Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
Windoo, a small lakeside lodge in Dali. The staff’s English could perhaps be better, but the hotel’s location, smack on the lake, makes up for any linguistic shortcomings. The rooms are warm and elegant and all have spectacular views of Dali’s Erhai Lake. There are only two suites, and I can always get my clients into one of them. It’s a real treat to watch the sunrise from your own bed!
Restaurant the locals love
Most restaurants in Yunnan are small family-run affairs with unrecognizable names that don’t translate from Chinese, but a very good place to graze is Weishan’s Old Town, known for its snack foods, such as steamed rice buns and sweet pancakes. You can’t go wrong simply walking down its pedestrian street and sampling the wares at any food stand. Be sure to try the stand that offers One String Noodle. It is only open in the mornings, as they always sell out by noon.
Meal worth the splurge
Dali’s Longxingyuan Restaurant serves the very best local specialties, including steamed ham, rice noodle salad, and mushrooms cooked any style. It won’t break the bank, costing $50 to $80 per person if you order enough for everyone to be happily stuffed. Everything on the menu is worth trying.
Niugan mushrooms fried with dried chili. Locals have been harvesting this wild mushroom from the mountainsides for centuries. The flavor is strong, like truffles, and the chili makes it unmistakably Yunnan style.
Small wok cooked rice noodle (小锅米线) is a very simple and scrumptious noodle soup that’s cooked over an open fire and flavored with pickles, chives, and minced pork. It will cost you about a dollar, but for such flavor you’d gladly pay many times that much.
What to See and Do
Lijiang’s Old Town is quite beautiful at dawn with its cobblestoned streets and two-story wooden houses, but the whole town is overrun with tourists by 10 a.m., when the souvenir shops and bars are open and waiting for business. Yes, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, but skip it if you can’t see it first thing in the morning.
Dali. On the surface, people mistake it for a lesser Lijiang, complete with tourists and shops, but Dali—traditionally the capital of Dali Kingdom—has a beautiful soul, and the local Bai communities have managed to maintain their lifestyle in spite of the tourists. Dali has attracted a growing group of China’s urban elite, who have created a vibrant art and architecture scene here.
Jianchuan Shibaoshan Grotto, in Dali, documents the history of the Dali Kingdom, which followed the Tang Dynasty. Though as important as the famed Dunhuang Grottoes along the Silk Road, it is little known and therefore little visited.
Dimaluo, in Gongshan, is a little-known community of Catholic Tibetans living in a remote village in the mountains. The setting is absolutely beautiful, and the area is full of lovely lakes and hiking trails.
The Impression Lijiang show is a live spectacle of music and dancing highlighting local cultures and performed in an outdoor park set against spectacular alpine scenery. The show features hundreds of performers in colorful costumes and was created by the famed movie director Zhang Yimou, who also directed the Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremony (getting the picture?). It’s performed daily. Tickets are about $30, which is very inexpensive for a show the likes of which you’ve never seen and are sure to never forget.
Only a small part of Gaoligong Mountains National Park is open to the public. There is a beautiful ten-mile hiking trail that is reserved for park rangers and requires a special permit for anyone else to access. We can arrange for travelers to overnight at the simple ranger station at the trailhead and then head out with a local ornithologist or botanist to see the extraordinary species of plants and birds the next day.
Dali has attracted some of China’s leading artists, filmmakers, dancers, and photographers. For travelers who are interested in learning more about the arts in China, we can arrange a private visit to the home of one of these national cultural icons or even dinner with one of them overlooking beautiful Erhai Lake.
Take a leisurely bike ride to the market in Dali to buy some fresh wildflowers and a clay pot in which to arrange them. Back at the hotel, spend time reading—perhaps a book about the explorer and botanist Joseph Rock—while sipping freshly made green tea. Later in the day, ride your bike 15 minutes to the home of a Bai villager to learn to cook a mushroom or stir-fry dish, followed by dinner with the family. Finish the day with a soak in a hot spring or massage in a spa.