Dàlǐ (大理), the original backpacker hang-out in Yúnnán, was once the place to chill, with its stunning location sandwiched between mountains and Ěrhǎi Hú (Erhai Lake). Loafing here for a couple of weeks was an essential part of the Yúnnán experience. In recent years, domestic tourists have discovered Dàlǐ in a big way and the scene has changed accordingly.
Jiànshuǐ (建水) is a charming town of old buildings, an enormous Confucian temple, a cave laden with swallows, and some of the best steampot cooking and barbecue you’ll find in Yúnnán. The architecture is constantly being ‘facelifted’, but still retains much of its distinct character, and the locals, who are a mix of Han, Hui and Yi, are extremely friendly.
The range of gorgeous peaks known as Cāng Shān (苍山) rises imposingly above Dàlǐ and offers the best legwork in the area. Most travellers head first for Zhōnghé Temple, on the side of Zhōnghé Shān. At the temple, be careful of imposter monks passing out incense and then demanding ¥200 for a blessing.
The tiny hamlet of Shāxī (沙溪), 120km northwest of Dàlǐ, is a hugely evocative throwback to the days of the Tea-Horse Roads. You can almost hear the clippety-clop of horses’ hooves and shouts of traders. Shāxī is one of only three surviving caravan oases from the old Tea-Horse Roads that stretched from Yúnnán to India.
Xiàguān (下关), on the southwest shore of Ěrhǎi Hú (Erhai Lake), serves as a transport hub for travellers headed to Dàlǐ, a few kilometres further up the highway. Confusingly, Xiàguān is sometimes referred to as Dàlǐ (大理) on tickets, maps and buses. There is no reason to stay in Xiàguān and you only need to come here in order to catch a bus or train.
Time-warped Hēijǐng (黑井) has been known for salt production for centuries and is still an important producer of the ‘white gold', as well as home to a sizeable Hui Muslim community. Hēijǐng has retained much of its period architecture and is a great place to wander for a day or two, marvelling at the old gates, temples and shady narrow alleys.
Increasing numbers of travellers are now basing themselves in picturesque Pǔgāolǎo (普高老) in Duōyīshù (多依树), an hour by bus from Xīnjiē, where the rice terraces are all around you. The village has spawned many guesthouses but there's still only one restaurant (eat where you stay).