Dàlǐ, the original funky banana-pancake backpacker hang-out in Yúnnán, was once the place to chill, with its stunning location sandwiched between mountains and Ěrhǎi Hú (Ěrhǎi Lake). Loafing here for a couple of weeks was an essential Yúnnán experience. During the past decade the Chinese tourist market discovered Dàlǐ and the scene changed accordingly.
Travellers have a market to go to nearly every day of the week. Every Monday at Shāpíng (沙坪), about 30km north of Dàlǐ, there is a colourful Bai market (Shāpíng Gǎnjí). From 10am to 2.30pm you can buy everything from food products and clothing to jewellery and local batik. Regular buses to Shāpíng (¥12, one hour) leave from just outside the west gate.
This range of gorgeous peaks rises imposingly above Dàlǐ and offers the best legwork in the area. Most travellers head first for Zhōnghé Temple (中和寺; Zhōnghé Sì), on the side of Zhōnghé Shān. At the temple, be careful of imposter monks passing out incense and then demanding ¥200 for a blessing.
Jiànshuǐ 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.
There are some grand sights within a 15km radius of Kūnmíng, but getting to most of them is time-consuming and you’ll find most of them extremely crowded (weekdays are best to avoid the crowds). If you don’t have much time, the Bamboo Temple (Qióngzhú Sì) and Xī Shān (Western Hills) are the most interesting. Both have decent transport connections.
Eminently worthy Wēibǎo Shān, about 10km south of Wēishān, has a relatively easy hike to its peak at around 2500m. During the Ming and Qing dynasties it was the zenith of China’s Taoism, and you’ll find some superb Taoist murals; the most significant are at Wéncháng Gōng and Chángchún Cave.
Xiàguān, an easy-going city 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.
Strewn with temples, old-growth cypress forest and waterfalls, Stone Treasure Mountain Grottoes, a few kilometres north of Shāxī, makes for an excellent half-day trip. From Shāxī you can head for Stone Bell Temple (石钟寺; Shízhōng Sì), which includes some of the best Bai stone carvings in southern China and offers insights into life at the Nanzhao court of the 9th century.
The shoreline of Diān Chí (Lake Dian), located to the south of Kūnmíng, is dotted with settlements, farms and fishing enterprises. The western side is hilly, while the eastern side is flat country. The southern end of the lake, particularly towards the southeast, is industrial. The lake is elongated – about 40km from north to south – and covers an area of 300 sq km.