Dali and Xizhou

Originally, I was planning to write a blog entry every day during my trip around northern Yunnan, but it turned out that my days were so full of activities and new impressions that I was exhausted by the time I retreated to my hotel room. The last thing I had inspiration for was to write a blog entry. So that’s why I’m writing them after the fact.

I’m beginning to write these next few entries while I’m flying back to Beijing in the middle of a renewed COVID scare here in China. What started out as a hand full of cases in Nanjing and 2 cases in Beijing on the day I left by train, has now grown into full COVID scare and China has gone into full pandemic control mode. Northern Yunnan has had zero cases so far, but Beijing hasn’t and that caused some unexpected changes to my trip but more about that in a future blog entry. Overall, this was a wonderful trip with great memories about places and sceneries that are unlike anything I’ve seen before. I can highly recommend Yunnan to anyone who is interested in history, culture and nature. I also want to do a shout out to my good friend, my Chinese teacher and my tour guide Fu Yuwen who did an amazing job putting this trip together, guiding me through it, and dealing with the obstacles caused by COVID. Yuwen was full of surprises. Unbeknownst to me, she was actually a fully licensed tour guide, an examination she had passed for fun two years ago, and this was the first time she used it. I could not have been in better hands.

Continuing from my previous blog, after a full day in Kunming we took the highspeed train to Dali new town (大理新镇) in the evening where we were greeted by our driver who would drive us around for the rest of the week. We were staying in Dali old town (大理古城), which is about a 40 minutes’ drive away from the train station. When we finally arrived at the hotel around 11pm I was exhausted and wanted only one thing: go to sleep which I promptly did.

Dali old town lies at the base of the Tibetan Plateau and is surrounded by majestic mountain ranges, including the Cangshan mountain (苍山), and sits on the shore of Erhai lake (洱海). Dali sits at a central point in the tea trading routes to India and Tibet and that’s how it historically accumulated its wealth. It’s also known for its high-quality wood working and its marble that is quarried from the nearby mountain ranges. Dali is in the Bai people region, one of the 56 minorities in China, and the houses in the town are typically painted white with beautiful decorations and beautiful wood carved doors. Dali was the capital of the Buddhist Nanzhao kingdom (738-902AD) and some of its landmarks stem from that period.

Market stalls in Dali old town.

The day following our arrival, we had two activities on our schedule: climb Cangshan mountain and visit Dali’s three pagodas. Climbing Changshan mountain (4km straight up) was a bit ambitious to my taste, although Yuwen had done it with a friend in 3.5 hours she said, so we took Asia’s longest cable car to get up there. Along the way we saw a wonderful panorama of Dali, Erhai lake, sharp mountain ridges and very distinctive wind-swept vegetation. At the top there was a 2.5-mile hiking trail taking you through beautiful vistas, and apparently at the right time of the year, very distinctive flowers.

On top of Cangshan mountain you can see Erhai Lake, unique vegetation and a small artificial horse washing pond at the top.

Dali’s three pagodas are part of the sprawling Chongsheng temple complex, and they were built during the Nanzhao kingdom. According to a legend, the three pagodas were built to deter the dragons in the region who were responsible for causing natural disasters. If you look carefully you can see that they lean, kind of like China’s version of the tower of Pisa.

The three pagodas (front and back view) and one of the temples behind it..

As you probably remember from one of my previous blog posting, my favorite go-to app for finding restaurants is Dianping (大众点评). It’s like a Chinese Yelp, and while I can’t read the reviews, I typically go by the food pictures and the restaurant’s rating. In this case I saw a highly rated (4.9 out of 5) nearby hotpot restaurant.  They served the local delicacy, wild mushrooms. Apparently, these mushrooms are poisonous when raw and they need to be cooked for at least 20 minutes. When they dropped the mushrooms into the boiling broth at our table, they also set a 20-minute timer. After 20 minutes they added another 5 minutes because it wasn’t ready yet. This didn’t give me a whole lot of confidence, but I tried it, it was delicious, and I clearly survived the ordeal to write this blog.

Five kinds of wild mushrooms hotpot.

The second day in Dali was going to be easy according to Yuwen and it consisted of a stroll through Dali old town itself, a visit to Xizhou old town (喜洲古城), and in the evening we would stay at a hotel near Erhai lake. This easy day turned out to be the day we did the most of steps on our trip: ~23K.

Dali old town was a key trading city on the ancient tea horse road (茶马古道) with routes leading from Yunnan into India and Tibet. It’s a city built with typical Bai architecture houses. These are square houses with a courtyard in the middle, living/animal/storage space on the three sides and a white sunlight reflection wall on the fourth side. The houses are mostly painted white, with decorative figures near the roof line, and the doors are made from beautifully carved wooden panels. The city itself is laid out in a grid like manner with defensive gates on each side, which I suspect reflects its military background.

A Bai architecture element: a sun light reflection wall.

Inside the city there are gorgeous temples, including a Confucius temple (大理文庙) and a Wu, or Guan Di, temple (关帝庙). The Confucius temple was beautifully restored and well worth a visit. The Wu temple was in the middle of its restoration, but its front courtyard was accessible. Yuwen used it to explain to me the original meaning of the word 八卦 (bāguà). These are the eight symbols used in Taoism to represent the fundamental principles of reality. The word also has a modern meaning: gossip, which Yuwen appreciated less, especially when I used it to make the driver laugh.

Confucius temple in Dali old town.

In the afternoon we visited Xizhou old town (喜洲古城). It too was an important stop on the tea horse road and goes back to ~600 AD. There, we visited the Yan family courtyard (严家大院), a beautifully restored compound that is a great example of high Bai architecture. It’s also a strange combination of old and new. The first four courtyards were classical Bai architecture, but in the back of the compound there was a western style building that even included a bomb shelter from the 2nd world war. I guess this is a good example of the struggle Chinese had in the 1920-1940’s on how to integrate the modern with the classical.

The Yan family courtyard combining literally. the modern and classical.

We tried to visit other old Bai buildings in town but for one reason or another they were all closed. We did find some Belgium style craft beer along the way, the first I found in Yunnan, which I obviously had to sample. Yunwen insisted we also visited the Linden Centre. That’s a traditional Bai compound restored by an American couple from Chicago which they then turned into a luxury hotel. Unfortunately, they didn’t let us into to the building because we weren’t guests.

Entrance to the Linden Centre.

That night we stayed in a modern hotel overlooking Erhai lake in Shuanglang (双廊镇). Shuanglang is a picturesque town built on the side of a cliff with small paths leading up and down the hill that are too small to fit cars. We had dinner in a local restaurant, which I found, you guessed it, with Dianping.

Gorgeous view of Erhai Lake from the hotel.

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