BootsnAll Travel Network

Dali Dali, We Like to Party

Dali is one of the more popular tourist destinations in China, especially for backpackers, known for a laid back vibe, beautiful scenery and the availability of certain herbal delights. I was more intent in getting out of the city of Kunming and seeing some nice countryside again, and booked an afternoon bus to Dali which would take about 5 hours. There was also the option of taking an overnight train, but seeing as that takes 10 hours, I didn’t see why anyone would do that. After eating some breakfast and packing up, I hopped in a taxi to the bus station. Kunming streets are clean and easy to navigate, but are a real pain in a car, as you have to drive very far out of your way and do a U turn instead of being able to just turn left at any given intersections. But after only a few minutes, I arrived at the bus station, ticket in hand, and made my way past all the hawkers to find my bus. Showing my ticket to a few people, I was finally directed to the back of the station, and shown a minibus that had the Dali characters on the front. My bags were thrown in the back, and I sat on the  minibus, by myself, and waited for it to leave. No other people got on, however, and a nagging feeling started at the pit of my stomach. Something didn’t feel right.But I had shown my ticket to the driver and he took the ticket and told me to get on, so normally that would be the right thing to do. About 5 minutes to my scheduled departure time, the minibus moved into position at the gate, and another man joined the driver to collect tickets. Still, I was the only one on the bus, and he looked at my ticket, then started gestureing wildly at the driver and at me; crap. They motioned for me to get my bags, and pointed in the opposite direction through the station. I was on the wrong bus. So, even though I had arrived 40 minutes before my departure time, I found myself running through the station, sweating now, trying to show my ticket to someone in a uniform, and being hurried outside, where a nice coach bus was waiting. With about two minutes to spare, I found my seat and off we went.

When we arrived in Dali in the late afternoon, something didn’t feel quite right. Dali is an old town, surrounded by mountains and greenery, and along a big Erhai lake. The bus station we were dropped off at was in a big modern town of Xiaguan, and after asking a few people, I realized that I had fallen for an old trick. Many buses only take you as far as the next closest town, and then you have to take a taxi or local bus to Dali about 30 kilometers away. Knowing a taxi would cost me a fortune on my own, and not having a faintest idea on what local bus to catch, I approached two Westerners who were on my bus,  and asked them if they were going to Dali. They said yes, and we agreed to share a taxi. The two were a father and son from Russia, and the son was living and studying in California. While the son was nice enough, it became apparent that the father was a very domineering person, and spent the next few minutes interrogating me on my travels, and trying to convince me that China was horrible, and the food was better in California, and what a crap place it was. I answered as politely as I could, but soon tried to not get in any discussions with him at all, and we rode the last 15 minutes in silence. Once we arrived in Dali, even though I thought it seemed like a charming place, the father immediately began complaining that is was too touristy, before we even got out of the cab. I asked them where they were staying, and quickly told the taxi driver someplace else to take me. When we arrived at our guesthouse, I quickly paid my share of cab and took off, not able to bear any more time with the man.

The guesthouse I checked into was gorgeous, but rather pricey. However, it was recommended in my guidebook as a great place for information, and the room was the nicest I had probably stayed in in a long time and included breakfast, so I checked in. Since it was late in the afternoon, I wandered down the small streets of Dali, with the sun setting behind the mountains, and found a nice cafe to have some dinner. Seeing as there wasn’t much to do that late in the day, I had some dinner and wandered around the town some more and just soaked up the atmosphere. It was a quiet evening, and since I was paying alot for my room, decided to turn in early and take full advantage. The next morning, realizing there was no one in my guesthouse besides me, I decided to try and find something cheaper, so I took off a bit early and checked out a few places. I finally settled on the good old backpacker standbye, a cheapie dorm room but with a great buffet breakfast and movies shown in the evenings. There was no one in my dorm room when I checked in, so I grabbed the bed by the window away from the door and set out on the town. I wasn’t sure when the others from Kunming would be arriving, and not wanting to waste a day doing nothing, I decided to try and get up in the mountains for some hiking. There were three ways to get up the mountain to see the Zhonge He temple and find the hiking path; you could either hike up,a strenuous steep hour in addition to the actual hike, take a horse (my painful memories of Songpan put this one aside quickly) or take the cable car. I decided I would take the cable car up, and walk down, a reasonable compromise, so I set off from town to the base of the cable car. After paying my cable car fee, I was also made to buy a ticket for the park entrance. It seemed fishy, but not seeing another option, paid for the ticket. The cable car up was really nice and slow, and it took almost 40 minutes to get up to the temple. Beneath my feet was an old cemetary, starting to get hidden by the woods and trees along the hillside. The views of Dali and the lake were beautiful and it was nice and relaxing.

