At first glance, I thought I had made a terrible mistake.
I hopped off the bus from Kunming just before dark and was wanting to find a guesthouse to drop my things. My jaw dropped when I walked out of the long distance bus station. Dali looked exactly like every other bloody city I have seen in China, including the one I just came from! I had conjured up images of this quaint little mountain town in my head, but instead I was looking at industry, factories, shops, and capitalism at its best — not to mention the fact that I was standing across the street from another one of the omnipresent KFCs.
Some quick research put my mind at ease as I found out that I had landed in Xihuan, which is the Dali ‘New City.’ Interesting, because when you enter the city you are greeted by a huge sign that says: “Welcome to Dali.” I wonder how many guidebookless travelers never go onward to the old city? Not a nice thing to do to us lost travelers.
I didn’t find a stop for bus #4 until dark; it was to carry me the 30 minutes to the Old City. I gave up on wandering and paid up the 1-yuan to ride a different bus in circles until I saw a stop for #4. Even in the dark, I could see that I had found exactly what I was looking for: my quaint little medieval city in the mountains.
When I strolled into the old city, I was amazed. The first thing I noticed was that Dali was full of Chinese tourists. They obviously come from the upper classes, and they are toting around $3,000 SLR camera bodies and wearing sports coats. There are a few older Western suitcase tourists as well, most from Germany or America it seems, but very very few backpackers.
The next thing I noticed is that this place is beautiful! Wow! The sweet smell of roses hangs in the air everywhere, which this region is famous for, and many of the brick streets are pretty much almost pedestrian only. A water channel runs throughout the city, bringing in fresh water from the mountains all around, and Dali is actually clean. In fact, this is the cleanest city I have seen in China yet.
The city is walled, so it is nearly impossible to get lost. A perfect square. You can cross the entire place in about 45 minutes of walking, and you can usually see the tower in the middle which is a great landmark. The layout is very feng shui as well…people walking quickly up the main road hit a big pagoda thing right in the middle of the road, which forces you to slow down and meander through a small path surrounded by flowers, old trees, and ponds with lilies floating in them. No matter what your mission in life, the layout demands that you slow down and look at the beauty — I absolutely love it! One day, when I am a rich, eccentric crazy old blog writer, I want my garden to look like this place.
Charming cafes and chilled-out bars playing great music are literally on both sides of the road, but the Chinese owners sit inside alone looking bored out of their minds. Where are all the people? I fear that they have all gone to cram themselves into Lijiang for some Lonely Planet reason?
If you are planning a trip to China and read this, don’t be a goon and skip Dali — go!