China #12: Trendy Dali Ancient City (大理古城)
Sights: Dali Ancient City & Around (大理古城)
Region: Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province
Dali Ancient City was popular with backpackers. As the title hinted, the ancient city was more hip with bars and cafes and had more backpackers than older folks pacing the streets. It was trendy, artistic and yet traditional at the same time. It is a city where backpackers came to take a break from travelling and laze around for days. Surprisingly, Dali Ancient City was not as crowded with Chinese tourists as the ancient towns in Lijiang (丽江, see Story #16).
The ancient city can be used as a base to visit nearby towns on day trips, such as Xizhou Town (喜洲镇), Shuanglang (双郎) and Weishan Ancient Town (魏山古城).
After bidding farewell to Jojo (from Taiwan) in Kunming City, I soon got acquainted with 3 independent Chinese travellers, who are also heading towards Dali. One of them was a Bai-Minority (白族) from Yunlong County (云龙县) and was returning home for a Bai festive event. He volunteered to show us around Nuodeng Ancient Village in Yunlong (see Story #13).
Getting From Kunming City to Dali Ancient City
The overnight train from Kunming City to Dali Railway Station was the most convenient as it saved us one night's accommodation. We deliberately chose the 11pm (last) night train so as not to arrive in Dali too early in the morning as the first bus to Dali Ancient City was around 6:30am.
After exiting from Dali Railway Station, which was in the new city, we took Bus service 8 outside the station to the ancient city about 18Km away.
Where I Stayed
Right after the bus turned off the main road and entered Dali Ancient City, we alighted along Yu'er Road (玉洱路) and walked over to an area with inns and hostels — one of the many backpackers' quarters in the city. We lodged at Half Time Hostel (大理慢半拍青年旅舍), which was newly-opened in 2012.
Location on Google Map.
Sights around Dali Ancient City
Dali Ancient City was not very big and could be easily covered on foot. We explored the city and various surrounding sites solely by walking. Other than the ancient city, the main attractions outside the city were Chongsheng Temple and Three Pagodas, Cangshan Mountain and Erhai Lake.
First, we checked out the ancient city, starting with one of its old gates and preserved city wall.
The ancient city had preserved the traditional architectural style of the Bai minority people. Even though the city was not really "ancient", neither was it very modern, and it did have a rustic feel.
There were streets with bars and cafes — mostly alfresco style. These streets became crowded and lively only after nightfall. We also had our share of pub-hopping in the nights.
There was also this handicraft street where beautiful artworks of the Bai people were put up for sales.
We also tried some specialty food and snacks that we could see along the streets. Yunnan has 18 oddities (云南十八怪) that are often used as gimmicks to attract visitors. Two of them are about Dali's specialty snacks.
Grilled rushan (烤乳扇) is cow's milk cheese that are traditionally made by Bai minority people. The mainly-milk ingredient are made into flat pieces. When served, they are grilled and rolled up in a stick. "牛奶做成片片卖" means "milk are sold in flat pieces".
Another "weird" specialty is called erkuai (饵块), a type of Yunnan rice cake. In Dali, the rice cake is usually made into thick, flat, round bread and used to wrap around meat and veggies before eating — like an open-ended spring roll. In other southern provinces of China, the bread is called "baba" (粑粑) but in Dali, it was called erkuai because of its shape that looked like an ear — thus "米饭粑粑叫饵块".
Apart from the two weird specialties, we also tried Weishan ersi (巍山粑肉饵丝) and Xizhou baba (喜洲粑粑). Both are specialties in Weishan County and Xizhou Town respectively but were available in Dali Ancient City.
Chongsheng Temple & Three Pagodas Cultural Area (崇圣寺三塔文化旅游区)
The symbolic Three Pagodas of Dali were often used in travel materials to draw visitors to Dali. But it is not a tour area of its own. The Three Pagodas were part of the Chongsheng Temple Cultural Area (CNY121 for individual traveller) to the north of the ancient city.
The entrances into the ancient pagodas were all sealed up. These pagodas were more than a thousand years old and had survived some major earthquakes in Dali.
Behind the Three Pagodas was Reflection Pond (聚影池) where the reflection of the three pagodas could be seen on the water surface.
Behind the Three Pagodas were two towers aligned front to back to each other: Tower for the Large Jianji Bell of Nanzhao (南诏建极大钟) and Tower for the Bronze Rain Statue of the Goddess of Mercy (雨铜观音铜像). Photo below was taken from inside the bell tower — the tower in the middle houses the bronze Goddess of Mercy and Chongsheng Temple is behind it.
And this was the entrance to Chongsheng Temple.
We did not enter the temple compound to check it out. The original Chongsheng Temple was razed to the ground by Qing army during the Qing Dynasty. The current temple complex was restored in 2005.
Well, thinking back now, I felt it was a waste of money to visit this place.
Jinjia God of Fortune Temple (金甲财神殿)
We visited Jinjia God of Fortune Temple, to the west of Dali Ancient City, as an alternative to Cangshan National GeoPark (苍山国家地质公园), a national-level geopark and nature reserve. For some reasons, the hiking paths were closed and visitors were asked to use the cable car — we did not like the idea of checking out a park in cable cars so we gave it a miss.
The Jinjia (gold-armoured) God of Fortune Temple was at the foot of Cangshan Mountain and not far from the entrance to Cangshan Cable Car. It was built by the Bai people.
This Taoist temple was interesting in a sense that it worshiped the God of Fortune — which is of Han Chinese origin. The inner premise was surrounded with Tibetan prayer flags.
Since we were here, we prayed for good fortune.
Cangshan Mountain & Erhai Lake (苍山洱海)
The two natural scenic areas around Dali Ancient City are Cangshan mountain range to the west and Erhai Lake to the east. Exploring both places would take a day each.
As mentioned earlier, we skipped going up Cangshan (苍山).
We also dropped the idea of touring Erhai (洱海). The best spot to check out the beautiful scenery of Erhai was said to be in Shuanglang Ancient Town (双廊古镇, see Story #15) but it was located on the other side of the lake.
My travel companions preferred to head for Nuodeng Ancient Village in Yunlong County (云龙县诺邓古村) before continuing to their own destinations. I went with them to visit the ancient village too but doubled back to Shuanglang Ancient Town 3 days later on my own.