Does Dàlĭ Live up to the Hype?

Banana pancakes. Hippie enclave. Mellow vibe.  Good foreign food.

A lot of things that are said about Dàlĭ don’t exactly describe the typical Chinese tourist destination. These also aren’t the types of amenities that I normally look for when I’m traveling.  But I, like all travelers, get tired.  Tired of noodles. Tired of being stared at by curious locals. Tired of constantly moving.  Sometimes you just need a place to rest and chill out.  If that place has excellent comfort food, a welcoming atmosphere, and clean air, I say all the better!

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Going into Dàlĭ, my expectations were high.  I had heard wonderful reviews about the hostel I was staying at, Jade Emu, and I was looking forward to warming up after a sudden snowfall in Lijiang.  Would Dàlĭ be as great as I was led to believe?

The short answer: yes, Dàlĭ is great.

But, it’s certainly not the chill backpackers paradise that it once was.  It’s now a certified hotspot with domestic tourists meaning that it’s as crowded with group tours and screaming kids as any other city.  Many of the authentic buildings in the old town are being knocked down and rebuilt in the faux-ancient style.  But, with modernity comes wifi equipped café selling excellent western breakfast and beautiful handcrafts (though with a hefty markup). A pro or a con?  I’m not really sure.

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So, would I recommend visiting Dàlĭ if you have two weeks in China? Absolutely not.

Go to Jiànshuǐ 建水 and step back in time instead. But, if you’ve been making your way through Western China, or even northern Thailand or Laos and you need a place to stop and re-calibrate for a few days, Dàlĭ is a great option.

If your re-calibration quest has you looking to build up a sweat, the best option is a bike ride around Erhai lake.  Bikes can be rented from many vendors around the old town, and the path is well paved with ample food and beverages stops along the way.  If you’re a slow biker, you can even stop at one of the many guesthouses along the route.  A day (or two) of biking really couldn’t be easier.

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For the less adventurous, you can simply bike to Dàlĭ’s most famous landmark- Three Pagodas. I suggest just enjoying the view from outside to avoid the insane 121 yuan entrance fee.  On your way back, you can join a small portion of the ride along the lake and still take in the small village feel of the community along the way. The harmony of the blue water and surrounding mountains is stunning and worthy of lots of photos.

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The local minority, Bai, is more present in the small towns around Erhai lake, so take the opportunity to stop by some of the markets or visit the towns.  You’ll notice the women wearing either royal or conflower blue scarfs on their head.

If your re-calibration is more geared towards relaxation, Dàlĭ can provide for that too. The old town is filled with adorable cafés and quaint back streets. Given that the crowds can be thick during the day I suggest trying to find an out-of-the-way café to kick back and enjoy the local coffee. An outdoor seat with a view of the mountains is icing on the cake.

The hippie vibe may be dying out when it comes to the laid back lifestyle, but not in the shopping scene.  Of all the places I’ve traveled to in China, I enjoyed shopping in Dàlĭ the most.  Most stores are the size of sheds but are stocked with great knitwear, pottery, and traditional Chinese clothes.  Luckily for me, I was desperately in need of warm clothes when I arrived and found several shops with gorgeous long cardigan style sweaters that fit the bill for around 300 yuan each.  Had I not been backpacking I would have loved to pick up a handmade clay teapot.

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Regardless of your re-calibration plans, you’ll inevitably end up spending a day or more wandering around the old town, shopping and sampling the local snacks.  I thought I was seeing an illusion when I saw a man sitting on the street corner selling what appeared to be cheese on a stick.  I had missed cheese!  It turns out that it wasn’t exactly cheese, but it was a fried dairy product on a stick that tasted a lot like it.  If traveling in China has led you to miss cheese, buy a few and enjoy.

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Want to go to Dàlĭ?

How to get there-

Dàlĭ is easily reached from Kunming in Yunnan.  Buses between the two cities take about 4 hours on a good day. For my friend traveling in the winter, it ended up take 12 hours due to a car accident blocking the road.  The alternative is to buy a train ticket, which usually takes about 7 hours but is less likely to be delayed.  This is a good option in heavy rain, or winter weather. The rest of the time I’d take the risk and go via bus. You can also easily get between Dàlĭ and Lìjiāng 丽江 by bus.

Where to stay-

In Dàlĭ you really want to stay in the old town.  One of the most popular, and honestly, quite good, hostels is the Jade Emu.  I stayed for three nights and loved it- the staff was really friendly, the rooms were comfortable and well kept and they even had free washers on the rooftop.  Not bad!

What do you think?  Does Dàlĭ live up to its hype?


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