Arriving in Dali I couldn’t help thinking “What a dump.” The dusty dirtiness, the urinal-grey-tiled buildings, the aggressive taxi drivers… All seemed calculated to induce a feeling of weary disgust.
Judging a city by its bus station is never really fair though (Prague’s, for example, is one of the most godawful holes in the world) so I jumped into the first taxi I saw and handed the driver the address of my hostel.
Over the next half an hour or so I slowly came to realise that I hadn’t been in the old city of Dali at all, but in Xiaguan, the dilapidated capital of “Dali County.” I suppose this is probably what it’s like being a backpacker in the UK. The second thing I slowly came to realise was that not only was Dali a good distance away, but my hostel was a fair bit further than that. In short I ended up paying about 50 kuai, which when I think about it is only just over three quid, and felt like a bit of a fool when I realised there was a bus available for 1 kuai.
The hostel I stayed in was a refreshingly old-school hippy-ish sort of place – the kind that should be everywhere but inexplicably isn’t. The dorm was in what looked like an old shed, beds were 10 kuai a night, everything was on the tab, payable whenever, and there were all sorts of proper travellers to hang out with. The best perk of the place, though, was the close vicinity of Erhai lake. Apparently you’re supposed to pay to get on the pier, but I don’t remember anyone asking me for money, at least no more than usual. I may have just walked past them, thinking they were selling something. Which they were, I suppose.
Anyway, take a look at the lake. You must admit that it’s simply stunning.
This city itself wasn’t too bad either. The top end starts well with an impressive, if fairly standard, old gate…
…and for a few streets everything seems to be about right, with a fair few straight-cut cobbled pedestrian streets with tasteful shops along the side. Perhaps being English immunises you from being impressed with cobbles and tastefulness, but all the same there was a calm, relaxed air to the place, miles away from the hecticness of “walking streets” in Guangzhou or Beijing. A few streets down, though, and the whole place seemed to be one big building site.
Back at the top there were a couple of narrower passages with fairly decent cafes and women in traditional dress trying to sell grass to occasional foreigners. Come to think of it, there were surprisingly few foreigners around, especially considering this is supposed to be a famous backpacker hangout.
The lack of tourists became especially clear when I decided to take the cablecar up the mountain. It was a fair twenty minute journey to the top, but I saw not one person coming down the other way. It was a perfect day for it anyhow, and after a half-hour walk along the pristine mountain pathways I decided to jack it in and spent the afternoon lying on rocks, reading my book and looking at the scenery below.
Altogether, then, the city itself didn’t make much of a mark on me, but the hostel, the lake and the mountain are all the kind of slow-paced getaways that China seems to lack, on the whole, and it’s certainly somewhere I’ll be going to again.
There was also a very strange daytrip I took, but that deserves an entry of its own.