Yunnan Part II: Dali

When arranging this holiday, I nodded absentmindedly when Matt told me we would be travelling from Kunming to Dali on an overnight sleeper train and then didn’t give it much thought until we were stood on the platform at 10pm. It was safe to say the prospect of spending the next 10 hours without being able to shower was making me a little grumpy. The situation called for a peaty single malt, but we had to make do with a bad, bad coffee.

We had booked the most expensive carriage, a ‘soft sleeper’ (150rmb, about £15), essentially a small compartment containing two bunk-beds separated by a small table. A young Korean couple occupied the opposite bunk; they spoke good English and appeared to be nice… thank heavens for small mercies. I won’t go into detail about the bedding and toilets as you may be reading this over breakfast, but my close friends will be giggling right now at the thought of my reaction to this state of affairs.

We arrived at Dali in the hazy light of 6am; tired, dirty and hungry, and pushed past the cacophony of touting taxi-drivers to our waiting car. It was too early to check-in to our hotel, so we dropped off our bags and freshened up as best we could before heading out to look for food.

At this point I started to cheer up because Dali Old Town, before most people wake, is incredibly beautiful and calm; just us, the market-goers and the street-food sellers in the early morning light (notice it’s the women doing the heavy lifting!!).

Given there was no-one around to judge, we decided to have three breakfasts;

  1. a light pizzary dough mixed with herbs and baked in a charred oven at the side of the street – delicious!
  2. a bean-curd soup with spices and fresh herbs – which tasted much better than it looked – served by the lady in the photo below
  3. a grilled rice pancake stuffed with  some kind of fluffy pastry and a red spicy sauce

If only coffee was as easy to come by as high-calorie street food (in the end we made do with the Golden Arches). Stomachs full, we began our tourist checklist…


The Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Monastery

Three Pagodas sit at the foot of the Cangshan Mountains, a short car ride from Dali Old Town. The three elegant towers – made from brick and covered with mud – stand salient against a backdrop of green mountains and white ‘Jade Belt’ cloud. Dating from the 9th Century, the pagodas have withstood many large earthquakes which devastated the surrounding buildings of Dali; their resilience makes the middle pagoda (the tallest, at 16 stories) one of China’s best preserved buildings from the Tang dynasty.

The Three Pagodas

We learned that the pagodas were built to provide refuge to the presiding King should the village be flooded; also that when a King died, his ears would be cut off  (Why? because the nearby lake was shaped like an ear) , sealed in a jar and preserved in the depths of the central pagoda – however, I’ve not found anything on Google to back this up so maybe take it with a pinch of salt?!

By this point the sun was scorching so we hitched a ride in a (surprisingly fast) buggy up to the Chongsheng monastery, one of the largest Buddhist centers in SE Asia.


In my last blog I mentioned that during our time in Yunnan we met some of the different Chinese ethnic minorities that live in the area. Dali is home to 80% of the 190k Bai people, the rest of whom are scattered in neighboring provinces.

Sarina, our tour guide, explained that the Bai are Buddhists and very spiritual people. As we walked round the temples she told us stories about the different Buddhas; Buddahsattva with a tower of faces (one real face and ten faces of suffering)… Fat Buddah with his big forehead (intelligence), big feet (strength) and big belly (kindness)… Buddhas for the past… Buddhas for the present… other Buddhas who stood on evil spirits!

At one point, Sarina asked me – in all seriousness – if I believed in ghosts and I almost wanted to say that I did! But instead I spent the morning captivated by her wonderful stories while we walked around the monastery buildings with their burnt gold roof tiles, brightly painted eaves and carved wooden interiors.

Dali Old Town

After the monastery, we headed back to Dali Old Town for lunch and a wander. The streets we had stood in a few hours earlier were transformed by lively bustling locals selling handcrafts and delicious looking grilled foods… This guy was making a type of sweet, using a somewhat unorthodox methodology…

In Chinese language ‘Bai’ means ‘white’, and walking around the town I fell in love with the Bai houses: each one painted bright white with beautiful hand-painted patterns below the tiled rooftops..

Bai architecture

Every 5th shop we walked past sold silver and we stood watching the men who sit outside in the heat, hammering patterns into solid silver bracelets (it would have been rude not to buy one, right?!)

