Dali Ancient Town

As the Three Pagodas rise up through the mist on a cool spring morning in Dali, the people of old town wake up not to the roar of engines or the clamour of construction work, but to the peaceful pitter-patter of feet on flagstone streets and sweet chirping of birds. As an act of preservation, the local government banned the construction of new buildings and the use of motor vehicles in the ancient part of Dali, so it has remained truly unchanged since it was rebuilt in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Tragically much of the original city was lost when the Mongolians overthrew the Kingdom of Dali in 1253, but parts of the ancient capital still remain and are complemented beautifully by the perfectly preserved Ming-style architecture.

The ancient town is fast becoming one of the most popular destinations for foreign tourists and is speedily adapting to this end. The town itself exhibits wonderful examples of Ming-style architecture, from the elaborately carved eaves of the roofs through to the characteristically white-washed walls. It is also one of the few places where you can witness the traditional architecture of the Bai ethnic minority. The Bai people make up over 65% of Dali’s population at prefecture level and, with the multitude of Bai tearooms, batik[1] stores and homes scattered throughout the city, they certainly make their presence known.

Bai houses consist of three rooms: one main room and two side rooms. Facing the main room, there is always a wall called the “shining wall”. It is so called because, when the sun sets, the sunlight shining on the wall is reflected into the courtyard, thus brightening up the whole house. Bai people love to decorate their homes, so these traditional houses are flush with colourful paintings, woodcarvings, marble ornaments, and Bai batik cloth. Walking into a Bai household can feel like entering a precious art exhibition; it all looks so beautiful but you’re too scared to touch anything!

There are a number of Bai teahouses dotted throughout the old town where you can take part in the traditional Three Cups of Tea ceremony. First, you must drink one cup of bitter tea, then one cup of sweet tea, and finally one cup of aftertaste tea. The first represents suffering, the second represents the success and happiness that comes after hardship and the third represents reflection on the past. However, to the weary traveller they may all just represent a relaxing cup of tea!

If you fancy testing out your Chinese or your haggling skills, Yu’er Road hosts a plethora of antique and craftwork shops that are all placed very close together. You could easily spend a whole day browsing through all of the antiques, Bai batik works and Miao embroidered clothes on offer. However, the most marvellous souvenirs are the ornaments made from Dali marble. Dali is famous throughout China for its many types of marble, which are used both in construction and for decorative objects. This marble is so famous that the Chinese word for marble, “dàlǐ shí” (大理石), literally means “Dali stone”. Some of the larger and more complex marble ornaments fetch prices of up to 10,000 yuan (about £1,000), so choose wisely or you may not have any money left for your flight home!

The town has become particularly famous for its Yangren or “Foreigners” Street, which is lined with some of the most vibrant Western-style cafés, restaurants, and bars that the city has to offer. Many of these establishments are run by foreigners who have chosen to settle in Dali, making them the perfect place to meet other backpackers and take a break from the Chinese way of life. There are plenty of hotels and hostels scattered throughout the old town, so you’ll never be at a loss if you want to get away from the commotion of the city’s modern district. The simple, old-fashioned way of life in Dali Ancient Town is what draws so many people here, and the city itself, surrounded by verdant mountains and shimmering lakes, is what makes them stay.

[1] Batik: A cloth-dying process whereby a knife that has been dipped in hot wax is used to draw a pattern onto the cloth. The cloth is then boiled in dye, which melts the wax. Once the wax has melted off, the cloth is removed from the boiling dye. The rest of the cloth will be coloured by the dye but the pattern under the wax will have remained the original colour of the cloth.

The Cangshan Mountains

A long time ago, the Plague God terrorised the city of Dali and its people suffered from endless calamity. In order to save them from this pestilence, a brother and sister from the tribe went far away to study magic. When they returned, they were so skilled in the arcane arts that they were able to banish the Plague God to the top of the Cangshan Mountains. When he reached the highest peak, he froze solid. The sister transformed into the God of Snow, settled on Xueren Peak, and vowed to keep him at bay. She is the one who keeps the mountains capped with snow year round so that he never thaws out.

From Malong, with its 4,122-metre-high summit, to Cangshan’s other 18 peaks, which each reach heights of over 3,500 metres, this mountain range is not for the faint of heart. Scaling its peaks entails hours of arduous struggle, scrabbling up the rock and beating back the sweltering heat. Or you could just take the cable car! Two cable cars operate on Cangshan and provide easy access to its peaks. The mountain range itself is massive, with plenty of natural and manmade attractions to fill an entire day, but how you choose to take advantage of it is up to you!

