The Many Temptations of Dali Old Town

Dali, in China’s Yunnan province, is a pleasant place to connect and re-root. There’s plenty of sunshine, good food and a multitude of comforts: hot showers, western loos, pizza, cake and coffee. Invasive foreign species like Brits, Aussies, Japanese and Canadians have long found a toehold in Dali, grafting themselves onto the cultural landscape. Yunnan is, after all, China’s most biodiverse province.

The melange of east and west, old and new works magic on Chinese tourists, who flock from all over the country to experience a neat and palatable version of their history. Trailing like unruly schoolchildren behind garishly dressed Bai cheerleaders, they traverse the city form south to north, parting enthusiastically with money for broiled Dali cheese, roast chestnuts and bolts of blue and white hand-dyed batik. Chinese tourists with oversized Nikon cameras startle hippy travellers, who make faces behind cocked pints of beer. “5 kwai a photo,” the reluctant models joke.

Bai tour guides, representatives of one of the region's ethnic minorities

Bai tour guides, representatives of one of the region’s ethnic minorities

In Dali’s bars and watering holes the inverse of what one might expect is true: cashed-up domestic tourists from Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Shanghai buy drinks for dreadlocked tourists who are hard-up for cash. It’s customary here to order more beers than you can possibly consume yourself, making it necessary to enlist a troupe of ‘friends’ to help you neck ’em. It’s an effective, if not cynical way of attracting potential mates and drinking buddies.

miscreants of Bad Monkey

cheap thrills at Bad Monkey

Foreign DJs and bands are lucrative draw cards in Dali’s bars, and attractive female wàiguórén (Caucasians) are in high demand at the tables of local police and businessmen, presumably to enhance the scenery and gain ‘face’.

While some travellers resent their role in the inveterate Dali ‘monkey show’, there are many more who come purposefully to cash in on China’s growing appetite for the exotic. By working in bars and cafes, teaching English, and selling handicrafts on the street enterprising backpackers can earn enough kwai in the space of a few months to fund a whole summer on one of Thailand’s beaches.

It’s no secret. Chinese have money. But at what cost?

Yesterday, 49 days into our recess in Dali, on route to the monthly market, Richie and I passed an old-style Bai family dwelling: 2-foot-deep earth walls reduced to rubble. “Making way for another Lijiang-style bar street,” we supposed.

deconstructing history

deconstructing history

Original examples of vernacular architecture are growing harder and harder to find in Dali. Even in the satellite villages, Caicun and Xizhou, original Bai dwellings with their spacious courtyards, communal stone wells and lofty barns, are being replaced by ‘traditional style’ cement and steel replicas.

traditional Bai courtyard

traditional Bai courtyard

It’s not just traditional buildings that are going under. Each year over 300,000 hectares of China’s choicest arable land is gobbled up  by new developments. Whole families, livelihoods and traditions are uprooted, along with the rice.

choice Dali countryside

choice Dali countryside

While farmers are shipping out of Dali, tourists are shipping in. We’re in the same boat as the others: here to break the journey, partake in a few pleasures, enjoy some creature comforts, bed down and chill out. Goodness knows, we’ve earned it.

In spite of all of its detractions, Dali remains a charming and restorative place to connect and re-root, which is why, after 50 days, we’re still here.

As I sit in a Dali cafe, sipping Yunnan coffee and milking the Wifi bandwidth for every megabyte of pirated art-house cinema I can get, I find myself contemplating Dali, and the necessity of ‘easy’ places to retire during prolonged periods of travel. 

the myriad pleasures of Bakery 88

the myriad pleasures of Bakery 88

As a personification of temptation and psychological conflict Dali represents the tension between two opposite desires: the desire to return to lay-life, versus the desire to continue the quest.

We’ve met several people here in Dali who succumbed to the former and seem happy with their choice. Both Mike and Anthony have been rooted in Dali for 12 years and show no signs of wanting to uproot and shift ‘home’. They have local partners and local businesses.

There are yet others who haunt the streets of Dali like disembodied ghosts, succumbing every few metres to the temptation of coffee and company, beer and burgers, vowing that tomorrow they’ll write that book, climb that mountain, compose that symphony, or push off to Laos; in thrall to the promise of an endless ‘tomorrow’.

The allure of Dali comes down to one thing above all: being here is easy. For ‘serious’ travellers who are committed to more demanding physical, personal and spiritual challenges than Dali can offer, Dali, like Mara, (the demonic emanation who came close to derailing Guatama Buddha during the final hours of his quest for liberation) represents, unwholesome impulses, unskillfulness, the ‘death’ of the spiritual life… by making the mundane alluring or the negative seem positive.”

the devil in a mug of beer

the devil in a mug of beer

Like Buddha, who I might add, never drank Bad Monkey home-brew, I find myself detaching slowly from the temptations that have kept me in thrall to Dali for so long, calling forth my energy, my wisdom, my wit, in short – my psychological defences – to fend off Mara, in the form of inertia.

As I reach for the fork and sink my teeth into the last morsel of cake, the last sip of coffee, I call the earth as my witness, that tomorrow/in 5 days time/one week at latest, I will uproot myself and head to Laos; to more vigorous, intrepid and ascetic challenges. At that time, I will renounce every comfort: the cheap living, good company, the stimulation of my baser desires:

I sally forth to fight, that I

May not be driven forth from my post.”

“For I have faith (saddhaa) and energy (viriya)

And I have wisdom (paññaa) too.”

– Buddha-

I defy Dali – I defy the German bakery with its immorally delicious beestings, its sandwich platters and milk coffee. I defy the White Ink Art House with its wonderful views, sumptuous lounges and pristine tea-making facilities. I defy the Bad Monkey with its three-hues of home-brew, and I embrace the wonder and perfection of what might be…





Buddhist shrine, Chang Shan, Dali

Buddhist shrine, Chang Shan, Dali


Filed under Architecture & Design, Culture, Earth Care, Food, History, Philosophy, Social Justice, Travel

4 responses to “The Many Temptations of Dali Old Town

  1. kay

    Amazing blog, onwards and upwards as they, you intrepid traveller,now on to Laos xx

  2. Holly

    You have certainly deserved a rest in an ‘easy’ place for a while. Get back on the road you travelling wilderberry! xxxx

  3. Nan

    I wonder what the future holds as you go forever forward. Much love always Nan

  4. christina doratis

    A very moving and interesting angle on Dali from the aspect of being a vistor/long-term dweller that I sensed while I was there.

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