Finally! We seem to have found a town in China with a little bit of soul! Dali is delightful and, whilst still touristy, at least has an air of authenticity about it. Surrounded by mountains, with Lake Erhai at its doorstep, Dali is also incredibly scenic. After arriving from Kunming around lunchtime, we had a great afternoon here and are really looking forward to seeing more of this part of Yunnan tomorrow.
Dali town is situated on a long, narrow fertile plateau sandwiched between the towering Cangshan Mountains and Lake Erhai. This small city of 40,000 people has been, and still is, home to people of the Bai ethnic minority. The Bai are closely related to indigenous Tibetans and are believed to have settled in this north-western part of Yunnan some 3,000 years ago. They established an independent empire that resisted external attempts at domination until the Mongol invasion of the 13th century. Dali city, where we’re staying, was the capital of the Dali kingdom for almost 600 years. Remnants of the royal capital of Dali still remain today, with parts of the original city wall and southern gate remaining intact.
Subsequent to the Mongol invasion, the Dali kingdom came under Chinese rule and Dali city became a provincial outpost whose main claim to fame lay in its marble exports. In fact, Dali is so famous for the stone that the name of marble in Chinese is literally “Dali Stone”. The marble is carved out of the Cangshan mountain range that dominates the landscape to the west of the city.
Still today most of the inhabitants of Dali city are Bai, and proudly so. We saw many of the Bai men and women wearing their traditional garb and headgear on the street whilst going about their day-to-day lives.
“Bai” literally means “white” and reflects this tribe’s love of the colour white in all things – they paint their houses white, they wear embroided white clothing, and value white things. Though traditionally farmers for the most part, the Bai people are also renown for their carpentry and masonry skills, which were very evident today in the architecture and design of the houses we saw.
Unlike all the cities we’ve visited so far in China, Dali hasn’t sacrificed all its historical architecture, narrow lanes and charm to make way for modern high-rises and freeways. Even new homes here are built in the traditional Bai style, with a central courtyard, peaked roof corners, and heavily decorated wood panelling. The beauty of this unique style of home made wandering through Dali’s old town fascinating and really adds to this small town’s charm.
As well as their talent with carving wood and stone, Bai artisans are very skilled at embroidery and weaving. We saw many stalls today selling clothing, scarves, shoes and bags, all decorated by hand by Bai women.
Whilst wandering through town we learnt from our guide that the Bai are traditionally a matriarchal people, with family wealth and property being passed down the matrilineal line. This has put an interesting spin on the Bai version of Buddhism: here Buddha has a female form. We saw this when we went to see the city’s most iconic landmark: the Chongseng Temple and its 3 pagodas.
Dali’s 3 pagodas are laid out at the base of a small rise and together form an equilateral triangle that heralds the entrance to the Chongseng Temple. The largest of the pagodas is 70m tall and was built in 823AD. The 2 smaller pagodas were built 100 years later and are 42m tall.
The 3 pagodas were initially built for auspicious reasons. According to local legends, Dali was once a swamp inhabited by dragons before the humans arrived. As the dragons, which were believed to deliberately create natural disasters to dispel human intruders, revered pagodas, the 3 pagodas were built to appease the dragons.
The 3 pagodas are well known for their resilience; they have endured several earthquakes and have survived intact for more than a thousand years. The original Chongseng Temple was not so fortunate and was destroyed by a large earthquake in 1925. Rebuilt in 2005, the new Chongseng Temple is very impressive however.
The temple is actually 7 temples, each housing a different form of Buddha. The temples are built progressively bigger and higher up the mountainside, until you finally reach the largest at the top of the slope. It was quite a walk up the slope in the heat of the afternoon sun today, and being 2,100m up, the UV index here in Dali is very high. It was worth it though, the temples were spectacular and the views back down to Dali city and Erhai lake breathtaking.
It was really interesting to see how Dali’s proximity to south-eat Asia and trade with countries such as Tibet, Nepal and India have influenced the form of Buddhism practiced by the Bai here. Not only does Buddha have his traditional form, there is also a female form of Buddha revered here, and he/she also has a multi-armed form reminiscent of the Hindu gods Vishnu and Durga.
After a busy afternoon exploring Dali we had dinner in a small local restaurant and spent a couple more hours strolling through the streets of the old town. The best thing about Dali really does seem to be it’s real-ness – it’s not fake. So many of the sights we’ve seen in China so far have been so fake and commercialised that it’s a revelation to spend time in a town that still has a soul. Dali really is delightful!