Once I arrived at the temple, I looked around a bit, and then asked for some directions from the tourist police. They pointed to the right, as there were two paths to take, so I set off along a paved path that would around the mountain. The temple was about half way up the mountain, and walking along the path was nice and quiet, I passed no one along the way. After about half an hour, I seemed to come to a dead end, as there was a bridge the officer had mentioned not to cross over, and was seemed like very steep steps to the left of it climbing high up. There was one couple sitting having a break, and I asked them if this was end of the path, and where the stairs went. They said they were very steep and slippery, and recommended I not climb up there alone, because, well, who would find me if I fell and hurt myself? Hitting my biggest fear, I took their advice and went back the way I came, and then took the path to the left, which continued on for 14 kilometers. While it was very flat and paved, it was still a long walk, and along the way I stopped for a few photos and to have a snack. I passed more people on this route, and while some single walkers had gotten mugged on this path in previous years, I didn’t feel unsafe at all. I passed over some bridges and small waterfalls, and a few other small temples. Approaching the end, I realized I didn’t ever show anyone my park ticket and probably could have done without buying it,but it was too late. At the end of the trail was a beautiful pool of water and, for some reason, a giant chess and checkers board. Still thinking of saving some money, I tried to walk down the path, only to be ushered into the cable car entrance at the end. I tried to explain I wanted to walk down, but they quickly shook their heads no. The gist I got from some hand gestures and such, was that there either wasn’t a path all the way down, or it was too dangerous. Either way, I ended up having to take another cable car down, this one was an enclosed car rather than a chair like the previous one, and took much less time. My guidebook stated you could grab a local bus back to Dali, but to get to the bus was another 4 kilometers, and frankly, I was tired. So I bargained for taxi back all the way to Dali, and arrived at my hostel feeling very tired but accomplished. After showering and having some dinner, I sat in my hostel courtyard and watched Total Recall with some other guests. During the film, I was surprised to see Woytek and Ken wander in, and found they were also staying at the same hostel. We agreed to meet up the next day for party at the new hostel we were all planning on going to. After the movie and my long walk, I knew I was tired and went to bed early.

I managed to sleep in a bit the next morning, and not having anything I really wanted to do, contented myself with some internet time. I ran into Mark and Linda, the Dutch couple I had met in Kunming, at the internet cafe.  They had just arrived, so we agreed to meet up later at the party that was advertised in Kunming and which we were all planning on attending. After internet and lunch and some wandering, I went back to my hostel to shower. There I ran into Woytek and Ken and after some meandering and indecision, we set off in the early evening on foot, not knowing how far the hostel was out of town. Woytek in an aspiring photographer, and managed to get some great shots of the town with the sun setting behind it, streaming behind the clouds. After walking about 40 minutes, we finally asked someone, and they seemed to tell us we were still very far away, and we boarded a local bus for the final leg to the hostel, which was actually in another town altogether and would have taken at least another half hour to walk there. The hostel was having a grand opening and trying to have a big party to promote it, so there were some local bands and also entertainment by various travelers, and of course, alcohol and some food as well. It was a great setting, the hostel sat around a big grassy courtyard, and it seemed the entire local population of the surrounding town came out to see what was going on. Little kids were trying to steal sips of the spiked punch that was being handed out, and some of the older men enjoyed a cup as well. It was a fun atmosphere, and some travelers did some fire shows and musical acts to help out. I found Mark and Linda there, and we sat around and chatted for most of the night. Once the DJ started, they set off for home, and I hung out with Woytek and Ken and drank more of the punch and some Great Wall of China wine.The DJ was pretty good, and people were dancing. Most of the locals had gone home at this point, and when I glanced at my watch, I realized it was almost 1:30. Having had more than enough to drink, I gathered up a few other people who also wanted to go home, and we were lucky to get a taxi back to Dali for an affordable amount.

