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The ancient city of Dali is one of Yunnan's most popular tourist destinations. It has historic sites, ancient buildings and temples, nearby beautiful Cangshan Mountain and Erhai Lake, local crafts, and the "Foreigners' Street" with Western-style restaurants and bars and English-speaking business owners. The street is popular with both foreigners and Chinese. It is known as a backpackers’ haven. Cangshan Mountain is a great, scenic hiking area and a natural reserve. Erhai Lake is to the east and Cangshan Mountain is to the west. Tourists visiting the area can see temples and architecture 1000 years old, buy beautiful souvenirs and objects of art, learn about the history of the area and of the native peoples, and go on excursions to the nearby lake and mountain.
The city has a long history. About the year 738 AD, it became the seat of the Kingdom of Nanzhou. The Nanzhou Kingdom had control of important trade routes to Southeast and South Asia. Its location enabled Dali to prosper as merchandise from China was carried southwards, and as goods from as far as India was carried northwards. It was a major trading center. The rulers of the Nanzhou became Buddhists, and Bali became a center for the spread of Buddhism from Southeast and South Asia to the rest of China and East Asia. After two hundred years, The Nanzhou Kingdom was conquered by the Duan Clan. Two hundred years after this, in 1253, the Mongols conquered the city and ended the Dali Kingdom. Under Mongolian Emperor Kublai Khan, Dali became an important military outpost for the Mongolians. The Mongolians in turn were defeated, and the Ming dynasty was established.
The present ancient city of Dali was built during the Ming dynasty. Though there are some older buildings and structures remaining from earlier eras. In particular, the famous Three Pagodas of Dali which is about a kilometer from the ancient city are some of China’s best preserved buildings from the Tang Dynasty era. The central pagoda is over 1000 years old. It is said that it was built by a Nanzhou king and was finished about 840 AD. It stands 69.6 meters (227 feet) high, and it is one of the tallest pagodas ever built in China. At the bottom, the walls are about 3 meters (10 feet) thick. The other two pagodas were built about 100 years later.
The present ancient city of Dali is preserved by the government. It has a population of about 40,000 people. A large percentage of them are of ethic minorities called Bai or Yi. The government does not allow modern construction in this city, so the structures are traditional. The modern district of Dali is about 10 kilometers away. The Dali government's urban planning keeps the old and new districts separate, so it is quieter than a modern town. It is small enough to get around in on foot, and is laid out in a grid. No vehicles are allowed in the ancient city of Dali. This is good for pedestrians. The major landmarks are the South and North Gates with their thick walls with Fuxing Road running between them, Cangshan Gate and Erhai Gate, and Yangren Street (Foreigner’s Street) that is lined with cafes, international style restaurants and tourist shops.
Foreigners' Street is a place where foreign visitors can congregate. The snacks of Bai people is available, and their traditional drinking of “Three Cups of Tea” is thought to be healthful. There are a lot of marble decorative objects and marble art objects for sale. Cangshan Mountain marble is beautiful. You may want to buy souvenirs here.
The local customs and architecture is distinctive. A stroll through the ancient city with its stone paved streets, traditional style houses, and numerous gardens is an interesting excursion. The local people love growing flowers. There is an annual Flower Festival. Families display their potted plants in front of the houses. Tourists appreciate this festival. The local food ethnic food and teas are different than that consumed in most of China. Some people from other parts of China and from around the world who are entrepreneurs, craftsmen, artists, musicians, and tourist agents live in Dali for a period of time.
A traditional Bai house has three rooms: one major room and two side wings. Facing the major room is a wall called the “shining wall.” When the sun sets, the sunlight shines on the wall and then reflects into the yard, making the whole yard bright. So the wall is called the "shining wall". Extensive decoration is another characteristic feature of traditional Bai houses. They decorate the gate to their gardens and houses. They like colorful pictures, woodcarvings, marble craft objects, and traditionally dyed cloth.
Dali is about 350 kilometers away from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province. Yunnan Province is in the south of China and borders Vietnam. A flight between Kunming and the airport near Bali takes more than an hour. Dali is served by train also. A train trip from Kunming takes about 8 hours. Kunming is about 6 hours away by bus.
The area is famous for the Cangshan Mountain scenic reserve area that is only a few kilometers away. 19 high peaks and 18 streams, ponds, waterfalls, great hiking areas, and old temples may be visited there. The highest peak is always snow covered, and it is mirrored in Erhai Lake that is a few kilometers from ancient Dali. People say the reflection is a striking sight in the moonlight. More information about Cangshan Mountain.