On the shores of Erhai Lake, Dali is a city of great antiquity and heritage. Located approximately 250km from Kunming, it was once considered the original backpacker hangout in Yunnan. Home to the Bai and Yi minorities, there are 12 districts within it, including two others with the same name. As such, it’s sometimes referred to as Dali New Town. Nestled in between scenic mountains and vast lakes, the weather is pleasant with virtually no air pollution. Seek out the mystic Cangshan Mountain where the snow never melts, Xizhou town for its woodwork and architecture, as well as the Yuanyang Rice Terraces. Though it’s a favoured destination for domestic tourists, Dali isn’t quite on the map yet to the rest of the world — unlike so for nearby Lijiang — so hurry here before the crowds close in.
Located on the west side of Dali sits a mountain range that has enamoured visitors for over a century. Known as Cangshan Mountain, it’s composed of a cluster of 19 soaring peaks over 3,500m in elevation; with the highest at 4,122m. You can go up on a chairlift or cable car while gazing down on verdant vegetation and rich flora, or hike along trails to valleys dotted with coniferous trees. Aside from its natural beauty, you can spot cultural relics, ancient temples and old cemeteries, or see marble artisans at work along the way.
An idyllic village that used to be a wealthy trading town for horse caravans travelling along the Ancient Tea Horse Road, Shaxi has a history that extends beyond 2,000 years. Though it’s located between Dali and Lijiang, the town remains free of tourist hordes despite being one of the most beautiful in China. Easily toured by walking, you can visit the 700-year-old market square theatre, the revered Xingjiao Temple and the wonderfully scenic Yujin stone arch bridge in one afternoon.
The historic town of Xizhou is flanked by Erhai Lake to the east and Cangshan Mountain to the west. Thanks to its favourable geographical situation, the town used to be a commercial hub before 1949, where over 140 national capitalist families once lived. If you’re seeking a glimpse into the past, Xizhou is a worthy stopover. Many buildings are protected heritage sites and the landscape of Xizhou’s architecture — clean, minimal and featuring lotus flower motifs — largely reflects Bai culture, which most of its residents happen to be.
For a slice of Old China, visit the old town of Weishan. Once the capital of the ancient Nanzhao kingdom, and the cradle of Nanzhao culture, Weishan sits in the Ailao and Wuling Mountains regions. The city features notable Ming and Qing dynasty structures, as well as an authentic old quarter of traditional shophouses. Feel time stand still and soak up the atmosphere as pipe-smoking men engage in card games on the streets, while women dressed in traditional garments sit by.
Gaze across layers upon layers of cascading rice terraces spilling over the terrain in Yuanyang County, southeast of Yunnan. These steps were cut into the hill slopes one generation after another for at least the past 1,300 years by the Hani’s ancestors, requiring not only physical labour but also precision — the slightest mistake could damage the fragile walls and compromise an entire irrigation system. (Photo credit: Jordan Hammond)
One of the seven biggest freshwater lakes in China and the second largest highland lake, Erhai Lake is a beautiful alpine body that resembles the shape of an ear — or a waning crescent moon. Blessed with magnificent natural scenery, the lake even boasts cultural attractions such as historical temples and traditional fishing villages. Boating and cycling are two ways to tour the lake, while the lakeshore can be explored by hiking.