Lijiang v. Dali

What makes a backpacker town or backpacker ghetto? I would have to say cheap international food, internet cafes, cheap hostels or hotels and loads of young things with big bags that are gone for over a month at a time. Often places turn into backpacker spots before they build themselves up for older foreign tourists until the backpackers can’t afford them any longer. Yunnan province in China supposedly has two backpacker towns and apparently you’re either a Dali person or a Lijiang person, in the same vain of being a dog person or cat person. We visited both places to see what the differences were and what the big fuss was about.
First we headed to Lijiang from Chengdu, but to get there was quite a journey. It was actually the worst bus ride I have ever been on in my entire life. Although, it first started out as a train journey which was uneventful except for the fact that it arrived in some small provincial border town at 3 am and buses to the bus station don’t start running until 5 am. With two hours to kill in the middle of the night, we have to sit and wait. It would have been fine except that in China, you can’t enter a train station unless you have a valid ticket, which is how they keep homeless people from sleeping in the station. Since our ticket was no longer valid, we were forced to sit outside with the hooligans who sit outside train stations at 3 am on a weekday. Nobody really bothered us except for when Ellie was writing in her book and a group of men gathered to watch the precious art of writing the English language. Awkward, but not uncomfortable. We were waiting on Lars and Annika to arrive from a different train, but they never came and with no mobiles, we just got on a bus heading to Lijiang. We unfortunately bought the last two tickets on the bus which delegated us the seats in the middle backrow. The middle backrow has 5 seats when it should only comfortably have 4. There are no arm rests and nothing dividing the seats so the entire ten hour journey was full of me shoving the man next to me as he took up his whole seat and half of mine. For being small, he sure could spread out. Since Ellie and I had nothing to do while riding for 10 hours, we instead counted how many times he spit on the floor nest to my foot. It was exactly 37 times which means we could count on a giant ball of mucus spit rocketing at my toes at nearly every 16 minutes. Yum. The other best part of this all was that the roads are unpaved for the entire journey and we have no AC so are bouncing up and down in the heat for 10 hours on mountain roads. This is bound to make someone sick. In fact, it made not someone sick, but EVERYONE sick aside from us and the spit man. Therefore, everyone was vomiting in tiny blue bags which the bus so generously gives out. Instead of tying their puke bags and holding them in their seat with them, or throwing them out the window as the Chinese tend to do with everything else but their children, people were throwing them in the aisle. So puke + bouncing mountain roads+ thin plastic bags = vomit explosions everywhere. Double Yum. The last straw was when we pulled over to use the toilet. I have been in China at this point for over a month. I have seen every kind of toilet ever. I use squat toilets all the time. I have used sheds. I have gone on the side of the road. I have gone with no doors on the stalls. I have gone in a trough. I have never gone in a slatted room in someone backyard where the poop has been piling up under their house for millions of years. I have also never gone in a place where the two people using the bathroom have to face each other. There are no seats. Just me and this woman, facing each other with our knees practically touching over stilted slats and she is taking a crap. I am watching poop exit a grown strange womans body in great detail. I wanted to cry.

DP: a rare and much deserved treat after our horrific bus journey

We finally did make it Lijiang though. Lars and Annika’s train had been canceled so we made plans to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge the next day. Tiger Leaping Gorge is believed to be the deepest gorge in the world. Legend says that in order to escape from a hunter, a tiger jumped across the river at the narrowest point (still 25 metres wide), hence the name.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tiger Leaping Gorge

We woke up early and got driven nearly two hours out the to the Gorge. Instead of doing the two day, one night trek like everyone else, we just wanted to do a day trip. We got dropped off halfway through the trek at the low road. It was really annoying though because it was near noon and we had to walk up these massive switchbacks on blinding white concrete asphalt.

The first and the worst part of the hike.

To get an idea of the size look for the little blue dot near on of the first curves, that's a large pick-up truck!

