Dali Was My Bali (And The Moment When I Truly Became a Backpacker)

Every Thursday at the Jade Emu Guesthouse in Dali there’s a pool tournament. Seems cliche but beautiful strangers seem to come out of the woodwork for it. A mix of the backpackers passing through Dali and loyal expats come together to play, swap stories and drink Dali Beer. My first Thursday in Dali I had a great time meeting new people and showing them how much I suck at pool.  My second week one of the regulars, Jane, noticed me when she walked into the Emu courtyard and with a surprised smiled she asked “Still here?!?”

“Yeah..I was only gonna stay a few days, but…”

“I said that too when I first came here and ended up staying for a year and a half.”

I almost skipped over Dali. Lots of people do nowadays (suckers!!!).

There’s a tourist trail in awesome Yunnan that goes up from Kunming and ends (does it ever, really?) in Shangri-La, the gateway to the ever so exotic Tibet. Due to some unfortunate planning or perhaps just coincidence, Dali is an old town just a few hundred kilometers south of another old town called Lijiang. While there’s so much quiet and undiscovered beauty (is there any other kind, really?) in between these two Old Towns, the typical tourist trail in Yunnan province goes like this: Kunming, Yuanyang, back to Kunming with perhaps a watery escapade to Xishuangbanna (try and say that three times), Dali, Lijiang, Tiger Leaping Gorge, and Shangri-La. Try and dodge a weirdo traveller in Yunnan and you’re bound to run into them again on the road up or back down. Because of this long list, I’ve met handfuls of people who’ve bypassed Dali and opted for the more snow-peaked, the more famous, the more traditional and quintessential old-town-China looking Lijiang. But I think one of my Yunnan travel buddies, David, describes it best: (Quote is taken from an email thread between me and friends who met at the Jade Emu). “Lijiang…it’s a silly place.”

Wanderers (I dare to call them that) who don’t go to Dali usually like Lijiang. People who go to both usually run back to Dali crying, scarred from all the shops, crowds, and general lameness. Some people go to Dali and don’t budge, because once you’re in Dali there’s no point to, really. I’m all about the quotes today but this quote sums up the feeling almost to perfection:

“After staying in place like this, it’s a little harder to venture out into the rest of your life.  You’ve already arrived where you want to end up.  All you can do is close your eyes, face the ocean and breath in a promise that you’ll return to live there some day.”

I only stayed in Dali for two weeks but it was longer than any other city in China. Almost every day when I find myself wondering about the future, about my next move and my next place to live I think about how things would be like if I’d stayed.

The morning I left for Dali I was refreshed and inspired by the rice terrace excursion. I had conquered most of the eastern half of the Mainland and I was pumped to machete my way through the west. I read that Dali was the place to relax and unwind; it’s one of the first Chinese towns where western backpackers set up camp. I knew this would mean lots of English speaking, a ton of generic Western food and way too many cafes. I thought of skipping Dali as well. Who has time for such conveniences when there are hundreds of smoggy miles of real China to see?

But I also read that Dali had a Bookworm. By that time, I’d been to two of the four Bookworms in the country. (Beijing, Suzhou, Dali, and finally, Chengdu. I’ve now been to them all). A book nerd like myself finds it pretty cool to sit down and read at every establishment of one of their favorite chains of book stores in one of their most favorite countries. So I decided to bus it to this popular old town that wasn’t Lijiang.

I left Kunming at noon and it was a mere six-hour ride under the golden Yunnan sun. I’ve driven from Las Vegas to San Francisco. I’ve driven through the winding hills up to San Diego from Palm Springs. I’ve driven from Montreal to Ottawa (not as cool as the two others). The drive from Kunming to Dali topped all three. The red sandstone, the dry and patchy hills that went on for hours under the bright yellow sky was something to get out of bed for.

The Jade Emu Guesthouse has been a top-rated hostel for a while for a reason. It’s beautiful, clean, and the people are friendly. Some days in China that’s the exact opposite of what you’ll get, so having a good hostel can make all the difference. And the owners were always around to greet you with a smile. This efficiency was priceless to me. The actual price was, too. I stayed in a four-person dorm (the smallest dorm room I’d been in thus far) complete with its own bathroom and paid $6 a night. They offered deals for people who stayed for a month or more, giving them 40% off. Give up your $4 latte every morning and you can afford to live in Dali. And who needs a latte when there’s fresh Yunnan coffee for a dollar just about everywhere. You don’t even need to go to an expat owned cafe, the local people drink it in their homes. Saying goodbye to Yunnan coffee was like when I left Germany. For months I couldn’t drink a beer without weeping over the B.S that I was holding in front of me. Yunnan coffee crops haven’t been corrupted by big chains yet. I hope it stays that way.

