First Foray into Yunnan
I had always heard Yunnan was one of China's most interesting provinces. It is dense and diverse in ethnic minorities (due to its history encompassing everything from Mongol invasion to Muslim rule) as well as natural beauty - it is home to carefully-sculpted rice plateaus and wild jungle in the south, vast lakes ringed by rolling hills in the middle, and snow-capped mountains in the north. After a few smoggy urban months in Shanghai and a few dusty desert days up in Xinjiang, I was keen to get lost in the province's natural paradise.
After flying into Kunming and spending a day doing crucial life admin (restocking the instant coffee, checking on visas, eating popsicles, etc. - full post coming), we started north on the old Yunnan backpacker trail. Dali, a town 4 hours north by bus, had the reputation as the granddaddy of said trail - a small town set within square walls and nestled in the mountains next to a large lake, it has been hosting hosts of travelers looking for a laid-back locale since the 80's.
Although we had been warned that the "Old Town" wasn't quite the low-key bohemian haunt it once was, we weren't quite prepared for the thoroughfares of tourist streets, lined with shops selling the same tacky tat and swollen with busloads of bucket-hatted Chinese groups, bisecting the town. But the longer we stayed, the charms of the Old Town were revealed to us as we got lost in the older alleys (and avoided those few congested streets).
Because most of the hostels turned out to be somewhat outside of the town, we settled at the Yuyuan Hotel, one of the few reasonably-priced options actually within the walls. The owner and his cheerfully lethargic (read: stoned) father run a simple yet characterful establishment, with a lovely open courtyard built around a faux temple and fully-grown trees. They placed us in the former bar, which left us sleeping under canopies of carved wooden temple roofs - it was very atmospheric, and who doesn't love being able to legitimately pass out in the bar at the end of the night.
As there was lots of exploring to be done, we relied on big breakfasts to bolster ourselves for the day ahead. Tibet Cafe and Yunnan Cafe (next door) were both perfect for eating outside while watching the interesting mix of people pass by - the former has Tibetan and Western options or, my favorite, the Bai breakfast (Bai being the name of the most prevalent local minority group), which features local specialties of a round of buttery fried bread served with scrambled eggs and a Yunnanese ham-cheese-pepper hash. Regardless of where you eat, ubiquitous Yunnan coffee and homemade brown bread is a wonderful way to start the day.
For so small a town, Dali allows many ways to work off the big breakfasts. The hikes around the Cang Shan range, up to and around Zhonghe Temple, are not at all easy and views along the Cloud Pass are especially breathtaking.
You can also explore around (although not across at the time of writing) Erhai Hu, or "Ear-Shaped Lake", which is surrounded by several villages worth visiting. The town of Xizhou had been praised for its traditional architecture, which ended up meaning that it was a Colonial Williamsburg equivalent, complete with costumed guides, a batik demonstration, and a dance show. It was interesting (especially the tea tasting) but a little cheese-tastic. If you're into the more authentic, there is a local market at a different village every day of the week.
Of course, you can always just wander around town discovering the cool little shops scattered between the stalls of tourist tack. We ended up finding beautiful old silver jewelry and intricately-embroidered antique Miao-minority jackets and skirts.
Girl gone native.
When you have filled your cardio quota for the day, hiking or shopping as preferred, it's easy to avail yourself of one of the 30rmb foot rub places or post up at Cafe de Jack. The guidebook's description of it as a foreigner-friendly place did not do it justice (in fact very much the opposite - I guess I just wasn't looking for lasagna in China, as recommended) - the decor is tasteful and the staff are sweet, but the clincher is their second-floor terrace with a first-rate view of the mountains.
For snacks throughout the day, be sure to try Yunnanese specialties, such as their fried cornbread laced with green onion and any form of ru bing, or a local cheese similar to haloumi. Skip the fried or air-dried pieces draped on sticks and sold in the streets (tastes like plastic) but look for it fried in batons, ready to be dipped in mala (numbing) pepper and/or sugar.
Most of the restaurants around town are point-and-shoot places, where you choose from the variety of featured fresh produce and meats and have them stir-friedon the spot. What a variety it was - I had known that Yunnan was renowned for its foraged fresh food, but I had never seen such a selection. Everything we tried was great, especially any type of mushroom, for which the region is famous.
But our best meal by far, in Dali and perhaps of the trip, was found on the corner of a random cross-section - J and I had see some smoking grills studded with large fish, and we went to investigate. Kao Yu Dian or "Grilled Fish Shop" turned out to be fairy self-explanatory - there was only one thing on the menu, and it was a whole grilled lake fish (sold by weight - the dude just grabs one that looks good and clocks it on the head before your eyes) served over a selection of seasonal vegetables. Paired with a cold beer, the crispy-skinned, smokey fish and tender veg is simple bliss. Beat that, locavores.
Although Dali is in no way the slow, bohemian town it probably once was, it was still a wonderful taste of Yunnan.
Or maybe that was just the fish.
Honglong Jing, off of Boai Lu
Tibet Cafe or Yunnan Cafe
Renmin Lu, between Boai Lu and Wenxian Lu
Cafe de Jack
Boai Lu, near Huguo Lu
Kao Yu Dian
Corner of Yu'er Lu and Fuxing Lu (I think! Look for the smoking grills and make-shift outdoor seating)
Home to plenty of fun shops between Yu'er Lu and Renmin Lu, including Buddha's Hand, a shop with modern takes on local styles and Japanese textiles; an antique shop with wonderful clothing and jewelry; and even a few great Western-grade bakeries or massage parlours if you're in need of a break.
NB: when taking the long-distance bus from Kunming, you won't be dropped in Dali Old Town but rather in Xiaguan, the 'capital' of Dali prefecture. You will have to grab a pricey tuk tuk or a cheaper public bus 30 minutes up the lake to Dali Old Town.
Also, we have been relying on an admittedly-ancient Lonely Planet (yes, cue the cringing - we are true gap year tragedies) and just a word of warning - many of their recommendations (even those currently online!) no longer exist.