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Located on the shores of Erhai Lake, with the Cang Mountains to the east, Dali is an historically important town in China’s Yunnan Province, and one that today plays an important part in preserving southern China’s cultural and architectural heritage.

From the 8th to 10th centuries the Nanzhao Kingdom centred on today’s Yunnan Province, stretching south into modern-day Myanmar and Laos. The capital was at Taihe, which is located close to Dali. After the decline of the Nanzhao Kingdom, and a quick succession of short-lived kingdoms, the Dali Kingdom came to power and flourished, with Dali as its capital. It lasted over 300 years, coming to an end in 1253 with the expansion of the very powerful Mongol Kingdom.

Although also a famed centre for Buddhism, in the mid-19th century, Dali was a Muslim stronghold that served as a base for rebels who raided Kunming, the capital of Yunnan held by the Qing dynasty.

The indigenous Bai ethnic minority who are mostly Buddhist are concentrated in Dali and surrounding Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture, with an estimated eighty percent of Bai people living there. This has strongly influenced the local culture, and can also be seen through the Dali architecture.

The old town as it is today, dates back to the 14th century. Although many of the buildings are much newer, some very new, building regulations are strict and all buildings must retain the traditional Bai style. Most of the buildings throughout the old town are white-washed, adorned with beautifully tiled roofs, intricately decorated. Wandering the old town is extremely pleasant and there is plenty of atmosphere to take in. The town itself is indeed attraction enough to visit. It has a laid-back atmosphere compared with most bustling Chinese cities, and even though in recent years as the domestic market for travel has grown, it has become much busier than the times when most visitors were independent travellers, the ambience remains charming. The atmosphere of the town is enhanced by its location on the shores of Erhai Lake. Spending some time wandering or cycling the lakeside is a lovely way to take in the atmosphere of Yunnan at a slow pace.

Just outside Dali are the Cang Mountains, certainly another major attraction of visiting the town. Cangshan offers wonderful trekking opportunities along well-established paths, through the dramatic mountainous landscape and lush greenery. If a hike seems a little strenuous, an exciting way to get to a viewpoint is by cable-car.

Dali makes a wonderful additional to a tailormade tour of China, and combines particularly well with other parts of Yunnan Province such as Shangri-La and Lijiang. Transport links from Yunnan onto other parts of China such as Shanghai or Beijing are also excellent making onward travel very convenient.

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My favourite thing is to go where I've never been.
Diane Arbus

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