Days 97-98; October 23rd-24th; Ninglang-Lijiang-Dali; 20,749km-21,070
Scroll down to the bottom of the page to read our Traveler’s Tips for visiting Lijiang and Dali.
Luckily none of the challenges that we had faced the previous day. Smooth sailing into Lijiang today! Perfectly paved roads and beautiful mountain twisties into Lijiang.
Wandering The Crowded Streets of Lijiang
Lijiang is one of the more popular tourist destinations for travelers to South West China. It is a convenient launching point for many of the attractions around that area of Yunnan, but it is also an attraction in and of itself. As the capital of the old Naxi nation, the Naxi one of the 56 Chinese ethnic minorities half of which can be found in Yunnan, the streets and buildings of the old town give you a glimpse into life centuries ago. Narrow streets, low buildings, and cobbled stone roads create a very quaint atmosphere capped off by the small streams that run through the town. As you walk through the town you can buy supposedly authentic Naxi trinkets and stop in and have a bite of some local Naxi food, 小吃. Of course however, as with with many Chinese tourist destinations, Lijiang is flooded with tourists, nagging shop owners, and gaudy trinkets. All of this of course takes away from the authenticity of the city. There’s a bit of a sensory overload.
We got in just around lunch time and after checking into the local youth hostel we plunged into the chaos of old town in search of N’s Upstairs Kitchen, which was supposed to have the best burgers in Lijiang. Look, don’t judge us. We hadn’t had any proper Western food almost since starting 3 months ago. We had all 3 meals in Lijiang at N’s Kitchen and each meal was delicious (the second was a mistake as we were looking for another restaurant that we had found online and looked like it was a popular local restaurant judging from the Chinese reviews… After following our navigation to the restaurant, it turned out it was just N’s Kitchen). We do regret not having tried more local food, but burgers, pizza, bacon, and fresh Yunnan coffee made it hard to feel bad for too long.
Lijiang is nice, but the crowds and the gaudiness of some of it allowed us to leave the next day after arrival without feeling too remorseful. The next stop was Dali which we had heard was much less known and popular than Lijiang and so much less of an oppressive experience. It was a easy half-day’s ride south towards Dali, half through some urban sprawl and the rest through some mountains and then alongside the lake on which Dali sits on the Eastern bank.
Private Tour Around Xizhou
Before getting to Dali Old Town though, we had a stop we wanted to make first. The Linden Centre is located in Xizhou, 20km north of Dali on Erhai Lake. Originally the house of a rich Bai (another of China’s ethnic minorities) merchant that lived in the area, the Linden Centre has been converted into a sort of boutique hotel with the primary aim being a sustainable form of building restoration and preservation of the local architecture and building techniques. You can read a more in-depth introduction to the Linden Centre on Amy’s Building Restoration website here. We met Jeanee and Brian Linden, the couple that started and run the center, and Jeanee gave us a tour of their newest project, another old home in the city that had just been completed earlier in the year.
After a few hours in Xizhou, it was time to make our way down to the Dali Old Town. We had a great time in Dali, and we probably both could have done with staying a little bit longer but unfortunately our schedule had other ideas in mind. Nonetheless, we made the best of our half day in town.
Kicking Back In Dali
Dali is indeed much more subdued than Lijiang. Both the smaller crowds and wider streets leave you with a sense of personal space. The town is also much more bohemian than Lijiang. Where Lijiang is almost trying too hard to give you a sense of “Naxi life” with all the tourist shops, local snacks, and over the top decorations, Dali doesn’t have as much of that. Instead, you can find bakeries, coffee shops, and Chinese 20-somethings with dreadlocks playing the guitar and selling their handicrafts on the street.
We spent our time walking around the old town, walking through the Wuhua Tower in the center of it, which gets lit up at night before heading to the Bad Monkey dive bar. Again, this was another western indulgence, but can you blame us! The Bad Monkey was the first Western run bar in town, a very nostalgic experience for us, complete with live music, micro-brew made on sight, and grungy bathrooms (well, I suppose you can get that anywhere in China). It was a fun experience, even more so because of the local friends we made there that were very excited to meet Chinese speaking foreigners, but who also got slightly intoxicated within an hour or so of arriving and meeting us.
The morning in Dali was nice too. If you’re there, try and get up early and you can get a more authentic local experience. We were walking down the street, looking for a place to have breakfast when we noticed some old women hunched over under the weight of produce they were carrying in wicker baskets on their backs. Soon we passed by what must have been their destination, a makeshift farmer’s market where we could only assume all the local farmers brought their goods to be sold to the restaurants in the area before everything opened for business.
Hard to get an early start out of Dali. We went by a bakery to pick up some sandwiches that we could have for lunch while on the road and then back to the Bad Monkey where we indulged in more western food for breakfast. Definitely have coffee if you’re ever in the area! Yunnan has some pretty good coffee that’s grown locally, which means it’s some of the best you can find in China and also readily available.
Traveler’s Tips: Lijiang and Dali
We both would have liked to have spent much more time than we ultimately could in this area of the country. If we had a list of places to come back to after The Great Ride of China is done, these are definitely on the top. That said, we have a lot of friends that have spent a good deal of time around these two cities and so got a good deal of tips from them.
Below are our own tips mixed in with our friends’, enough to easily plan a week long Yunnan excursion!
- Take a walk up to the top of the hill overlooking the old town. The park at the top is only open during the day though
- Black Dragon Pool is another sight within walking distance of the old town
- Nordic Delight is a good place to go for breakfast, but hard to find. It’s near the northern gate, so if you are standing by the water wheel facing north, the path to take will be to your right (east) sort of tucked under the road. It should be about a five minute walk and the shop will be on your right. Delicious fresh waffles, biscuits, and jams.
- Also highly recommend N’s Upstairs kitchen, for all three meals!
- Lodging- Mama Naxi is popular for backpackers (I don’t recommend the youth hostels), but you can also find atmospheric courtyard hotels dotted throughout the whole old town.
- Use Lijiang as a base for going to other places around Yunnan. You don’t need to spend too much time here though. A day to walk around the old town should be enough.
- Two trips you’ve got to do while you’re in the area- a hike to Jade Dragon Mountain and Tiger Leaping Gorge. There are tours offered out of Lijiang, however if you’re more inclined to do it yourself: Hike the 10 or so miles in to Half Way House, stay there over night with gorgeous views overlooking the Tiger Leaping Gorge, and hike the final 5 to Jane’s and hitch hike back to Lijiang.
- Stop in at Xizhou on your way to Dali first. The town is small and has a very authentic, untouched feel to it. We recommend staying at the Linden Centre however other, cheaper, local-run offerings are popping up now thanks to the tourism being brought by the Lindens
- Rent a bicycle and take a ride around Erhai Lake, visiting the local villages along the way. You can stay Shuanglang in the north east of the lake, with beautiful waterfront hotels that look across the lake toward Dali Old Town and Cang Shan behind it.
- If you have time, there’s a cool half day hike to a temple part of the way up the main mountain in the area, Cang Shan. Swing by a cool cafe called Climb Dali for some great food and exploration inspiration from the owner Adam.
- Blue Bird’s Nest is a great place to stay. Just on the edge of Old Town, it’s tucked away down some quiet and secluded allies with a beautiful courtyard entrance and well maintained rooms.
- For food: Bad Monkey and then Bakery 88 for freshly made bread, cheeses and sandwiches