao kingdom. One of those is a shrine to the vagina, quite unique in the buddhist world. The large and detailed depiction of the nether organ is now dyed-black, because of the centuries old custom of sending newlyweds to the statue to rub oil over the statue, guaranteeing easy childbirth. The custom is no longer allowed.

Thanks for this! Made me start dreaming of a trip to Yunnan sometime soon.

Elevation 2,007 m (6,585 ft) -- higher than Denver, lower than Santa Fe or Aspen.

So take it easy your first night there due to the altitude, but most people will feel fine the next morning.

A lot of spectacular bridges have been built recently in Yunnan: I don't know if any are close to Yali. Here's a list of the world's highest bridges:

"For breakfast, bread is served with honey": how exotic. Worth travelling thousands of miles for, that. Next you must try cheese and honey sandwiches, a favourite from my hill-walking days. Also suitable for pony-trekking.

Come to think of it, are those attractive mountains in China suitable for pony-trekking? Couldn't there be a good tourist business in that? I give you this entrepreneurial idea free of charge. Get on with it and prove yourself a practical economist.

But the bread was artisanal with genuine flakes of stone and rusk from State bakery #2541, and the honey came from impossibly exotic Asian bees which work much harder than western bees. They are not complacent.

"State bakery #2541" I see you have not updated your understanding of China since the 1970s.

I'm so complacent. *sob*

Do the natives do little dances for money?

Yep. Unlike dumb Brazilians who dance for free.

Brazilians dance for free because Brazilian dance, as Brazilian music, is a expression of joy and a representation of Brazil's highest values. We do not have to pick the pockets of gullible tourists to feed ourselves. Not all Brazilians dance for free, though.

Dali is indeed lovely, as is Lijiang. A cold beer with a small plate of dried yak meat is one of the best pleasures available to man.

Dali used to be full of white kids smoking pot 10 years ago, apparently they've cleaned that up.

I was surprised at the low-tourism claim as it was very much on the backpacker map ten years ago.

The smugness on this blog really kills me sometimes.

They have luxury hotels in Dali now? How sad.

Great idea. thanks

You can see old Naxi men writing with last hieroglyphic language still in use. Supposedly only a few dozen of them are left and the written language may no longer be used at some point in our lifetimes.

"You can eat their food and buy their crafts. There are other minority groups too, including various kinds of Muslims."

This part, in particular, sounds like it came from a 7th grade class presentation.

I spent 4 nights in Dali in 2008. I had planned to spend only 3 but the hostel I stayed at was great, as was the food, the climate, and the huge number of things to do there. For me, Yunnan has the best produce in china (especially mushrooms), and the best climate, and the best air quality. Dali is my favorite place in Yunnan (although Lijiang is also great, if a bit Disneyworld like in its old town...) (The amount of English there is also much higher than in most of the rest of china!)

Does Tyler speak more than tourist Chinese, as in if I wanted to rent a car and wander around China, presumably with some very flexible pre plan. would I have a good time? I guess if someone other than Tyler knows, that would be fine with me.

Also, just got back from Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. PEI was especially great. Know what PEI mussels means now. Had a feeling that I was in Nantucket/Martha's Vineyard/the Hamptons circa 1920. If one like econotourism and is interested in agriculture it's great for that too. Halifax in building boom, do not know why, but so many cranes that I'd say a crash is foreordained. Two thumbs up.

Great place in China.
I wanna go to there.

Munchies produced a good feature on the growing coffee culture in Southern Yunnan:

It's a nice time capsule for a fast changing region.

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