Upon first sight, the ancient town of Dali seems a place out of legend. To the west, the town rears up to the mist-capped Cang Mountains (Cangshan), whose lush forests and hidden pools and waterfalls seduce travelers into adventure in the Yunnan clouds. Eastern Dali is framed by the pristine Erhai Lake, a place where Bai natives in brightly colored headdresses fish from wooden canoes using trained osprey – a tradition dating back thousands of years. And then you have the old town itself, characterized by cobbled streets webbed among creaky tiled-roof folk houses, open-air stores selling exotic artwork, vibrant clothes and rich-scented Yunnan coffee beans. Don’t forget the sandal-wearing locals either, whose slow-paced attitude reminds you to “relax, you’re in Dali.”
Fortunately, the backpackers’ haven that is Dali has so far been (relatively) spared of the tourism affliction that has morphed other Yunnan gems like Lijiang. The local vibe is alive and well here, in spite of the fact that domestic tourists have caught the Dali bug in the last decade. Still, seeing tourists dump trash on a gorgeous Cangshan mountain path is not a rare sight, and you should be prepared for such things to make your blood boil. Make time to get further into the mountains than most domestic tourists dare (which isn’t that far), and hop on a bike to cruise the little villages that dot Erhai Lake.
This area was formally known as Jumie (苴咩) and was once the ancient capital of both Nanzhao (of the Bai kingdom era – during the 8th and 9th century), and the Kingdom of Dali during its three-hundred year plus reign between 937-1253.
The two main ethnicities in Dali are the Bai and the Yi. It was the dominant Bai who settled in the region around 3,000 years ago and eventually threw out the reigning Tang Dynasty to establish the flourishing medieval Nanzhau Kingdom during the 8th and 9th centuries. The domain grew to become the Kingdom of Dali until 1256 when the Mongolians came crashing through to establish their powerful Yuan Dynasty.
There was a time during Yunnan’s autonomous period when the seat of power was entrenched in Dali. These days in resides in Kunming, and the foresighted government made sure the new city of Dali was built well away from the old town to preserve the folksy appeal.
Despite its tiny population of just over half a million, the area is famed for its production of high-quality marble and tea products, nowadays Dali is considered one of the most appealing destinations within Yunnan.