Ask anyone who's been to Yunnan—particularly the mountainous western part of the province—to tell you about their trip and you'll probably get one of two responses: "Lijiang was tourist hell, but I could stay in Dali forever" or "Dali is a total trap; skip it and head straight to Lijiang for the real China." Am I Dali or Lijiang? And why are these cities so polarizing? These are western Yunnan's most popular destinations and anyone with a few days to spend outside Kunming will hit up either or both.
In some ways they're interchangeable: both walled cities feature old towns with slate roofs and cobbled streets, both are surrounded by impressive scenery, and both welcome guests with ethnic minorities dressed in traditional garb. Yet many visitors come away convinced that one represents traditional China while the other is a totally fabricated knock-off; just as many think it's the other way around. When I was planning a short Yunnan trip in December, I consulted a Norwegian friend who had spent an entire spring break hitchhiking around the province. He was way into Dali and thought Lijiang was fake and miserable. But my Latvian friend who had recently spent ten days in Yunnan swore Dali was the touristy nightmare and that in Lijiang he felt "sheltered from local people dressed up in national costumes asking money to take pictures with them at bus station." I didn't know whom to trust and knew I'd just have to find out for myself....
Contender No. 1: Dali
I hit Dali first because the bus trip was shorter. The express from Kunming takes five hours and is a great introduction to Yunnan. The landscape struck me as part Southern California and part Indonesia, with arid hillsides and terraced gardens behind small mud villages covered in florescent bougainvillea. Water buffalo patrolled the side of the road while women weeded vegetable patches with babies strapped to their backs.
The Dali-Lijiang debate seemed irrelevant: Yunnan itself was a winner.
Dali's old town is the definition of charming: tiled roofs with corners curled like elf shoes and Bai women hanging tie-dye and batik fabrics out to dry in the alleys. Everything is a splash of color over a canvas of slate-gray. It's the kind of place that caters to backpackers with no travel plans. And the number of foreigner-run pizza joints, pubs and coffee shops suggests that more than a few such travelers have settled in for good. I sat down to a late night dinner in a Tibetan restaurant and was greeted with an English menu while Manu Chao serenaded me in French and Spanish over the sound system. It was all a little trippy (this was supposed to be rural China after all), and the food was unlike anything I'd eaten anywhere else in the world—goat cheese flattened and fried like a tortilla chip and a seasoned mash potato dish known locally as "grandma potatoes," both totally delicious. Dali sucked me in. I found a cheap room in a quiet courtyard hotel run by a Bai family. I found a better Indian restaurant than any in Shanghai. I discovered that fried cheese and large bottles of weak Chinese beer complement each other nicely. I stayed three days longer than planned.
Contender No. 2: Lijiang
And what of Lijiang—Dali's nemesis? Ninety percent of me wanted to trust my Norwegian friend and skip it, but in the end I had to check it out. Lijiang makes a killer first impression. Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, Lijiang's Mt. Rainier, looms above the city. The old town, known as Dayan, looks like a bunch of graphite scribbles creeping up the side of the hill. People like the maze-like quality of Dayan; they like "getting lost" in the stone warrens, crossing picturesque foot-bridges over streams and "discovering" little shops and cafés.
For me such quaintness was claustrophobic and I really did get lost, with each stall selling carvings and scarves looking exactly like the one next to it. Lijiang was long one of China's most popular backpacker destinations, but Yunnan's development as a tourist destination for the crowd that requires such things as plane tickets and hotel reservations began to change that. That change accelerated when many hastily-built new hotels crumbled in an earthquake a decade ago, while the old town stood practically unscathed. Developers were impressed and moved on Dayan, so that today it's possible to stay in a number of courtyard hotels occupying original and rebuilt structures (though the "new town" was unfortunately also rebuilt).
Lijiang's relatively new airport also helped increase its popularity with domestic travelers, who enjoy direct flights from Kunming and other big cities, leading the backpack-toting, bus-riding waiguoren to favor Dali for their week-long chill-outs. While the big tourism push has spooked the Lonely Planet crowd, it's made it a breeze to get in and out of Lijiang.
Nearby is Tiger Leaping Gorge, a hiker's mecca, and farther up the road is Shangri-La (formerly known as Zhongdian—the name change is another tourism ploy). North from there is a sneaky overland back way into Tibet. It only gets more and more remote heading out from Lijiang and that will keep the backpackers coming no matter how many revolving restaurants go in.
So, it seems there are indeed Lijiang people and Dali people like there are cat people and dog people. If you don't know if you're Lijiang or Dali, they are certainly both worth a visit. I'm definitely Dali, preferring its smaller, straighter streets and thinking that fragrant expat hippies play a key role in the "traditional China" everyone seems to be so desperately seeking. But you'll have to make up your own mind. As for the "real China," Dali and Lijiang are both great examples; it just depends on which real China you happen to be in the mood for.
Getting to Dali or Lijiang:
Kunming is the hub for all Yunnan travel so taking a flight to Kunming is a good start. Buses to Dali take five hours and cost about RMB 100. Continue on to Lijiang by bus for RMB 40; the trip usually takes three hours and the scenery is spectacular. Alternatively, flights direct from Shanghai to Lijiang spare you from long bus rides for around RMB 1,900 one-way. Both Kunming and Lijiang are served by a variety of airlines: try booking through Ctrip.com to compare prices.
Staying in Dali or Lijiang:
Dali and Lijiang are full of small hotels and hostels (RMB 20 –200 per night), many of which cannot be booked in advance and will have to be stumbled upon. Reservation-makers should try the Dali Asian Star Hotel between Xiaguan (Dali "New Town") and Dali (Old Town); it's the only thing considered "luxury" in the area and is relatively secluded with a nice mountain backdrop. The Moon Inn in Lijiang's old town mixes family-style hospitality with modern comforts. For five stars and big views in Lijiang (think revolving rooftop restaurant), try the Guanfang Hotel in the new part of town. Again, for price comparisons, try Ctrip.