Our haphazard itinerary for a day in Dali

Culture | by Luis Landas
Posted: October 23rd, 2012 | Updated: October 24th, 2012 | Comments
Before our adventure through the Tiger Leaping Gorge, my friends and I spent our first three nights of the Mid-Autumn Festival holiday in Dali, another Yunnan destination popular among backpackers. We arrived close to midnight on a Friday, after a 7-hour ride from Kunming on a sleeper bus. Having never been on a sleeper bus before, I was eager to see what they were all about. I've only ever been in buses equipped with seats, so when I boarded this narrow mobile dormitory I was pretty excited. I climbed over a small metal barrier and stepped into my bright orange cot by the window. Not bad! Kinda comfy. Soft. Or spongy, rather. A little moist. Um, what kind of stain is that? Ultimately, we were happy to find that the residual dampness of the bedding was inversely proportional to the amount of fun that we were going to have in Dali—so, obviously, the particularly peculiar puddle that I buried under my pillow and comforter promised only good things. In short: sword fights, yak steak, live music, bike rides, an abandoned mall, an ancient crossbow, a dip in the lake and lunch with a wise local old-timer. Interested? Read on for more.... Things didn't get off to such a great start though, unfortunately. We spent almost 30 minutes in a cab that first night circling around Dali New Town, where we booked our hotel, trying to get to Dali Old Town, where we should have booked our hotel. We heard about an awesome place there called Bad Monkey that we wanted to find, but our online map was of no use to the driver who—we think—got confused by similarly named roads in both towns. We gave up eventually and, stewing in shattered hopes and sour disappointment, called it a night. But having been left wanting more, we took the next day by storm. First target? Breakfast. We made it to Dali Old Town, and after walking around the intersection of Bo'ai Lu (Bó'ài Lù, 博爱路) and Renmin Lu (Rénmín Lù, 人民路) for a while, we found Café de Jack. With large couches, a fireplace, wooden furniture and an endearingly wholesome menu, this charming two-story Western restaurant felt more like someone's rustic living room than a place of business. I waved to an old man walking outside by the window, and he just came right in and joined us. It was pretty funny how startled we were, but we just small-talked in Mandarin to the best of our abilities and, with the help of the personal photo album he just happened to have with him, managed to learn a little about each other. We shared some jasmine tea, and not too long after he said goodbye. After a scrumptious meal, we walked back towards the intersection. Renmin Lu is a long street that stretches east towards Erhai Lake, so the view down its charming mix of marquees and souvenir stands is really quite pretty. Strolling down, you're flanked by all kinds of colors, like someone exploded boxes of Froot Loops all over town. Once you reach the intersection with Fuxing Lu (Fùxīng Lù, 复兴路), you'll find yourself surrounded by an abundance of small shops to wander in and out of. We turned right, heading south for a while to check out all the cool thingies and on offer: funky hats, funky bags, funky snacks, funky jewelry and an old crossbow hanging behind some funky weapons. Then we decided to switch it up. We went back to the first intersection and asked about renting mountain bikes. RMB 17 per bicycle per day? Yes, please. We bought a couple bottles of Gatorade each and adjusted our seats. We darted off. I think the general idea was to head towards the water. We went off road, instead taking any route that carried us east faster, be it a muddy dirt path or a trail that squeezed through fields of crops. All that fresh air, the breeze, the greenery, the company, the disregard for a preplanned course—it was liberating. When we finally arrived at the lake, our backs sprayed mercilessly with country mud, we settled down at a little gazebo at the end of a cobblestone path that stretched out into the water. After parking our bikes and laying out our shirts over the handlebars, we relaxed under the shade of the gazebo's cobwebbed roof. A couple of us even jumped into the water to really cool off. Our next targets were the Three Pagodas. It wasn't too hard to locate them as we could see them standing tall and unaccompanied in the distance towards the mountains. Getting there was a longer ride, and we decided to use a lot of main roads this time around to make things easier. On our way, though, we approached a stylish mall complex, and agreed to take a little detour and find a nice place to rest for a moment. We found that the place was actually unoccupied. No one was there, and the place looked like it stopped being constructed right before completion. We never found a name for it anywhere, so I couldn't tell you the name, sorry! I guess it's just our private palatial drink station now. Afterwards, we started on the long, long road leading to the entrance of the Three Pagodas (fairly ominous, looking back on it). We stopped by a raised platform on the way where an intimidating golden statue of a flaming bird stood. A gaggle of vendors circled us, and then a friend and I unsheathed a pair of deadly blades from a nearby foldout table and started a menacing dance of wild western swordsmanship. We cling-clanged for a short moment before a woman told us to stop acting like monkeys and put her things down. Alright, she won this one. Once inside the temple complex (with entry at a reduced student rate!) we just started sauntering up the steps towards the eponymous monuments. They were pretty cool, and big, and slightly tilted, but we couldn't go in. Now what? Oh, the path continues up the hill? Is there more? After a few hundred heaving steps up the stone staircase, we made it to what seemed like the main shrine, where a magnificent statue of a Buddhist deity awaited us. We saw people kneel and offer their worship. We smelled the clouds of incense. We enjoyed the panoramic view behind us. It was actually quite beautiful. But it was just the beginning. That shrine was only the first in an unending series of temples that trailed westwards up the hill. Every shrine had bigger and better statues. We thought we had finally reached the end when we saw Buddha. But how could we be so foolish? What's bigger and better than Buddha? Three Buddhas. But then they just got carried away. The statues started sprouting multiple arms, wielding deadly weapons, commanding smaller subordinate statues and wearing much more than just a simple robe. Before the very last pagoda, there were at least 20 colossal golden statues standing proudly in a massive ornate hall. Did we really think it ended at just Buddha? It ended up being hugely gratifying. At the top of that final pagoda, we could map the path of the day's adventure. The view was astounding—if somewhat marred by the dense fog. That night, we treated ourselves to a hearty post-biathlon dinner at the painstakingly named Yunnan Café Bar, and, to our delight, found yak steak on the menu. Hands down, one of the top ten meat dishes I've ever eaten. Delicious. Maybe it was mostly thanks to the chef, or maybe there was a lot of sneaky salt and pepper, but all that mattered was that it was especially tasty and memorably so. After dinner we finally hit up Bad Monkey. There was a live band playing folk music and the crowd was going nuts. The staff, most of whom rocked dreadlocks and tattoos, were really friendly, and overall the place was definitely worth seeking out. We decided that moving to a hostel nearer to Dali Old Town would be a great idea, so we arranged to move to the popular Jade Emu the next day. This is how we ended just one of our days in Dali. Imagine what you could do in two! And here's some advice:
  1. Stay in Dali Old Town, rather than the New Town. It's much prettier, more exciting and you'll be nearer to all the most important sights.
  2. Calling all carnivores! Eat the YAK STEAK.
  3. The weather was tricky. In the morning I convinced myself to wear my heavy rain jacket, but suffered under its warmth when riding the bikes. A lighter, water-proof jacket would be better and a beanie or something similarly space-efficient to warm you up.
  4. Don't forget to bring your official Chinese university ID with you if you have one! You like discounts, don't you?
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