Cangshan has garnered great fame as the only place in Dali where you can see the city’s Four Famous Scenes; wind, flowers, snow, and the moon. Of course you can’t actually see the wind, but on top of those lofty mountains you can certainly feel it! It boasts a diverse plant population, with over 3,000 plant species thriving on its peaks. Eighteen streams run between the peaks and provide ample water to the verdant flora and dense forests. The mountains’ great elevation means that, in spite of the temperate climate, they are perpetually capped in snow, and the moonlight reflected off of their silvery summits is considered a sight unmatched throughout Yunnan.

Yet all of these delights pale in comparison to Cangshan’s most exciting feature; the clouds! The clouds above Cangshan are notoriously changeable, and can go from silky white to ink black in a matter of minutes. Several cloud formations, including the Yudai Cloud, which looks like a fairy holding a jade belt, and the Wangfu Cloud, which looks like a wife expectantly waiting for her husband, are so common that they have even been named.

According to local legend, the Wangfu Cloud is actually the spirit of Ah Feng, a princess of the ancient Nanzhao Kingdom. She fell in love with a poor hunter named Ah Long, but when her father discovered the two together he had Ah Long killed and thrown into Erhai Lake. Ah Feng died of a broken heart and her soul floated up into the sky, where it waits patiently for her lover to return. So you see, there’s more to clouds than meets the eye. If you look hard enough, you may even see the spirit of that goldfish you once flushed down the toilet!

If you plan on hiking up the mountains, we recommend first heading from Dali Ancient Town to Zhonghe Temple. You can either take the cable car, which takes about half an hour, or hike on foot, which takes between 2 to 3 hours. Zhonghe Temple is the only place on the mountain range with a restaurant and stores where you can replenish your supplies, and also acts as a nexus for many of the hiking paths. If you fancy a steady hike, we recommend the Cloud Pass, which starts at the temple and is 20 kilometres long but is well-signposted, reasonably flat and has been paved. It leads to several streams, winds around many of the peaks, and even leads to three of the temples on the mountain, including Inaction Temple and Qingbi Temple.

The best time to visit Cangshan is late summer to early autumn, so that you avoid the rainy season but still benefit from the warm weather. However, the weather is extremely changeable on the mountains so we strongly recommend you carry warm clothes with you. Be sure to prepare enough food, water and other supplies, as the hike to the nearest store is a long one and the last thing you want is to end up nibbling on the grass!

Baisha Village

Baisha (白沙), or “white sand”, is named for the powdery white sand that decorates the surrounding countryside. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that Lijiang Old Town and Shuhe Town both belong to, yet somehow has managed to avoid the crowds and tourist traps that plague its two historic cousins. It has become a favourite haunt for those travellers who want to engage in an authentic cultural experience without having to force their way through throngs of tourists or suffer the swarms of souvenir vendors! With its many temples, rich cultural heritage, stunning frescoes and zany homeopathic doctors, Baisha is one of the many must-see attractions in Lijiang County.

Baisha was the birthplace of the Mu clan, who were renowned for their skill and experience in city planning. They began expanding Baisha during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and by the Song Dynasty (960-1279) it had blossomed into a thriving town. It remained the political, commercial and cultural centre of the local Naxi people for over 400 years. The Mu clan ingeniously channelled water from the Jade River into a canal system within the village to provide locals with fresh water. This waterway system, coupled with the village’s beautifully preserved architecture, is what cemented its status as a World Heritage Site.

During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the Mu clan were demoted by the Emperor to “Tusi” or chieftains, as oppose to rulers of the region. By the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), they had moved their base of operations to Dayan Town (modern-day Lijiang Old Town) and Baisha became their religious centre. Like Dayan, Baisha played a focal role as a trade hub along the ancient Tea-Horse Road. The local Naxi women were known for their exquisite silk embroidery and this precious export allowed the town to prosper and grow. This Naxi tradition carried on until 1972, when it was banned during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Many of the Naxi embroidery masters were imprisoned and tragically died in jail. The art was later revived and now thrives thanks to the Baisha Naxi Embroidery Institute.

Nowadays, the village serves as the ideal place to learn about Naxi culture and ancient Buddhist history. In the central district of the village, there are a group of temples known as “Mudu”. Many of them boast access to the stunning Baisha Frescoes, of which there are only 55 still in existence. While the frescoes are scattered throughout villages in Lijiang County, the vast majority of them can be found in Baisha. They are religious paintings reflecting famous stories from Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and Taoism. What makes these murals so unique is that they were painted by artists from the Han, Naxi, Tibetan and Bai ethnic minorities, meaning they are a mixture of ethnic styles. Imagine how much a painting by Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso would be worth, and you get the idea!

