Dali is one of those places that I really hoped I wouldn’t dislike. Its description in the guidebooks made it sound so pleasant a town—except for one thing—the growing number Chinese tourists. Well, there were tons of tourists, but Chinese tourists seem to stick together in group tours and don’t drift very far from the main tourist drag. There is one long pedestrianized street in Dali where the masses appear to meander slowly, stopping and shopping as they go. This street has been architecturally prettied and is crammed with one souvenir shop after another. Turn off this main artery and the city becomes more interesting.
How Dali differs, from say, Lijiang, is that it is actually a city where local people live. In Lijiang, the entire old town population has been pushed out to who-knows-where in favor of tourist stalls, restaurants, and guesthouses.
Dali is a cool place to hang out for a while, and the only town in China that I could foresee myself living. It’s lively without being annoyingly noisy. There is a strong bohemian vibe which has attracted creative types from around China. You’ll find plenty of coffee shops, boutique clothe shops, art galleries, small cafes, live music, and plenty of artists.
Dali is set in an inspiring location. The spiky peaks of the Cang Shan and the stretching Er Hai lake make you want to get up in the morning and create beautiful things. Unlike most of China, the air is pure, the weather favorable, and the climate mild. It sits at about 2000 meters and hikes lead up into the mountains still higher. Inspiration abounds here.
In the surrounding areas on the west side of the lake are towns and villages holding weekly markets. This region is dominated by the Bai ethnic minority. There are great examples of Bai architecture in Xizhou and an interesting Monday market in Shaping.