Sarina told us about a tradition in Dali, for a couple to exchange silver bracelets one month before their wedding day. It was originally believed that silver was a tell-tale sign of whether you were in good or poor health and so if, at the end of the month, your prospective partner’s bracelet was tarnished then you may choose not to marry!

Cruel as that might be, the Dali boys do seem to have an easier job when it comes to finding a girl… For Shanghainese lads a good job, stack of cash and flash car are non-negotiable pre-requisites, but in Dali all you need is a chicken, a bottle of wine, and the skills to turn them into a delicious meal for your fiance’s parents: Brilliant!

Xizhou Market

Our second day in Dali started with a trip to the food market, where Bai women in the distinctive traditional ethnic dress bent over baskets of fresh vegetables and herbs. I’ve been to some impressive food markets in the UK and Europe, but never seen anything like this; it was so authentic and unpretentious. The market itself was constructed of a blue plastic canopy over long lines of trestle tables, but it seemed equally acceptable to pitch up on the floor and get on with it!


It goes that in Shanghai: “time is money”; in Beijing: “time is business opportunity”, and in Dali: “time is life!”. However, looking at these photos I can’t help but notice that it’s the women grafting grafting away while the men sit back with a cig and count their profits!

Lunch, Erhai Lake & Jinsuo Island

After some locals had taken some photos of me (I’m like a minor celebrity in rural China!), we ate lunch which included fish soup, tree bark, and some green leafy vegetables mixed with soft tofu. Matt was in his element as you can see.

We then hopped on a river-taxi for a 45minute ride across Erhai Lake to Jinsuo Island. The crossing was choppy and we got drenched more than once, but were assured that the little boats had survived worse weather (not that we had many options by that point!).

On Jinsuo island we saw where Matt’s fish soup had started the day… and had a breezy walk round the docks.

Catch of the day on Jinsuo Island

Next stop – Lijiang (to which we travelled by car, so no moany travel anecdotes, I promise)

Yunnan Part I – Kunming

So 8 weeks in to our new life in China, we decided to take a week’s break from work and explore a bit farther afield. Unquestionably one of the main advantages of living here is that we have lots of places on our doorstep that would typically be ‘once in a lifetime’ trips from the UK. For this first trip though, rather than head off to Australia, Cambodia or Japan, we thought that it would be great to see some more of China. After a 3.5 hour flight we arrived in  Kunming, the first of four cities we would visit within Yunnan province.

Yunnan is the most southwest province of China, boarded externally by Vietnam, Laos and Burma. The region is almost totally mountainous, save for 18 relatively flat fault basins upon upon which Yunnan’s towns and cities have grown. Of China’s 55 ethnic minorities Yunnan province is home to 51 of them, each with their own distinctive clothing, dialect, and architecture. During the week, we were privileged enough to meet and learn about the Yi, Bai, Naxi and Tibetan people.

Western Hills Forest Park & Dragon Gate Grottoes

Straight from the plane we drove to the banks of Lake Dian, then hopped onto a cable car which climbed around 2400m to the Western Hills. I love how all noise drops away when you are riding a cable-car; especially after traipsing through chaotic airports.

On the ride up, the panoramic, birds-eye views of the freshwater lake – the eighth largest in China – were stunning. Although you wouldn’t want to swim in there… for the decades prior to 1990,  untreated waste water was dumped into the lake leaving it horribly degraded – in spite of the billions of dollars that have been ploughed, in vain, into the clean-up effort.


Apparently there is a saying – “If you do not visit Western Hills, you haven’t visited Kunming; if you do not visit Dragon Gate, you haven’t been to Western Hills”. Evidently our Royal Family subscribe to this philosophy…

Checking out a funny little photo gallery en-route to the Dragon Gate, we discovered that in 1986 (while I was busy making my entrance into the world) Queen Elizabeth embarked on a six day visit to China; the first British sovereign to set foot in the Kingdom. Below is a photo of Matt standing next to a photo of Her Majesty; both wearing a remarkably similar shade of teal!

The Dragon Gate Grottoes were hand-carved into the steep mountainside by Taoist monks during the Qing Dynasty, over 200 years ago. We hiked up and down stone steps, through stone tunnels, and past beautiful carved and brightly painted stone pavilions. How the monks managed to create something so complex and beautiful in such an inhospitable and precipitous environment is beyond me!