Dabaoji Palace was built by the Mu clan in 658 AD and houses 28 of these fresco groups, featuring over 100 religious figures from various tales. They date all the way back to the Ming Dynasty and are so delicate that the flash of a camera could potentially damage them, so it goes without saying that photographs are unfortunately off-limits. The remainder of Baisha’s frescoes can be found in Dading Pavilion. The pavilion itself was built in 1572 but most of its 16 mural paintings date back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

You won’t be able to take a memento of the frescoes with you but, if you want a beautiful souvenir, you need go no further than the Baisha Naxi Embroidery Institute! This institute was established with the aim of reviving, protecting and passing on the skill of Naxi handmade embroidery. Here Naxi embroidery masters are free to carry on this majestic art and pass their skills on to the next generation. Some Naxi embroidery masters will spend years working on a single project. One of the masters was even commissioned by Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, to embroider a portrait of President Obama and his family, which was then presented as a gift. The students sell their work for around 250 yuan each (about £25) but work by the grand masters can go for thousands of pounds!

However, by far the most fascinating resident is Dr Ho. He’s currently 93 years old and has achieved international fame as a practitioner of ancient Chinese medicine. His clinic is plastered with newspaper articles about him, including pieces by the BBC and National Geographic. He’s fluent in English and will happily treat any ailment with his homemade herbal remedies or just talk to curious visitors about his work. His motto is “optimism is the best medicine” and, looking into his sagacious, smiling face, it’s hard to disagree!

If you fancy a longer stay, there are a handful of hotels in the village that vary in quality and price. Around the village, there are a plethora of cycling trails that provide access to temples, natural hotspots, and other charming villages. The streets are littered with stalls selling Tibetan craftworks, Naxi embroidery, and t-shirts hand-painted in either Tibetan script or the rare Dongba script[1]. Some of the best Naxi-style cuisine can be found in Baisha, as it is a paradise of restaurants and small eateries. You’ll even find a few Western-style restaurants and cafés dotted about its ancient streets. A rural paradise where you can still get a good cup of coffee; what more could you ask for?

[1] Dongba Script: The written language of the Naxi ethnic minority. It is the only known hieroglyphic writing system still in existence.


Yunnan literally means “south of the clouds” so, if you’re looking for a heaven on earth, Yunnan may be as close as it comes. Whether you fancy hiking up the misty mountains, relaxing in a backpacker’s paradise, studying China’s ethnic minorities, or marvelling at the majesty of ancient Chinese towns, a trip to Yunnan will be time well spent. From the mountainous regions of the north through to the canyons in the west and the plateaus in the east, Yunnan’s geographical, biological, and ethnical diversity are unmatched throughout China.

In a place bursting with as much variety as Yunnan, it’s unsurprising that its climate is changeable. One of the Eighteen Strange Wonders of Yunnan is that “the same dress can be worn for all four seasons”, as the weather is so unpredictable that you can sometimes wear the same outfit throughout the year and sometimes require four different outfits for just one day. So if you’re taking a trip to Yunnan, be sure to pack your winter coat, raincoat, sunglasses, and scarf! In the south of the province, temperatures in the summer months can regularly exceed 30°C although, on average, temperatures range from 21 to 27°C (70 to 81°F) in the summer and 8 to 17°C (46 to 63°F) in the winter. Since the province is mountainous, the weather can also change depending on how high up you are as the altitude between regions can vary by up to 3,000 metres (9,800 ft.)!

Thanks to this unusual climate, numerous plant and animal species thrive throughout Yunnan. It is home to over 17,000 species of plant and also to China’s only community of Asian Elephants. If you want to catch a glimpse of these shy giants or the rare Yunnan golden monkeys, you’ll have to hike through the canyons and scale the mountains of the province, as they won’t be found in any zoo! Living in harmony with this myriad of wildlife, Yunnan is officially home to 25 of the recognised 55 ethnic minorities in China, including the Hani, Dai, Lisu, Lahu, Va, Nakhi, and Blang people, and unofficially is said to have communities of over 51 different ethnic groups.

Over 38% of Yunnan’s population is made up of ethnic minorities and this makes it the second most ethnically diverse province in China. Many of the minorities in Yunnan have been allowed to practice their customs uninterrupted for hundreds of years, with the exception of Yi slaveholding and Wa headhunting of course! The Chinese government realised, unsurprisingly, that these practices might deter tourists and perhaps violate a few human rights, so abolished them. No matter where you are in Yunnan, you’ll never be too far from one of the many cultural festivals celebrated by these minorities. Imagine marvelling at the acrobatic majesty of the Lisu people during their Knife Pole Festival, taking in the crackling lights of the Yi people’s Torch Festival, or dousing your friends in buckets of water during the Dai people’s Water Splashing Festival!

