Time travel to Dalifornia
The Himalayan foothills give a taste of an alternative China.
Yunnan Province in southwest China is world-famous for its tea plantations and the ancient horse tea road that begins in the province’s southern region. En route to Tibet and India, the fabled trade route arcs the lakeside city of Dali and the good leaves’ legacy is nowadays commemorated with a plethora of teahouses – making it a great place to sample unique south-western blends, including the distinguished Pu-erh or the gourmet black tea Dianhong.
But tea is not the only attraction of Dali. In the 1990s, the city became a popular hangout on the South-east Asian backpacker trail. Cafés, hostels, and bars were established, catering principally to a foreign market. But as the dragon economy took off, the domestic tourists also started heading westwards. The East Coasters brought with them their urbane tastes, earning the city the “Dalifornia” moniker. Today, several famous Chinese musicians and actors’ own hillside villas overlooking the town. But Yunnan Province’s remoteness has helped maintain an air of the unconventional: Despite the tide of gentrification lapping the shoreline of Erhai Lake, the bucolic homeland of the Bai people remains a place where the exotic and ancient mingle with the new and the hip.
Enjoy the stay
You’re spoiled for choice with accommodation in Dali though again be discerning to avoid the homogenous guesthouses that have recently popped up.
Yuluo is a clean and cosy guesthouse near the lake and is owned and operated by Yao Yu – an entrepreneur from Guangdong who moved to Dali for the “lifestyle.” She’s a well of information on all that’s going on in town and her guesthouse is a popular stop with young creatives.
Alternatively, Yun Yang Book Garden is located in the Cangshan Mountains that surround Dali. Up amongst the tea fields and bamboo groves, local Bai hotelier Cai Yun runs a teahouse and restaurant that serves up fine local fare. Rooms have a view of the soaring vistas of the city and lake below.
A colony of Beijing musicians, burned-out with inflated capital prices and the oppressive climate of the North, have retreated to Dali. As such, the ancient town is a fine place to take in a show, be it folk, rock, electronic, or perhaps a fusion of all three. Two core venues sustain the underground scene: September and You Ma, while British-run Bad Monkey offers a more mainstream cover band experience (though the homebrewed craft beer makes it worthy of a visit).
The combined appeal of Dali’s reasonable prices and climate has also attracted several artists. To get a sense of the local creative-output visit The Art Factory – a warren of galleries, bookstores, and design firms inhabiting a refurbished Mao-era mattress factory. Regular exhibitions attract gallery-goers but it’s a fine place to hang out and grab a coffee irrespective of what’s going on.
Beyond the crowds
If you’re looking for a place largely uncorrupted by tourism book a bus for the ancient market town of Shaxi in Jianchun County, just two hours north of Dali.
1. The town’s centrepiece is the old market square overlooked by the two snarling guardian kings of the Xingjiao Temple, which is of Ming vintage, while the town centre has a number of choice tea shops.
2. Another Shaxi highlight is the restaurant Hungry Buddha. Operated by Maurno Anzideo and wife An Xin, the eatery serves up vegan Italian fare infused by local specialities, notably the delicious mushrooms that grow at this altitude.
3. Shaxi is also an amazing base from where to explore the surrounding villages that dot the valley. Just hire a bike and head out in any direction, you’ll soon be enamoured by fantastic flora that’s been luring botanists for centuries.
Text Thomas Bird
Photos Thomas Bird and iStock