Due to a late night out, I slept in again the next day, and met Linda and Mark for breakfast at my hostel late in the morning. None of us wanted to do much of anything that day, so we sat around the town in a cafe and watched the world go by. The main street, nicknamed Westerners street, was full of outdoor cafes and restaurants, and we sat and read and pretty much did nothing that day. We all needed a little more internet time and needed to get some things done, so we went our seperate ways for a bit, then met up for dinner and some drinks. We found a nice restaurant, and then went to a popular bar across the street, where we ran into Woytek and Ken again, and had a night out just drinking and chatting. But the late night before made us all kind of tired, so we set off home a little early and got a decent nights sleep.

We had made plans to go to the Shaping market about 30 km outside of town in the morning, and met at my hostel for breakfast the next day. I love markets of any kind, and this one was supposed to be really good, touristy of course, but still used by the local people to buy goods and produce that they needed. The local Bai women were known to dress in their traditional clothes, and it was meant to be a nice morning out. We were all a bit bedraggled, but managed to scrounge up Woytek and Ken as well, and set off on a local bus that would take us to the market, about 40 minutes away. When we arrived early, about 8:30am the market was already in full swing, and we just wandered around the stalls, watching the local bargain for produce and goods, and make a few small purchases ourselves.  While there were some stands set up solely for tourists, the market was mainly for locals and that was a refreshing change. After about two hours of wandering, we headed back to Dali. Mark and Linda set off to do some biking, and I packed a bit and read and just sat around, since I was leaving the next day back to Kunming. We met up again for dinner and some last drinks and photos, and since they were getting up early to do the hike up the mountain, we called it an early night and set off for home. I ran into Ken in my hostel, and saying our goodbyes, we traded my China book for his Vietnam book, since I wouldn’t need mine anymore and didn’t want to carry it around.

My bus picked me up at 9am the next morning, and an uneventful ride back to Kunming brought me back in the early afternoon. I really should have booked my overnight bus trip to Vietnam for that night, but once I arrived and went to the Vietnam consulate to pick up my passport, it was getting late and it would have been very hectic for me to get to the bus on time. So I had yet another uneventful day in Kunming, and while I could have done some sightseeing, I had no desire to do so, so I spent some time in the English bookstore, and tried to no avail to buy some Vietnamese dong from the bank. Mark and Linda had sold me some of their leftover dong, but I was hoping to buy more before I went. The day passed quickly, and I finally grabbed my pack and headed for the bus station, since the train was no longer running to the border. The overnight sleeper bus in China is sort of an anomaly. Normally overnight buses are just regular buses that happen to go overnight. In China they have buses that actually have beds on them, and this was what I was on.

The bed frames were slightly rickety aluminum or shabby metal of some sort, and the beds themselves were very narrow and short, not made for Westerners. The bed was just as long as me, barely, and I jammed my shoulders in the bunk rails, just wide enough for me. People were allowed to smoke on the bus, unlike daytime buses, and the man on the bunk above me ashed out his window and it flew back down and into my window, onto me. But it was still much more comfortable than a seat, and I quickly settled in to my bed and with my book. The bus left promptly at 7, and we set off south towards the border, which was supposed to be a 12 hour ride, arriving at the border at 7am. “Supposed to be” is the key phrase in Asian travel however, and this trip, as it turns out, would be no different.

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