Set amid breathtaking scenery on the shores of shimmering Erhai Lake, Dali is the China of the imagination – where pagoda towers nose above skylines of clay-tile roofs, and ancient cobbled streets are framed by willow trees and a serene backdrop of cloud-swept summits. At the foot of Cangshan (‘Green Mountains’), it is the capital of the Bai minority, and between the 8th and the 13th centuries served as the seat of the Nanzhao and Dali dynasties, whose antique temples and gateways still dominate the Old Town.
Dali’s historic patina and ethnic colour have made it a popular retreat for middle-class Chinese seeking a taste of the old world, which has given rise to a lively bar and coffee-shop scene. The ancient character of the city, however, still stands to the fore, especially in the markets and along the main street, Benmin Lu, where Bai stallholders in traditional dress squat beside displays of silverware, embroidery and freshly cut flowers.
Aimless wandering is very much the order of the day in old Dali. Don’t miss the exquisite ‘Three Pagodas’ complex, whose iconic towers, reflected to magical effect in an ornamental pond, have survived a millennia of wars and earthquakes. Further afield, the lakeshore shelters a string of pretty traditional villages where you can watch cormorant fishermen at work, and strike out on walks into the Cangshan mountains to hot springs and hidden monasteries.