Dali is one of the most popular tourist destinations in China. Located a few hours west of Kunming in Yunnan province, Dali has long been extremely popular with backpackers and has all the annoyances that brings with it. It is even more popular among Chinese tourists and has those annoyances as well. If you can look past all that, the surrounding area is beautiful and the Old Town, where most western tourists end up staying, is still very atmospheric. The New City, called Xiaguan, isn’t a bad place either. Despite everything you hear (and you will hear a lot) Dali is well worth a visit; I suggest going for a few days and making up your own mind.
Best Time to Go
A low latitude and a high elevation give Dali a very temperate climate, with short, mild and dry winters and warm, rainy summers. The weather is never all that unpleasant here, but the best times are just before and just after the rainy season, which runs from June to October.
Getting to Dali
Dali has an airport located east of Dali New City (Xiaguan) that handles flights from Kunming. Unless you have pre-arranged a pick up with a guest house, you will be forced to rely on the taxis. It is highly unlikely they will give you a fair price and even less likely they will take you to your guesthouse; you will probably end up at a place that pays them high commissions. I’d arrange to be picked up through your guest house.
If arriving by train, you can take bus number 8 or number 4 from just outside the Xiaguan Railway Station to get to Dali Old Town where the guest houses are. Both terminate at the West Gate, but only one (number 4, I believe) runs through the center of town. Not that it matters too much, as the town is small and walkable.
If arriving by bus, make your way to the train station by heading east along Jianshe Road and Dianyuan Road, either on foot or by public bus. You can take a taxi as well, but I would avoid them in Dali, if at all possible. From the train station, take the above-mentioned bus number 8 or 4. You can also catch one of the white minibuses on Jianshe Road, which will cost 3 Yuan to the Old Town. A taxi will cost around 40 RMB.
If you are arriving by bus from the north (Lijiang, Shangrila, Deqin), then there’s no need to head all the way into Xiaguan (the New City) and then making your way back north. Let your bus driver know you are heading to the Old Town and he will drop you off just outside the gates.
Dali Old Town is small enough to walk and that is generally the best way to get around. Public buses are easy to figure out and convenient too. Several guesthouses rent bicycles for 5-40 Yuan per day. Taxis within town cost 5 RMB, but they will ask for more. If you are heading elsewhere in the valley, I’d rely on buses, although many people enjoy biking to the lake and around its shores.
Dali is great for accommodation, with many options and some of the lowest prices in China. You can get dorm beds starting at 15 RMB and private rooms from 40. Most non-Chinese visitors stay in the Old Town and there’s a reason for that. The New City is really just like any other Chinese city. Stay in the Old Town.
I always prefer to show up somewhere without reservations and check out a few places in person before deciding where to stay. Due to the abundance of options in Dali, you can safely do the same, although the most popular places do fill up quickly. I was there during the busiest month and had to ask at a few places, before I found one with available rooms.
I ended up staying at the Five Elements Hostel and can highly recommend it. That said, there are a few other hostels in town that looked even better—specifically the Jade Emu International Guesthouse and the Lily Pad Inn & International Guest House, but they did not have any rooms available when I stopped by.
If you prefer to stay in Dali New City, the Four Seasons Youth Hostel is really nice and is located near the lake.
Eating & Drinking
Interestingly enough, western food is generally cheaper than Chinese food in the Dali Old Town. All the restaurants cater to tourists, so the Chinese ones charge inflated prices (the “English menu fee” that I’ve mentioned before). For more reasonably priced Chinese food, you will likely have to leave the Old Town area, although the food in the hostels isn’t generally too bad or too expensive. I just ate western food while I was there and switched back to Chinese in less touristy areas.
Beer in Dali is cheap, as it is everywhere in China. Bad Monkey was the most popular hangout for backpackers when I was in Dali, but you had to put up with the antics of the owners, which kept me away after my first visit.
As one of the most touristy of all Chinese cities and a “backpacker haven”, Dali is full of scammers. Thieves and pickpockets are also abundant, but none of this should be a problem if you take the standard precautions. Interestingly, as Dali attracts many budget travelers, especially of the hippie variety and many of them stay long term, your best chance of being robbed is actually at the hands of a fellow traveler in a cheap dorm room.
Don’t let the guys who come up to you around Foreigner Street fix your shoes. They will rip you off. If you really want to get shoes fixed (why this is something people feel the need to do in Dali, I will never know) go to an actual shoe shop on the east end of Renmin Road. They will likely quote a higher price (10 Yuan), but they will also charge that price, while the other guys will hold your shoes ransom for several hundred RMB.
There have been reports of robberies on the way up Cangshan Mountain to Zhonghe Temple. Go in a group and stick to the paths and you should be fine.
Things to Do
- Three Tang Dynasty Pagodas: perhaps Dali’s most famous site ; good views apparently, but I have a policy in China to avoid most of the standard attractions due to incredibly inflated entrance fees and this fits squarely on that list; located just northwest of Dali Old Town; entrance 121 RMB
- Cangshan (Cang Mountains): very popular mountains just behind Dali Old Town (read about my experience with the Chinese tourists on Cangshan); great views from the paved Cloud Traveler’s Path, which takes 3-6 hours to walk; you can climb up and down to the path, but the climb is nothing special and there have been reports of robberies on the paths up to Zhonghe Temple, so you might consider taking the chair lifts instead, although they are very expensive (apparently they’re up to 230 RMB now); it’s possible to spend a night on the mountain at a guesthouse behind Zhonghe Temple; you can walk from Dali Old Town to the Zhonghe Temple entrance and take bus #4 to and from the other entrance at Gantong Temple (taxis will be 15 and 30 respectively); entrance to the park is 30 RMB
- Jizu Mountain: located on the other side of Erhai Lake from Dali Old Town with many old temples on top and along the slopes; a difficult hike to the summit (3200 meters) and you’ll probably want to spend two or three days, but there is a cable car and the option to hire horses; take a bus to Binchuan from Xiaguan’s Northern Bus Station, then change to a minibus or another bus
- Erhai Lake Villages: 17 villages are spread along the western shore of Erhai Lake between Xiaguan and Xizhou; head east from Dali Old Town by bike or local bus to get to the village of Caicun then head north along the lake from there to get a great feel for local village life; avoid the touristy lake boats unless you have money to blow
- Shaping Market: a lively weekly market in Shaping town (30 km north of Dali) that starts quite early; market for farmers, including horse trade; ask your guest house which day it takes place
- Xizhou: this town 20 km north of Dali has close to 200 national heritage listed private houses from the Qing Dynasty; can be combined with a trip to Shaping Market; avoid the shopping place at the entrance that tries to charge you an entrance fee
Money Saving Tips
- arrange to be picked up from the airport before arriving
- take the public buses to get around and avoid the taxis
- avoid the Chinese restaurants in the Old town; stick to western food if eating there (this has to be the only time I’ve made that recommendation)
- walk up Cangshan and avoid the incredibly overpriced (apparently up to 230 RMB) chair lift; I took the chair lift, but it was only 50 Yuan at the time
- don’t bother with the three pagodas, unless you really want the same picture everyone else has (search Google images for an example)
- don’t take a boat on the lake; it is very popular with Chinese tourists and as such costs over ten times what it should and is not worth the money anyway