I had wanted to visit Dali for years. Friends had told me it was perhaps the most beautiful area of China – and not just possessing a physically beautiful landscape, but an atmosphere of peace and tranquility that could not be found throughout the rest of this giant, and often overcrowded land. It is a bastion of bohemianism in a decidedly unhip nation.
Dali is located in Yunnan Province, in the southwest of China, which borders Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. It is rural, mountainous province, with a very different culture and landscape from what you’d find anywhere else in China. I’d mostly travelled around Anhui Province and the east coast of the country – Beijing, Qingdao, Shanghai, Suzhou, and Nanjing. I knew Yunnan promised an entirely different experience.
Last week I had four full days’ holiday for China’s Dragon Boat Festival (端午节) so I took my girlfriend to Dali for a short visit. We set off by taking the wonderfully cheap and convenient airport bus from Huainan’s Xinjinjiang Hotel to the new Xinqiao Hefei airport, and then flew to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province. Unfortunately, as is often the case in China, our flight was delayed by about two hours, and so we arrived in Kunming too late to catch a night train to Dali.
Instead, we found ourselves walking around Kunming at midnight, looking for a hotel that would allow foreigners, whilst trying to figure out early morning routes to Dali. When eventually we did, we realized we’d be arriving in Dali mid-afternoon, effectively losing a half day of our already short holiday. It was the first of what would be many small irritations.
In the morning we headed to Kunming South Bus Station and took an express bus north to Dali. The scenery along the trip was largely impressive. I’ve been to all three neighboring countries and Yunnan was pretty similar – low-hanging clouds over sharp mountains roaring up out of the ground, covered in tiny villages surrounded by terraced rice paddies.
After almost five hours we arrived in Dali’s new town and needed to head to the old town. When the taxi drivers at the bus station tried to rip us off I lost my temper as I was already out for an unexpected night’s hotel stay and bus tickets that cost more than the train. I didn’t realize that the rest of the trip would be largely comprised of unscrupulous people attempting – with a high level of success – to extract as much money from me as possible. But therein lies one of the first problems with travel in China: if you go near any major tourist spot, you will be ripped off. The key is to budget for it, and roll with the scams.
We eventually got into the old town and checked in at the Jade Emu Hostel. The Jade Emu is centered around an old courtyard in which there’s a bar and lounge area with pool table and dart board. The staff were very friendly and helpful, and the room was pretty comfortable for the price. After our long journey, we headed out for lunch and found Bad Monkey, the best-known drinking hole in town. I tried their own IPA, which was pretty good, although the food took more than an hour to prepare even though there were no other customers.
In the evening we walked out to the Three Pagodas and then circled the whole of the old town on foot. Dali certainly is beautiful, and it was fascinating to see a genuinely old part of China. Everything in China changes so fast, and history and nature are given short shrift. There are numerous “ancient towns” dotted around Anhui Province, but they’re all restored and appear very plastic. In Dali there were crumbling walls held together by mud, and old cobbled paths that had clearly been used since before Mao Zedong came to power.
The next morning we awoke and found breakfast at Bakery 88, and then stocked up for a picnic. We walked to the entrance of the Cangshan mountain range and began a long walk. We never did reach the top, as our path seemed to terminate at the Cloud Pass pathway which meanders for a long way around the eastern side of the range. The scenery was stunning, as we walked just below the actual cloud banks, looking up at the often hidden peaks and down at the old town and Erhai lake. There were a few interesting birds and some squirrels, but unfortunately all the wildlife seemed to have been long since removed. Chinese people have no respect for or interest in nature except for human exploitation. There were signs warning us of leopards and bears, but clearly no such animals have existed here for decades.
Our walk was serene and peaceful but occasionally interrupted by degenerate Han tourists from elsewhere in China. These people seem to hate quietness, and make as much noise as possible wherever they go. In China they are called 土豪 (“tuhao”), which translates loosely as “nouveau riche.” These people dress idiotically, believe that the world exists as a stage for their own moronic desires, and generally act like animals with severe behavioural problems. Although their behavior was not as bad as usual, it was enough to ruin any moment of tranquility before too long.
Still, in spite of the other tourists, the mountains were impressive, and after years in the comparatively flat regions of Huainan and Hefei, it felt good to be at altitude, walking among trees instead of apartment blocks, beside streams that were clear instead of brown. The Chinese may ruin every place they visit, but Dali hasn’t been entirely ruined just yet.
We spent another night in Dali and planned to do a final day, but alas all the night trains were booked up and we were forced to spend almost a whole day of our holiday on a cramped bus back to Kunming, where we were again forced to wander around for a hotel, and again ripped off wherever we went. The whole trip had proven far more stressful and expensive than anticipated, yet I had finally seen Dali – perhaps the part of China I’d wanted to visit more than any other. And I’d learned another lesson, one that I’d already known, but which was reaffirmed in my mind – whenever I have the time and inclination to travel, I need to leave China. This place is too crowded and too uncivilized for me, even in the very best places it has to offer.