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Dali Old Town: A Backpacker Paradise in China

From outside my window I could hear a covers band murdering an Arctic Monkeys song, I could see 4 western style restaurants, and every conversation I had with the staff at my guesthouse was fully understood in perfect English. Is Dali Old Town still in China, or had I travelled through a wormhole back to Southeast Asia? Despite all of the western influence, there didn’t seem to be many western tourists, just lots of selfie snapping Chinese indulging in an old town shopping spree.

I write this from a guesthouse in Lijiang, a few hours north towards Tibet, another old town covered in history – but the western influence is nowhere to be seen. I just tried to get some travel agents to help me sort out my route to the bus station tomorrow, and about 10 in a row didn’t know enough English to help me out.

If the difficulties of travelling in China are weighing you down, head to Dali (not the new town though!) and stay a few days, you might not get it so good again.

Walking the streets of Dali Old Town

The best thing to do in any old town is wander the streets and see what you can find. The first thing I noticed was all the dogs. Not your typical Asian handbag accessories dressed up in jerseys and scarves – these were proper dogs. Another great thing about Dali is juice. Old women sit on the side of the street with small tables full of fruit, hand juicing whatever you demand.  You’ll also see people dressed up in traditional costumes charging tourists to take photos with them; there was even an alpaca you could pose with if that’s what you’re into. The old town is really easy to get around (unlike Lijiang, where you are bound to get lost) and veering away from the main streets leaves you almost alone with the cobblestones and curly roofs.

Renmin Road in Dali Old Town, Yunnan, ChinaThe West Gate at Dali Old Town, Yunnan, China

There are plenty of things to keep you busy during your Dali Old Town stay, here are a couple of the day trips I did.

The Three Pagodas

An old man intercepted me outside the ticket office and wrote 2 numbers on his hand. 121 and 100. Was this some kind of crazy maths genius? He eventually explained (in Chinese) that the ticket office would charge me ¥121  but he could get me in for ¥100. It had to be a scam, so I declined and walked in, but no one seemed to want to help me so I walked back out and gave him a red ¥100 note and hoped for the best. Surprisingly, it worked. If it’s a scam then he’s the opposite of a maths genius; I’m not sure how he could possibly make money out of making the ticket cheaper for me.

The Three Pagodas are over 1000 years old and are set in a peaceful garden. There weren’t too many tourists there so it was nice to just sit by the pond and look up at these impressive pieces of history. If you continue up the hill from the pagodas you come to temple after temple heading up the hill. It’s a huge area and took me a couple of hours to walk around – the temples are all kinda the same but it is still a nice place to wander. The further up the hill you go the quieter it gets. When I arrived at the final temple there was no one else around.

The Three Pagodas near Dali Old Town, Yunnan, ChinaA view of the Three Pagodas near Dali Old Town, Yunnan, ChinaTemples at the Three Pagodas, near Dali Old Town, Yunnan, China

Cangshan Mountains

This trip took ages. I had planned to go on a leisurely walk to the mountains and be back for a Belgian waffle and a sleep (Dali is a great place for lazy days) but I ended up on a straining 6 hour walk. If I wasn’t so cheap I would have got the cable car up, but I chose to walk up what felt like thousands of steps to get to the halfway point of the mountain (I was told you had to take the cable car to the top, but I’m sure you can probably walk it – halfway is far enough though!).  I saw lots of squirrels, a cute mouse (I never thought I’d say that) some impressive canyons/gorges and an American girl who got stung by a hornet. She made quite a scene; I don’t think her boyfriend gave her as much sympathy as she expected.

You can see right out over the Dali region from up there, and it was at that moment I decided against cycling around Erhai Lake. It’s a popular thing to do in Dali but cycling through Chinese urban sprawl, with all the traffic that entails, doesn’t really interest me.

The Cangshan Mountains near Dali Old Town, Yunnan, ChinaA view over Dali New Town and Dali Old Town, Yunnan, China

Dali Old Town is a great place to relax and escape “the real China” for a while. Some people might think that’s not a good thing to be promoting, but they probably haven’t travelled in China. It’s tough, and the lack of English makes everything hard. When you get to an oasis like Dali Old Town it’s a good idea to stop for a few days and make the most of it. If you love history, Belgian waffles, cover bands and Chinese people who speak English, head to Dali Old Town, you won’t be disappointed.

Man posing with a llama in Dali Old Town, Yunnan, China

Have you been to Dali old town? Let me know how it was!

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Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who hates talking about himself in the third person and has no imagination when it comes to naming websites.

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  1. June 7, 2014 at 11:33 pm — Reply

    Really sweet looking place. China, along with India, is a destination I’m not ready for – maybe one day. But Dali looks great.
    Frank (bbqboy)

    • June 8, 2014 at 2:46 pm — Reply

      Yeah it’s definitely not a relaxing place, so much cool stuff to see though. I’m sure India is the same, I’ll be going there later this year.

  2. June 20, 2014 at 5:44 pm — Reply

    The bright colours of the old town and the pagodas are fantastic and surely well worth the journey.

    • June 22, 2014 at 5:57 pm — Reply

      It’s a great place, my favourite of the old towns that I went to in Yunnan.

  3. July 19, 2014 at 4:31 am — Reply

    Interesting. I never knew that Dali had so much English spoken (and Lijiang so little).

    • September 8, 2014 at 7:45 pm — Reply

      It was very different to Lijiang – I wasn’t a fan of that place to be honest although the old streets were nice.

  4. Kelvin
    August 24, 2017 at 11:12 pm — Reply

    Hi I am going to Yunnan in Oct and have planned my itinerary however as I only have 10 days, I had to cut down Dali from 2N to 1N instead and plan to do the old town, 3 Pagodas and Erhai Lake. Do you think this is possible? The next day I head to Lijiang and intended to stay 3N (2 in Shuhe, 1 in Lijiang old town area). I then move on to TLG staying 1N on the hike and the last sector to Shangrila however that only gives me 2N and only 1 full day to do the monastery and old town and Napa Lake. I’m in a dillemma as to whether I shd cut LJ to 2N and move the extra night to Shangrila..

    • November 2, 2017 at 8:40 am — Reply

      Hey Kelvin, sorry I missed this comment! What did you end up doing? How was the trip?

  5. Pavel
    August 31, 2017 at 5:56 pm — Reply

    Very interesting read, I am travelling to Dali in few weeks, 6 years after my first visit. I originally came there for 3 days but extended for a week. This time though, I am booking 2 weeks and will probably branch out for a day at Lijiang which seems less fun place to stay at and a few days up in the mountains. The atmosphere in Dali is indeed unlike anything else in China

    • November 2, 2017 at 8:37 am — Reply

      It’s great to have a place like that in such a foreign country! Definitely get up into the mountains if you can, I can’t recommend Yubeng enough.

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