Touristic Dali has plenty to offer, especially outside its touristic centre.
Dali is a strange place, with attractive architecture of the old houses in the central part of town, and narrow alleyways in between the main arteries. Some of the main streets have been turned into pedestrian roads, another testimony to tourism. But it is the kind of shops that divides the town. In the western half, batiks, artefacts, embroideries and ‘old’ silver (which is neither old, nor silver) are for sale in tacky souvenir shops, which are complemented with western-style café’s serving everything from fried eggs for breakfast to Hamburgers and French fries, Mexican taco’s and Indian curries. The southern part of town caters for Chinese tourists and sells a completely different type of souvenirs: stone vases, some of enormous dimensions, framed stone slabs – not the type of stuff a backpacker would easily take home. And there are literally hundreds of these shops, suggesting that the tourist loads in season must be enormous, stifling, and that perhaps January was not a bad time at all to visit, despite the cold.
The nicest part of town was actually the northern part, apparently reserved for Dali inhabitants rather than for tourists. Here shops provide the normal, day to day purchases, and the streets are lined with market stalls selling fruit, cloths etc. – welcome back to China. In one corner is the egg market, a place near the Northern Gate where everybody who wishes to sell or buy eggs congregates. The chicken market is in a wholly different street again, and so is the pet market, with baskets full of puppies and rows of full-grown dogs, too, and pigeons, cats, rabbits, you name it. Just outside the walls we came across the cattle market, along a stretch of river. Very lively, not only because of the ferocious looking bulls for sale, or every size pig being represented, but also because of the many people wearing their colourful, traditional dress.
The various tourist sites around Dali were disappointing. The Three Pagodas turned out to be a walk along tourist stalls skirting the pagodas in a wide circle before finally arriving at the main structure, which was closed off, just like the two neighbouring, smaller towers. The city walls at the South Gate are a heavily restored affair with little authenticity left, apart from the crumbling end. The most attractive building turned out to be a dilapidated pagoda to the south-west of the town, which had at least some feel of originality to it. And another highlight was the Old Dali catholic church in a back street, a temple-like building where the Christian spirit turned out to be stronger than the standard Chinese instinct: there was no obligatory entrance fee!
Towns like Dali, with their touristic appeal, obviously attract a whole range of entrepreneurs, like the ones who want to sell you tours on the nearby lake, the ones who continuously want to repair your shoes, and the ones who approach you with photo books of antiques. The latter ones are also the people selling embroidery from home, anything from baby bags to aprons, hats, shoes, jackets, trousers, pillows, and pieces that as yet have no distinct purpose. All this stuff comes out of huge carton boxes, and comes in a wide variety of quality. Some are newly made, some even machine made, the most pompous being a belt with a zip on top to hide a small money pouch. But so once in a while one can dig up old pieces (or should I say ‘apparently old’), very nicely done in a range of beautiful colours, a testimony to hours and hours of tedious handwork, which, given the right negotiation skills, can be purchased for very reasonable prices.
In fact, the people themselves are still wearing this type of cloths, although the typical Bai dress is nowadays often complemented with jeans, a Nike wind breaker and platform shoes, the latest fashion craze in China.
Next: an excursion to the villages around Dali