Dali, The Secret Gem of China

In 2020, it seems almost impossible to talk about China without having some sort of political agenda entangled with one’s biases. Yet we must remind ourselves that the narratives of any country given by the authorities is not the true state of the residents of that nation. Such is the fate of the Post Truth and Fake News Era.

With the Coronavirus breaking out of Wuhan and the Uyghurs being up rooted from Xinjiang and forced into concentration camps alongside the countless other infringements of human rights which the Chinese government are accused of committing. It seems like China is the last place one would recommend to travel and visit especially with the social credit systems signifying the digitalization of class warfare and authoritarian rule. It is then almost a futile effort to try to convince someone otherwise. Yet that is exactly what I wish to convey here in hope that you might reconsider your outlook on the country and its people.

While the Republic might be in a diplomatic nightmare but for most common folks their lives are barely affected by the decisions made in the offices of those in power. This is why folks like Li Ziqi are such a breath of fresh air. She is an internet celebrity who has become famous for her handicraft preparation videos of using traditional Chinese techniques to showcase her country-life in her hometown of rural Pingwu, Mianyang, Sichuan. She is an important reminder to both the local and international audience of the other side of China. There is more to China than just the red propaganda.

In the Southwestern Province of Yunnan, there is a beautiful ancient forgotten city next to the peaceful Erhai Lake that acts like a mirror reflecting the grandeur of the heavens. This city is protected by the Cangshan mountains and is named Dali. Not Salvador Dali, – though walking through this city may be surreal and out of a fantasy that blends the Dynastic history of China and the contemporary ways of our modern times just like one of his paintings.

Overlooking the 4000m high Himalayan foothills, this historically significant walled town is strategically positioned in one of the most spectacular regions of Asia. It has a rich history of traditional arts and crafts by being one of the major destinations in the ancient Tea Horse Road (Southern Silk Road) connecting Yunnan and China with South East Asia and the rest of the world.

From the 8th and 10th centuries, Dali was the capital of two large kingdoms until it was conquered by the Mongols in the 12th century. In the beginning of the 14th century, the Ming Dynasty rebuilt the present Old Town which is home to 25 ethnic groups with their own unique customs, clothing, languages and belief systems. Just outside of the Old Town, there is the famous Three Pagodas that dates back to the 9th-10th century and is believed to be sacred protections from the dragons that dwell in the area.

Lesser Putuo Temple in the middle of Erhai Lake, Xiaoputuo Si, near Dali, Yunnan Province by Henry Westheim

It is easy to see how one would be awed by Dali. It is the perfect place for self reflection and to focus on one’s artistic endeavours. With the cinematic view of the beautiful clouds and blue skies above and the bright flowers in the fields below, it is inescapable for one to be inspired here. Whether you are trying to capture the enchanted landscape in acrylic paints or trying to write a magical Tolkienesque fantasy masterpiece or just experimenting with the local instruments to compose a new sound to mystify your listeners. There is always something to explore, feel and do here for the creative minded.

So it is not surprising that this little ancient town nestled at the foot of the mountains that rises to the Tibetan Plateau has become a Mecca for many backpackers who wish to visit the secret haven of hippies and follow in their footsteps. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Dali was a major destination for western hippies in the ‘Kathmandu-Lhasa-Lijiang-Dali-Yangshuo Trail’ aka ‘The Pizza Trail’. Some of the hippies did stick around but it is still a rare sight to find any caucasians there.

Standing side by side the amazing natural beauty and ancient history is the other side of Dali. The side that is full of live music, street arts and other creative outlets that blends the traditional methods with the influences of the Flower Power and tries to convey a new contemporary voice. And where there is a community of creative minds, there will always be a gentrification effort from those who wish to profit from the unique cultural commodity. Whether from within or outside. Either adding value to the ecosystem of the community or pushing them underground.

The ancient city and the modern city are just 16 kilometers apart. Yet the two couldn’t be more different. The new city of Dali is a bustling metropolis of highrises and lofty shopping malls, whereas nothing can be built higher than the elaborated city gates in the old city. Whether you prefer the more historical and ancient style of Dali or the new waves of creative minds and their vibrant art scene, there is a little bit of something for everyone.

With more than 20 million tourists in 2017 alone, Dali has become one of China’s most popular tourist destinations. This has led to an increase of pollution by the Erhai Lake due to migrants being pushed out of their strongholds in Dali’s Old Town. Many real estate companies have tried to imitate the traditional and creative communities. Yet it is impossible to recreate a culture as grassroots as the one in Dali. A culture worth researching further. A top-down approach cannot produce a genuine community.

This is why I advise you to travel to Dali with a sense of adventure and a challenge to oneself. Go as a backpacker. Stay in the locally owned inns and shop at the antique old markets that have their roots in the community. Remember the ancient days and hear the tales of the wandering children from the summer of love, uncover the secrets of the creative spirit and unlock the hidden gem of China.

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