Dip into this Chinese city's rich historical and cultural heritage as you soak up its scenic beauty.
IT was after midnight when our bus rolled into Dali on the Yunnan Plateau in south-western China. The streets were largely empty. The city was asleep. All was quiet and serene. Half an hour later, we pulled up at Haidu Hotel, where we were to spend the next three nights.
As we stepped out of the bus into the embrace of the cold spring air, we felt momentarily invigorated after a four to five hour bus ride from Kunming airport where we had landed in the evening. We were part of an AirAsia media familiarisation trip to Dali, a tourist hotspot near the foothills of the Himalayas.
Haidu Hotel is a charming cosy set-up resplendent with ornate wood carvings and traditional decor. As we treaded gingerly on the highly polished marble staircase en route to our rooms on the first floor, we were greeted every few steps by a sign that warned – Beware landslide (accompanied by an icon of a figure tripping). The message was clear, though. Something told me Dali was going to be an interesting learning experience, and so it was.
Dali stands at an elevation of about 2,000m, and lies 380km northwest of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. Dali city is the seat of the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture within Yunnan province. The fascinating dichotomy of Dali can be seen in its new district and ancient city (also known as Dali old town).
Drive through the new district, known as Xiaguan, and its gleaming skyscrapers, shopping centres and fastfood outlets are reminiscent of any rapidly developing modern city. Head 13km north to the ancient city which was built during the Ming dynasty in 1382, and the pace and mood quickly changes. We were to get better acquainted with Dali’s old-world charm over the next couple of days.
Our tour of Dali kicked off with a trip up the Cangshan mountain – via chair lift – for a spectacular view of the sprawling city and Erhai Lake below. However, the chairlift service to the peak was suspended that morning due to wind conditions, so we stopped at mid-station (2,500m) at Zhonghe Temple.
The 20-minute ride had its moments as we looked out of our chair lift and caught glimpses of gorges hundreds of metres below. We gripped our seats as occasional gusts swept through the pine-clad mountain slopes, and our chair lift rocked gently. The sound of the mighty rushing wind remains one of my fond memories of Dali.
We couldn’t wait to get out of the chair lift onto the receiving platform at Zhonghe Temple. It was a lovely, blustery morning up in the mountain. Here, the replanted pine forests of the lower slopes had given way to lush, verdant jungle.
The Cangshan is a range of 19 peaks which stretch 45km from North to South, and form a stunning backdrop for Dali. The highest summit is Malong Peak at 4,122m; the other 18 peaks are all over 3,500m. Between every two peaks is a stream, and all 18 streams flow east into the ear-shaped Erhai Lake. The Cangshan mountain is noted for its rich and diverse flora, and has been classified as a geopark and nature reserve. Every precaution is taken to prevent forest fires. Lighters and smoking are strictly prohibited up in the mountains, and there are ample signs to remind visitors not to start any fire.
At Zhonghe Temple there are walking and hiking trails that offer an exhilarating workout. We walked part of the 14km Jade Cloud trail that winds round the curves of the mountain.
On our left were intriguing rock outcrops; on our right, a sheer drop with breathtaking views of gorges, pristine streams, waterfalls and mountain slopes bathed in the morning sun. The crisp cold air nipped at our faces as we savoured nature’s delights.
We took the cable car down when it was time to move on. This was a gentler route, and through the partially uncovered cable car, we could hear birds chirping throughout the ride down.
Our next stop was Shuanglang, an idyllic fishing village on the eastern edge of Erhai Lake. This vast expanse of water, covering 250sq km, is the second largest highland lake in China, after Dianchi Lake near Kunming.
For over a thousand years, the local Bai people made their living fishing in the lake, using cormorants. These water birds with long necks love to dive for fish. They are trained to return to the boat with their haul and to spit the fish out onto the deck!
A string is tied near the base of the bird’s neck so that it can hold the fish without swallowing it. This traditional fishing method remains a star attraction for the boatloads of tourists who take a cruise on the lake.
The lake remains an important food source for the locals. Throughout our stay, we were served the catch of the day from the lake, complemented by crisp local vegetables grown in the surrounding farmlands.