Since it is the most southwestern province in China, Yunnan borders Guangxi and Guizhou in the east, Sichuan in the north, and the Tibet Autonomous Region in the northwest, but shares most of its border with Burma, Laos, and Vietnam. This makes it the perfect place to end or begin your travels in China, as it acts as a gateway between these Southeast Asian countries. But I know what you’re thinking; what does Yunnan have to offer you?

Well you could hike along the infamous Tiger Leaping Gorge, marvel at the alien shapes of the Stone Forest, or scale the heights of the majestic Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. If adventure holidays aren’t your thing, you could study the ancient buildings in Lijiang Old Town or Dali Ancient Town. And, if you fancy taking a walk on the wild side and experiencing a culture far removed from your own, you can always visit the Dai communities in Xishuangbanna, the Tibetan settlements of Xamgyi’nyilha (Shangri-La) County, or the Yi villages near Chuxiong. With all of these spectacular choices on offer, you could spend a whole day just deciding where you want to go!

Pu’er Tea

Pu'er tea


Generally speaking, Pu’er Tea is a generic term that refers to tea in bulk or in its compressed form. This tea is made from the sun-greened raw tea that is grown in the six well-known tea-growing mountains near the Lancang River basin and that is then withered, rolled and dyed.

Pu'er tea 01

The first written record of Pu’er Tea appeared during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220), so the history of Pu’er Tea can be traced back at least 1,700 years.

What makes Pu’er Tea different from other types of tea, in terms of its unique taste, is the post-fermentation process. In the past, plain tea was initially sun-greened to make the primary tea, and then the primary tea was dried, steamed and moulded into different shapes of compressed tea. Usually this compressed tea had a high moisture content. Before these teacakes were delivered to the distribution centre, water had to be sprinkled onto the surface of the teacakes in order to prevent them from being crushed. Thus the preliminary cold fermentation process was completed whilst the tea was on the road. At the distribution centre, the finest quality tea was selected and then sent to Tibet. This long journey took several months and, whilst the tea was on the road once again, it completed the secondary slow cold fermentation process.

Pu'er tea02

Nowadays, people have found a much faster way to perform these fermentation processes. The sun-greened primary tea is piled up, sprinkled with water and covered with linen for 24 hours. The fermentation process is aided by microorganisms that thrive in the hot and humid environment. Thanks to this process, the texture of the tea becomes milder, and the colour turns from green to yellow, to brownish red, and sometimes even to a dark red.

Pu’er tea can be made via the pilled fermentation process, called the “Cooked Tea” process, or it can be made following the natural fermentation process, called the “Raw Tea” process. The natural fermentation process usually takes at least 5 to 8 years but the aroma of the tea produced is stronger and the texture is milder than tea made by the pilled fermentation process.

Amazing towns on the Ancient Tea – Horse Road (the second Silk Road)

There is a mysterious, ancient road hiding in the mountains of southwest China. Hoof prints are imbedded into the narrow trails along the high cliff edges and turbulent rivers flow under precariously suspended chain bridges. This is the road that was once treaded by merchant caravans.

The Tea – Horse Road was developed because of the ancient Tea – Horse Mutual Trade, which was established 1300 years ago in China’s southwest region. However, the Ancient Tea – Horse Road was not only a passage for trade, but also a thoroughfare for cultural exchange.

Along the Ancient Tea – Horse Road there are many plateaus. Trading posts were established on these plateaus and were used by merchant caravans to do business and trade with one another. These trade points were developed gradually thanks to the prosperity and increasing length of the Ancient Tea – Horse Road. Eventually some of them grew into flourishing towns.

Most of these towns are in Yunnan Province, Sichuan Province and Tibet. They are beautiful and worth a visit not only because of their fantastic scenery and architecture, but also because they are home to many unique cultures. Most of the towns have been developed to accommodate tourists so it’s relatively easy for travellers to visit these towns alone. However, it is still vital that you have a well-prepared travel plan. After all, it is a region dominated by ethnic minorities who won’t speak English and who probably won’t even speak much Mandarin. If you want to gain an in-depth knowledge of their culture, we advise that you do some research and learn about some of the history behind the towns and the ethnic minorities before you travel there.  If you need any help planning your fantastic tour of these mysterious towns, please do not hesitate to contact us at: info@asiaculturaltravel.co.uk.