When I first stood on top of the Dali city wall, I found it hard to believe that the small ancient city below me had been the grand capital of a sprawling kingdom in southwestern Asia for hundreds of years.
Today the wall in Dali, Yunnan Province, is only 6 kilometers long — I could clearly see the far end and almost every building along the way. The original defensive wall encircling the city was built more than 600 years ago; the wall we see today is around 30 years old. It’s around 6 meters thick, made of packed earth covered with bricks, standing around 8.3 meters high.
It was early morning, the city was still asleep, shops were closed and only a few tourists were wandering along the wall. In the drizzle and mist, the old white buildings in the ancient town suggested a sleeping swan.
Dali is an extremely popular — some say too popular — tourist destination in Yunnan, as is Lijiang City in the north of the province. Both are famous for their backpacker, hippie vibe, ethnic culture, crafts and food, as well as beautiful scenery and leisurely pace of life. Unlike Lijiang, Dali was a major political and economic center in southwestern China and Asia.
Some critics say the ancient city of Dali has lost its charm because of the overwhelming numbers of tourists, souvenir shops, faux-traditional structures, modern bars and loud music. But by staying close to the “old” city wall and exploring, you can still have a relaxing and authentic experience in unspoiled areas.
Southwestern China, including today’s Guizhou, Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, is home to many ethnic minorities, such as the Bai and Yi peoples. Many tribes established their own territories and small administrative areas.
In AD 738, the rising Nanzhao Kingdom united five other kingdoms with the support of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) government. The new Nanzhao Kingdom covered all of what is now Yunnan Province, part of Guizhou, and parts of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Myanmar and Vietnam. Dali City was the capital, da meaning big and grand, and li meaning administration or government.
The wish for grandeur came true. Nanzhao was the first united kingdom in southwestern China and the once-backward region began to flourish and catch up with prosperous Central China in the 8th and 9th centuries.
After the downfall of the Nanzhao Kingdom, the kingdom of Dali arose and flourished from AD 937 to 1253. It was an important military and political ally to the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279). Since the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the kingdom has belonged to the central government in today’s Bejing City.
A complete, encircling city wall was built by Emperor Hongwu (1368-98) who founded the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The wall is the foundation of today’s city wall.
Not only was Dali the political and economic center of two important kingdoms, Nanzhao and Dali, but it was also the inspiration of many legends and romantic tales, especially in martial arts fiction.
One of the most famous martial arts novels involving Dali is “Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils” (first serialized in 1963) by renowned Hong Kong author Jin Yong (Louis Cha Leung-yung). One of the three heroes is a prince from the Dali Kingdom who refuses to learn martial arts because of Buddhist influence. He runs away from home when his father and the king force him to learn to fight. He gains powers and finds adventure, intrigue beautiful women in the mountainous area. The book was made into TV series and movies.
Dali is always described as a natural paradise surrounded by beautiful mountains and lakes. Colorful flowers bloom everywhere and people of different ethnic groups and cultures live together in harmony.
Judging from the environment of Dali today, the novels of paradise-like beauty were definitely right.
The climate is mild, with temperatures averaging 25 degrees Celsius in summer and 15 degrees Celsius in winter.
From the top of the city wall, you can see the 4,000-meter-high Cangshan Mountains rising to the west. They are covered by green and white clouds and mist floats around the middle like a white ribbon.
Looking to the east and you can see large Erhai Lake, the “mother lake” of Dali, with mountains on the other side.
Today’s Dali city wall was renovated in the 1980s, based on the Ming Dynasty city wall. It had four main gates, one in each of four directions; several streets ran south to north and eight smaller streets ran from east to west inside the wall.
The South Gate is the largest and the entry point where you climb steps to the top of the wall. From there, you have a bird’s-eye view of the whole city to the north, with the central street (Fuxing Road) running to the North Gate.
All that’s left of the encircling wall is an L-shape consisting of the western and southern sections where visitors can walk.