By the time I got to Dali, I’d been to enough tourist trap old towns that I was already rolling my eyes when I could spot the perfect looking streets of souvenirs and cafe kiosks in the distance. I would mentally prepare myself for the waves of bus groups (they really do come in waves, Lijiang and Fenghuang are one big tsunami) and get ready to pop into a side street. Why did I continue to walk through these old towns? Why do I criticize these tour groups and tourist traps when I myself walked straight into the trap as a tourist? Because I always had hope, I was always looking for something different. Maybe something or someone would stand out in the rows of commercialization and sameness. My first street in the Dali old town was peaceful. All the shops sold unique looking throws and sarongs. They had an authentic hippie look to them if that’s even a thing. I continued to browse and some of the stuff I’d seen before, all the string bracelets and flowery bags. But this time I wasn’t annoyed. In Dali, they seemed to fit.

Maybe I was just bored with my guidebook or maybe I felt like I didn’t need one in Dali, but I hardly opened my book and relied on the guesthouse message boards for ideas on what to do. A few days in peaceful Dali and I knew what I needed: yoga! This thing called Jolie Adventure was advertised in the hostel so I took down the number on the poster. Then I took a bus outside the old town and into the outskirts of Dali where there was supposed to be a weekly market. The market was busy, bustling and filled with only locals. Dali is a great example of the eclectic mix that Yunnan province has of minorities. Everyone looked a lot different than the city folk I was used to. I stocked up on tea, fruit, and tried some of the most delicious caramels ever. Caramels? In an outdoor market? This wasn’t China. While munching on my candies I walked up the lake in one of the most gorgeous surroundings I’d been to in China. The crystal blue lake was on one side and the tree-lined Dali Old Town with Cangshan Mountain as a perfect backdrop was on the other. I had the place all to myself except for a few locals, all friendly an greeted me in passing. This is the kinda place I’m talking about that someone probably won’t get to see if they leave after a day.

I cycled back out there with a friend from my hostel a few times and we spent hours exploring new villages and looking for the best view of the lake. I felt like it was summer and I was a kid again, biking out to new places outside of a town that I called home.

I called Jolie on my bus ride back to the old town and she was sweet and warm, very yogi like. She invited me to join her for yoga at her studio later that afternoon. One sundown yoga session on the rooftop of Jolie’s yoga studio overlooking the lake and I was hooked. Every morning after that I took the first bus out to the studio, passing the markets and the locals working in the rice fields for 8 a.m yoga at Jolie’s place. A few other people lived at the studio (I almost moved in myself) and after an hour and a half of ohms and sun salutations we had breakfast together, talked about how China was changing and Jolie shared her stories of studying and teaching yoga in India and Southeast Asia. Breakfast was usually a yogurt parfait with mangoes, mint, and apples, all from crops growing a few kilometres away.

My last yoga session was up on Cangshan mountain on the porch of a cabin. Jolie took me and six new friends from the Emu on a trek up the mountain, stopping to snack on mangoes along the way and we spent two days up in the cabin on a yoga retreat. There were mixed emotions about yoga (some of us were more spiritual than the others) but it worked. An hour before we left, the owner of the guesthouse notified us that we were almost out of water. Totally dry. No toilet flushing allowed or anything. It hadn’t rained in Dali for over a month. In his thick French accent, Nicolas told us “pray for some water, please.” We all went to take a nap before the long trek down the mountain, and half an hour later, it rained for 45 minutes. That rainfall was the only rain I saw in Dali during my two weeks. The rest of the time I had to deal with clear skies and sunshine, comfortable dry heat with a light breeze and some clouds that always crept over Cangshan mountain every day before sundown, resting at the top while Dali said goodbye to the day.

The day I left, I think it was on the bus ride to Lijiang, I ate a chocolate bar. I have to admit that I eat more junk food when I travel, the thing with buying candy for lunch on the road in China is that you’re pretty sure what you are buying isn’t dog meat. Anyway, this chocolate bar made me feel GROSS. I couldn’t believe I was putting so many sugary chemicals in my body after I’d had a Dali brunch of muesli, fresh coffee, and a locally grown mango. I realized that because I’d eaten so darn healthy and organic during my time in Dali that my body wasn’t going to be happy adjusting back to my big city on-the-go diet. Even the beer I drank was fresh and Dali made. Dali Beer is actually one of the better beers in the Mainland (this isn’t just my opinion, travellers who didn’t like Dali has told me that they preferred Dali Beer). Do you know that Hundred Mile Diet thing? It would be pretty easy in Dali. So would a lot of things, if we just made time for them.

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