Buddhism and Taoism co-exist peacefully in the Western Hills, and the temples are still used for worship today by students and their parents who pray for good grades at school. The kneeling girl – pictured below – after her prayer lit an incense stick as an offering.

The vivid spiritual figures, including the ornate background from which they emerge, are exquisitely carved from a single piece of rock; my photos seriously don’t do it justice.

We were told a story about one of the men who was responsible for carving the grotto that housed the golden figure above. Apparently after many years of painstaking carving and chiseling, the grotto was all but finished. His last task was to complete the writing brush that the golden figure holds in his right hand. For some reason (perhaps excited that he was about to complete his life’s work) he suffered a momentary lack of competence and broke the tip of the brush. This being the days before Pritt-stick, the rock carving was irreparable. Beset by shame, frustration and anger, the man apparently put down his chisel, turn around and jumped off the rock face to his death. And I thought I was a perfectionist…

The statue of the tortoise and snake below is admittedly less aesthetically impressive, but the story behind it is brilliant. Kunming sits at the base of a long mountain range believed to resemble a snake, with the mouth of the snake opening towards the city – very bad luck, as everyone knows. To regain balance and harmony, the recommendation was to build the city in the shape of a tortoise – known for it’s longevity. The city has since expanded and the tortoise shape is no longer clear, but I love that this actually happened!


Yunnan Stone Forest

You don’t get far without hearing another old saying. The next one we heard was: “If you have visited Kunming without seeing the Stone Forest, you have wasted your time.”. Not being in the business of wasting time, on our second day in Kunming, we headed over.

The Stone Forest – classified as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site in 2007 – is a spectacular labyrinth of imposing carbonate rock pillars (known as ‘Karst’ formations) which resemble petrified trees. 270 million years ago this area was covered by a shallow sea; as the carbonate rock was compressed over time, horizontal cracks formed, which were then eroded by running water and wind. As the land uplifted and the joints became deeper and wider, the stone pillars were formed*.

*Disclaimer – I haven’t studied geography since the age of 14. Please assume that this version of events is simplified to a considerable degree (dad, that goes for you!).


The photo above was taken on the main viewing pavilion. Save for this, we largely kept off-the-beaten-track, thanks to our tour guide, Vivian, who ensured we could escape the crowds without getting lost! If you do visit Kunming then I would recommend hiring a local guide to show you round; we got a lot from the experience.

The stone ‘trees’ were interspersed with real ones, a beautiful juxtaposition.

Out of the many ‘lookie-likey’ stones, these two were my favourites; the elephant and “two birds feeding each other”.

I mentioned earlier that we were lucky enough to get to know some local ethnic minorities; the three elegant ladies below are members of the Yi minority in their traditional dress. They were taking a break after practicing their dancing for an upcoming cultural festival and were kind enough to let me snap a photo.



Kunming Flower & Bird Market

Next stop was at the flower & bird market; which does what it says on the tin. Opportunity for some pretentious artistic photos…


Pu’er Tea Ceremony

Another old saying in Kunming – “If you haven’t experienced a tea ceremony when visiting Kunming, you might feel a mild form of regret”. Not really, but I wonder if it might catch on…

On a serious note, this tea ceremony was one of the real highlights of the trip for me. Back in Warwick we had a whole kitchen cupboard dedicated to about 30 different types of tea, but I had never tried pu’er.

There is a special method of preparing the tea which involves, rinsing the clay teapot, cups and tea leaves with boiling mineral water, before brewing the tea for either 30 or 60 seconds. Unlike tea-bag tea that we’re used to at home, you can re-brew good quality pu’er around ten times. The lovely lady who instructed us kept telling me that pu’er has been proven to help with weight loss, although I’m not going to take that personally!

Se said it would be an acquired taste, but I liked it straight away. Needless to say, we shipped a considerable amount back to Shanghai!


That evening, we packed up our things and headed to the train station to catch a sleeper train to our next destination: Dali. It was late at night, but the area around the station was buzzing with activity, with people selling and buying stuff and revving motorbikes and beeping horns and milling on the kerb.


Next stop – Dali (to be continued!)