Since the wall is 8.3 meters high, far higher than most buildings, walking along it is like walking on top of the ancient city.
Many old structures are built in traditional Bai ethnic style with white walls, black tiles and upturned eaves. Courtyards are planted with trees and flowers.
A walk along the wall offers beautiful views and takes less than an hour. When I returned to South Gate, the quiet “sleeping swan” had been transformed into a swarming tourist spot and was more like a magpie. All the tourist shops were open.
The main north-south street, Fuxing Road, is filled with boutiques selling souvenirs, garments, textiles, crafts, silver and stone carving. Famous Yunnan coffee and Yunnan Pu’erh tea are also sold. The famous local marbled stone is called Dali Stone in China and is only found in the area.
Not far from the South Gate is the landmark of Dali ancient city, Wuhua Tower. This tower is a downsized modern reproduction of the vast national guesthouse of the Nanzhou Kingdom where foreign envoys lived during their visits.
The tower was destroyed early in the Yuan Dynasty when Kublai Khan’s army conquered Yunnan Province.
The rebuilt version is much smaller, but still at the center of the ancient city. The tower’s sign “Dali” in Chinese characters was written by famous litterateur Guo Moruo (1892-1978) and has become the “signature” of the city.
As tourists know, Dali combines features of the exotic East, exotic ethnic groups and the West.
Yangren Street, literally Foreigners’ Street, is packed with Western cafes, bars and restaurants. It’s the place tourism first boomed as visitors flocked to the small city surrounded by mountains.
Modern bars with flashing lights and music contrast with the ancient city and tranquil mountains.
Streets are always packed with flower vendors since the year-round climate is spring-like. The fragrant flowers add a romantic vibe to the ancient city.
As I walked along Fuxing Road and passed Yangren Street, the tourist bustle and souvenir shops were left behind. It became more quiet and authentic.
Buildings are not prettied up and reconstructed for tourists but retain their original look. People go about their daily lives. There are small, modest (and excellent) restaurants, butcher shops and various stores, schools and a hospital.
Teenagers chat on their way home from schools, elderly women shop with bamboo baskets on their backs, store owners sit at the doorway, smoking meter-long water pipes. There’s a church and a mosque.
It’s still possible to enjoy the real Dali.
How to get there:
There are direct flights from Shanghai to Dali. You can also fly first to Kunming, the provincial capital, and then take a 4-5 hours bus ride to Dali. A taxi from the bus station to Dali ancient city costs around 40 yuan (US$6.45) while a cab from Dali airport is around 150 yuan.
Where to stay:
There are many hotels and hostels catering to every taste and budget. You can book most online. Some visitors stay in hostels in villages near Erhai Lake, a 15-minute drive from the city.
What to eat:
Typical Dali cuisine features sour and spicy fish and braised chicken, and most city restaurants offer good takes on these dishes. Western bars and restaurants can be found on Yangren Street.
Some dishes are cooked with flowers — such as scrambled eggs with roses, a specialty in Dali. Freshly squeezed juice is very good.
The center of modern Dali City is Xiaguan, a newly developed administrative center. Shuttle buses from the airport only stop at Xiaguan. From Xiaguan, you can take the No. 4 bus or a taxi to Dali ancient city, which is about 20 minutes away.
Admission to Dali city wall: 2 yuan
Bikes can be rented to explore the ancient city. Many rental stalls are on Bo’ai Road in the western part of the city. Rental fees are 20-30 yuan per hour.
Yunnan coffee is famous and makes a good gift. The province is China’s major coffee-producing area, with a climate similar to Brazil’s. Don’t buy high-priced coffee on popular Fuxing Road, which has many coffee shops. Go to Bo’ai Road where prices are much more reasonable. Another famous Yunnan beverage Pu’erh Tea — a fermented dark tea — can also be found everywhere but make sure you check out a few shops for price and quality before making a purchase.