Dali: It’s a strange place. It’s touristy but it’s still cute. There’s a lake on one side and a mountain on the other. It attracts a curious mix of Chinese tourists (although the Chinese often seem to prefer nearby Lijiang for some reason) and Western ex-pats.
I enjoyed its laid-back vibes. It’s been a year and a half since I was last here and it hasn’t changed much. There are less of the boards advertising treks into Tibet; permits for foreigners are a lot harder to get now. The middle-aged women selling hash on the streets have become a lot more discreet, again there have been crackdowns. But apart from that it’s all much the same.
In truth Yunnan has more in common with neigbouring Asian countries like Laos and Vietnam than it does with China. Hotel internet often comes with VPN (the magic that lets you bypass the firewall of China): ‘yes you can access Facebook from here’ the signs proudly advertise. Dairy products abound. English is widely understood along the street known as ‘foreigner street’. Only the men (and women) spitting in the streets serves to remind you that this is still China.
It gets very busy during Chinese public holidays and other peak travel times. If you want to go shopping but the crowds are too much for you then here is my tip: go at five PM. The Chinese all eat dinner at that time so the shopping street is empty. Don’t go in the middle of the afternoon unless you want to have to stop at each flower or ornate house (and there are plenty of them) whilst everyone takes a selfie stood next to it.
Where to eat:
There is a place called Sweet Tooth where they serve the most delicious chocolate brownies ever, and I’m an aficionado of the genre so these are good. If you can ignore the Starbucks-esque prices and the surly manner of the owner (‘oh no another of these damn foreigners, in my shop, pointing at the menu and then taking up too much space’) then the brownies are to die for. The owner changes from Chinese to English seemingly at random, and it’s quite entertaining to sit and try and guess which language he thinks he is speaking at any given time.
Apart from that, I mainly enjoyed eating yogurt and salad. If you think that yogurt and salad are boring choices then you haven’t lived in China for four years.
I left Dali with four chocolate brownies in a little brown bag. Only one made it home. What can I say? It was a boring journey back and I didn’t fancy another China Southern meal of cabbage and rice. Also, I have no self control.
What to do in Dali:
So, you’ve eaten your own body weight in brownies, you’ve climbed the Cangshan mountain and sailed on Erhai lake. You’ve taken your requisite number of photos of ornate roofs and flowers and locals in colourful Bai costumes. You’ve had a massage or two. You’ve strolled along the streets by day and by night. What else is there to do? Well, that’s pretty much it I think. If you have longer you can visit the surrounding towns and villages or you could study Chinese or Tai-chi or take yoga or painting class. But I didn’t have longer so that was it for me.