It was so hot and exhausting. We finally got to the best part of the trail and it was really gorgeous and totally worth it the ascent. We got to climb over waterfalls on tiny narrow paths where we swore the waterfall was going to push off to our death miles below, but we made it. Here are our pictures to prove it:

This is our starting point ( those are people down below us)

Kelly found a cool stream and was overjoyed. Like we said, it was very, very hot!

we crossed right through the middle of that waterfall

our path, with white water rushing directly through it.

We crossed over the waterfall without slipping, and were swiftly followed by a pack of goats.

At the end of the trail, Ellie started to feel really ill as we made our descent to the guesthouse where we were being picked up. While I drank beer, Ellie got sick in the bathroom. We were hoping it was just the heat, but she was ill for 24 hours unfortunately which we think was due to bad tofu at the rest stop on that horrible bus ride the day before.

When we got back, we met up with Lars and Annika. The next couple of days were spent enjoying Lijiang’s gorgeous old architecture. Lijiang is almost like the Disneyworld of China. It’s exactly what you picture old China to look like before mass consumerism took over every Chinese city. It’s stunning with red lanterns lit at night and children floating burning luminaries down the many canals and rivers, full of goldfish. It has atmospheric bars and art galleries that made you want to spend time in them, unlike some of the stark restaurants in the rest of the country. It was very touristy though. Many of the shops were for souvenirs and weird crafts, but the beauty of the place was worth braving the hordes of tour buses.

The Hutong leading to our hostel

We met a nice Irish couple who rode the bus back from Tiger Leaping Gorge with us, and we invited them to join us on a day of sightseeing. The more the merrier!

In front of the most photographed site in Yunnan

In front of the most photographed site in Yunnan

Brady Bunch?

another Mao statue

Lijiang's famous (slightly disappointing) waterwheel

One other brilliant thing about Lijiang was a family of Mexicans who lived there. They opened up a restaurant called Frosty Morning Mexican and it was amazing. Mexican is very seldom done correctly outside of North America, but to find it in this tiny town in Western China was incredible. We ate there two days in a row, saddened only by the fact that there was no sour cream to be had.

Lars and Annika

Frosty Beer Mugs!

and... Queso!!!


After Lijiang, we headed south for Dali. Dali was immediately not as pretty as Lijiang. It did seem a little more real though. It actually felt like people lived there, it wasn’t as nice to the tourist eye. It did have lots of Western restaurants and a healthy ex-pat community.

We stayed in a really nice hostel called the Jade Emu, which was owned by the weirdest man ever, but at least he ran a good place. He was only annoying on Ellie’s birthday when he kept telling us we had to be more quiet, but everyone in the hostel was drinking with us.
Clearly, Ellie’s birthday was spent in Dali. It was pretty nice. We woke up after a raucous drinking evening the night prior at the hostel where Ellie got sung an international Happy birthday at midnight, 5 different languages. The four of us traveled to Xiaguan where we found the lake and went swimming among many Chinese men in small white underpants. For dinner, we had the best pizza I’ve had in Asia. It was wood-oven with awesome toppings like local goat cheese and pears.

Wood Fired Pizzas for Ellie's Birthday!

Speaking of good food, we had a really brilliant traditional hotpot one night with Lars and Annika where you choose any vegetables or meats you want and cook them yourself in a boiling pot of spicy spices. Amazing and dirt cheap!. It was so much food and beer and it only cost us 3 USD each.

Annika and Ellie

Overall, which is better Dali or Lijiang? I think I’m a Lijiang person because of the beautiful landscape and the idyllic canals and alleyways that ring the small town. Dali had better nightlife, great food and was a little less commercial, but really didn’t have many sights or much atmosphere.

2 Responses to “Lijiang v. Dali”

  1. 1 Geoff March 5, 2013 at 8:38 pm

    Great write-up, thanks! Debating between the two and I think I’m leaning Lijiang. Glad to have read your review.

  2. 2 botox March 19, 2013 at 12:06 pm

    Awesome! Its in fact awesome paragraph, I
    have got much clear idea on the topic of from this paragraph.

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