From foreign backpackers in the past to Chinese tourists of recent years, visitors have been coming to Dali for centuries. There’s just something about this ancient town that has managed to draw people in from ancient time till now.
The Chinese has a phrase, 风花雪月 (wind, flower, snow and moon), use to describe romanticism of a time and place. It was said that this phrase was coined to describe Dali’s four incredible beauties: the wind that passes through the valley that Dali sits in; the flowers that bloom all year round due to its spring-like climate; the perpetual snow that covered the peaks of Cangshan Mountain; and the perfect reflection of the moon on the serene Erhai Lake. This is a testament to Dali’s attractions.
Most visitors stay only a couple of days to do and see and all the sights and activities in and around Dali: Hiking in Cangshan, cycling around Erhai Lake, visiting the minority’s villages and markets around the lake, etc.
The old town of Dali is a beautiful in an unassuming kind of way. Discounting the main streets that are choked with Chinese tourists and souvenir shops, there are still many old shops and houses oozing with antiquity in atmospheric back lanes. Unlike Lijiang, where the old town has essentially been converted into a tourist zone, Dali’s old town is still a living working town, where school children mingle with vegetable trotting women and cycling old men.
I fell in love with Dali the moment I stepped foot in it, because beyond the doll up commercial touristy front, I felt that it has a soul. And I made the decision to forgo my plan to visit other parts of Yunnan and stayed in Dali until my departure, in 2 weeks. Sometimes when you’re on the road, you do crazy things like this. There’s no rational reason behind it, it’s just a gut feeling, a whisper in your ear, and you know that if you don’t listen to your heart, it won’t leave you in peace.
I found a very cozy, clean and cheap hostel in the residential area, just outside of the old town. The hostel is owned by a young gay couple. They were originally from other part of China, but had fallen in love with Dali and decided to set up a hostel here. One of the owners told me that Dali is very different from other parts of China; it’s a place where they could build a home and not worry about society of people judging them. He went on to tell me that there were quite a number of gays and lesbians who have moved here. They all have similar story; they came from all over China, fell in love with Dali’s natural beauty and her embracing nature, and decided to stay.
On the surface, Dali is a place overrun with tourists, who come to buy souvenirs, scale Cangshan and peek at Erhai Lake’s beauty. But underneath its superficial façade, Dali with its bohemian vibe, poetic scenery and embracing nature has attracted writers, artists, former professionals, and those seeking alternative lifestyles.
Just like the hippies in the United States flocked to California in the 1960s, bohemian Chinese have in recent years been moving to Dali. These immigrants are people who disagree with the mainstream values of modern China, where everyone is competing to survive, decided to quit the big cities for a more basic life, closer to nature and soul. Some set up small businesses, such as café, home stay, etc. Others become farmers, planting vegetables and paddy. The absence of pressure and race to succeed have given them a new appreciate for life.
Renmin Road, just off the main shopping street, is packed with Chinese youth who set up temporary stall on the sides of the road, selling everything from handicrafts, self-made postcards, to nick nags they bought online and reselling them to make small profit. They are the” beat generation” of China. They came from all over China, searching for “on the road” experiences and liberation from succumbing to conventional existence.
(Pic left: Chinese youth in Dali seeking ‘on the road’ experience and a hippie lifestyle. Pic right: my favourite bohemian cafe in Dali, where I spent almost every afternoon reading and writing.
Unmasked Dali’s commercial façade and see Dali for who she really is: a hippie, a muse, a farmer, and a yoga teacher. Many came for her beauty, touched by her embracing nature and found inspiration. Some stayed and settled down, while others, like me, moved on after we’ve learnt our lessons from her.