Shuanglang is served by only one narrow road which runs through the village. A walk through the labyrinthine alleys offers an interesting insight into the simple life of the Bai.
Given its tranquil lake setting against the imposing Cangshan mountain in the background, Shuanglang village is an ever-growing tourist attraction. The many guest houses, lodges, inns and hotels which have sprung up over the years give Shuanglang the feel of a village in transition.
Located about 20km north of Dali old town is Xizhou which is noted for its well-preserved Bai traditional houses. The Bai are one of the 56 ethnic groups in China. An estimated 80% of the Bai population of China lives in Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture. They account for more than one-third of Dali’s population of 3.5 million.
Xizhou was the commercial centre of the Bai minority during the Ming dynasty, thanks to its strategic location on the southern Silk Road. Bai merchants traded in tea, marble products and other goods throughout the region, and many wealthy families settled down in Xizhou and built beautifully decorated houses.
Xizhou has a cluster of over 100 stone and wood courtyard homes which enjoy national heritage status. Together they form an interesting showcase of the beautiful architecture of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Some of these houses are open to the public.
The amazing architectural details, upturned eaves, marble decorations and bright colours, give Bai-style buildings their distinct look. Most houses have hand-painted frescos – depicting animals and flowers – lining the upper walls, just below the roofline.
A typical Bai dwelling consists of a main wing, flanked by a left and right wing to form a U-shape, with a courtyard in the centre. The main wing sits opposite a white screen wall which faces east. This screen wall serves a practical purpose: to reflect light into the living quarters. Bai houses are painted white; the white walls double up as reflecting walls to bring in sunshine.
Our tour guide James Shi, 28, explained that it was common practice – even to this day – for four to five generations to live under the same roof.
We had a sampling of the Bai’s unique tea culture whereby guests are served three cups of tea. The first cup is bitter, the second sweet, and the third leaves an aftertaste, to symbolise that hard work is followed by the sweet taste of success which one can reflect upon in the later years of life.
And that aptly wrapped up our tour for the day.
The next day’s highlights included the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple, about 1km northwest of Dali’s ancient city. Located on the foothills of the 10th peak of Cangshan mountain, the Three Pagodas are flanked by nine peaks on each side.
The iconic pagodas have a history which dates back to the Tang dynasty, and are among the oldest structures in southwest China. Relics found in the pagoda and around the site, record the development of Buddhism in Dali.
The Three Pagodas form a symmetrical triangle. The main pagoda is 16 storeys high and stands at 69m. It is flanked by two smaller 10-storey pagodas, each 42m high. The smaller pagodas were built 100 years after the central pagoda.
Behind the pagodas is the Chongsheng Temple which was built during the Nanzhao kingdom when Buddhism flourished. Dali was the ancient capital of the Nanzhao kingdom during the 8th and 9th centuries.
After the fall of the Nanzhao dynasty, the kingdom of Dali was established. Nine of the 22 kings of Dali abdicated and became abbots in the temple.
The temple was destroyed during the Qing dynasty wars and was subsequently rebuilt. Today, this royal temple sits on a 40ha protected park.
Butterfly Spring at the foot of Yunlong Peak on the Cangshan range draws tourists just like it draws butterflies.
The 7m pool is fed by spring water that is so crystal clear that even the last pebble at the bottom is visible. The boughs of an old acacia tree stretch over the pool, providing copious shade below. During summer, when the tree is in full bloom, thousands of colourful butterflies converge here to form a spectacular sight.
It was spring when we visited Dali, and though it was too early in the year for us to be treated to this kaleidoscope of colours, Dali is certainly not short on colour. Dali dazzles with its intricate tapestry of colourful past which is woven into the fabric of its community today.
At a media briefing at the end of the two-day tour, Ma Jin Zhong, Deputy Director of Dali Tourism Board, proudly announced that Dali prefecture received 22 million tourists last year.
About 70% are domestic tourists. Given Dali’s rich historical and cultural heritage, and scenic beauty, one can only expect Dali to grow in prominence as a tourist hub in Yunnan province.
The writer’s trip was co-hosted by AirAsia and Dali Tourism Board. AirAsia flies from Kuala Lumpur to Kunming daily. Dali is a five-hour drive from Kunming, and 40 minutes by flight.