The historic city of Dali, situated on the shores of Erhai lake in China’s Southwestern province of Yunnan, has died and risen again several times during its long history. Kublai Khan’s Mongol armies raised it as part of their destruction of the Nanzhao Kingdom. Chinese Imperial troops put the city to the torch when crushing a Muslim rebellion in the mid-nineteenth century. And an earthquake destroyed it again in 1925. After the earthquake, Dali was rebuilt in keeping with its traditional style, a mixture of large Bai courtyard mansions and small wooden shops and stores. Its layout within the old city walls remained the same, and the city was criss-crossed by beautiful flagstone streets. This was the Dali that we found in 1990 and liked so much. But Dali has died again and this time the enemy is probably much more dangerous than anything that came before. The enemy is called Shangri-la Tourism. My reaction on revisiting the town after 15 years was: Benidorm!
It has to be said that Dali was fairly touristy even in 1990. Hordes of local Bai women used to pursue the newly arrived backpackers down the streets, trying to flog batiks, earrings, hairpins and change FECs (the Foreign Exchange Certificates that foreigners got at the bank instead of the local currency). Restaurants offering the dreaded banana pancake and other so-called Western food were ubiquitous. It wasn’t the ‘real’ China; not even then. However, the businesses dealing with backpackers were generally family affairs run on a small scale, and once you had settled in and the grannies had given up on you as a lost cause, Dali became a pleasant place to chill out, recharge your batteries and recover from the considerable effort of getting there. Moreover, the scenery around Dali was and is spectacular, the surrounding villages beautiful, the local Bai culture (see Xizhou) fascinating and the markets pretty amazing.
Nowadays, Dali is no longer remote, nor undiscovered: endless tour groups are bussed along brand new motorways from Kunming or Lijiang in a matter of a few hours. Continue reading “The Death of Dali / Shangri-La Tourism What happens when all of China and the world want to visit a small town?”