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Throwback Thursday: Dali, China (July 2010)

May 30, 2013

I’ve appropriated the recent social media rage #throwbackthursday to start a new weekly series!  Throwback Thursdays share pictures and information from some of my earlier travels between 2007 and 2010 that have yet to make it onto this site.  After a long blogging hiatus, this series is to catch you, my readers, up on these past travels, while using the rest of the blog to recount my more recent trips.

I am flying to Beijing tomorrow where I will begin a seven-week stint in Asia, so it seemed fitting to dedicate this Throwback Thursday to perhaps my favorite place in China: Dali.

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View of Erhai Lake and Three Pagodas

Like Lijiang, Dali is in China’s Yunnan Province and is well-known amongst backpackers on the “banana-pancake” trail in Asia.  Most people tend to prefer one over the other, and I absolutely come down on Team Dali.  While both boast fairly kitschy (albeit charming?) old towns, in my opinion Lijiang itself cannot stand up to Dali’s spectacular views and ideal location between the gorgeous Erhai Lake and Cang Mountain Range.

Plus, Lijiang does not have the absolutely amazing Sleepy Fish Lodge!

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Staying here was truly one of the highlights of our visit to Dali.  We opted for a private room with twin beds, which was a bit more than we usually paid staying in hostel dorms with four to ten beds, but well worth the extra money!  The Lodge’s roof terrace had phenomenal views, and most nights we had the place almost completely to ourselves, save for the incredible owners, local staff, and their adorable puppies!  I can’t recommend staying here highly enough, and it seems they continue to have a fantastic reputation on TripAdvisor and Hostel Bookers.

Old Dali is a fairly quiet town despite being popular with foreign and Chinese tourists alike.  While there aren’t a plethora of cultural activities, the Old Town, temples, and hiking trails are enough to keep most travelers occupied for a couple days, and many could lounge around the town or explore the area’s natural wonders for weeks.  Here were some of the highlights for us…

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Foreigner’s Street in Dali’s Old Town

1. Old Town Dali

The urban planning of Dali in recent decades has selected to keep the old and new districts of the city separate.  So, the old part of Dali remains relatively untouched by urban development and construction.  Despite this “protection,” the area has certainly been affected by the tourism industry and contains many “western-style” restaurants, bars, and guesthouses, as well as a “Foreigner’s Street.”

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There are also tons of tourist shops in Old Town that sell the typical tchotchkes, but some Bai minority handicrafts can be found.  Additionally, a stroll along the streets and some exploring will quickly reveal many tea houses, vegetable markets, and bodegas clearly intended for the local population.  This part of town is also perfect for people watching and gaining an understanding the daily routines of locals in Yunnan.

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The Three Pagoda’s at Chong Sheng Temple

2. Chong Sheng Temple

Just outside of Dali’s Old Town lies the base of the Chong Sheng Temple complex which includes the Three Pagodas, Dali City’s most famous landmark.  The pagodas were reportedly built in the 9th century by designers from Xi’an, China.  Local legend attributes the pagodas’ construction as an attempt by early inhabitants to pacify the dragons rumored to reside in the area.

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Entrance to Chong Sheng Temple complex

Behind the Three Pagodas and higher up the mountain side is the Chong Sheng Temple itself, also originally built in the 9th century.  This temple was once the royal temple of the Kingdom of Dali, the independent Bai Kingdom that was conquered by the Mongols and brought into the Chinese Empire in the 13th century.

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The Temple was destroyed in a fire sometime during the Qing Dynasty, but was rebuilt in 2005 and now includes a museum.

Though the admission price into the entire complex is a bit steep, the views of the Cang Mountains and over Erhai Lake are stunning as you climb from the base of the mountain near the pagodas up the multi-tiered temple grounds.  I loved watching the clouds settle along the mountaintops and how the brightly-painted architecture contrasted with the rich forest and striking blue sky behind.  I couldn’t have dreamt up such a picturesque view in all of my imaginings of China.

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Views from Jade Cloud Road in Cangshan National Park

3. Cangshan Mountain National Park

A little farther outside the city, is the Cangshan Mountain National Park.  Here, we set out along a paved walkway known as the Jade Cloud Road, which runs from the first chairlift station through the park.  Walking along this path, breaks in the treeline provided sweeping views of Dali City and Erhai Lake.  We also saw several waterfalls and scenic enclaves along the trail.

The park has two lifts, one will take you from the entrance near Old Town Dali to the beginning of the Jade Cloud Road and the other goes almost to the peak of Cangshan  (4122 m).  There are restaurants near the higher station, as well as a larger than life mahjong board.

As with most everything else we did in Dali, we saw very few (by Chinese standards) other visitors to the Park and most of the time had the trail almost entirely to ourselves.  This was certainly not our experience with Lijiang several days later, which is where I suspect most travelers have started to flock after Lonely Planet’s harsh treatment of Dali.

Overall, Dali is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been in China, and the laid-back atmosphere (yes, eating banana pancakes) could lure me back at any moment.

Have you ever been to Dali?  What were your thoughts and where do you stand in the Dali vs. Lijiang debate?

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