Dali, China- the Russian Kung Fu girl and the ear-shaped lake

She wants to be anyone else.

(“Bad Feminist” by Roxane Gay)

i spent the first three weeks of July doing SAT prep, and nursing a writing block. so i told myself that i had to travel a bit before August, giving in to the wishful thinking that going anywhere would help.


so that was how i ended up in Dali, a city in Yunnan province, in southwestern China. it has a unique culture because it is historically inhabited by the Bai ethnic minority.  the Bai people have their own language, architecture and traditions. the province is actually close to Qinghai province, which is the unabashedly vast and liberating space of deserts and lakes that i visited last year (read the posts here I & II).

if you are someone who enjoys cultures, scenery, ancient villages interspersed with modern shopping districts to buy souvenirs or go to bars, then you would have a good time in Dali. 

one thing about tourism in China is that everything is quite hyper-commercialized, so the place that actually unfolds itself in front of you is often different from the broad angle, glossed over photos you see online.

the main tourist attractions in Dali were disappointing for me, because all the stores sold the same things, and all the sites aimed for the same idea: an illusion of being somewhere pristine and remote, which can only be captured in photos.

tourists swarm to Erhai Lake to pose for solitary and pensive photos amidst a sea of people.

nonetheless, there were countless things that i enjoyed: the b&b we stayed in, indulging myself in posing for cheesy photos, the buskers, the local dishes and many spontaneous moments.

Erhai Lake (洱海)

Erhai means “ear-shaped lake” in Chinese, and you really can’t miss it- you shouldn’t, and you aren’t able to, because it can be seen almost anywhere in the city.

we happened to visit Erhai on a rainy day, so it wasn’t the ideal setting for breathtakingly blue photos. however, i personally love rainy road trips, because it gives the mountains and the water a different hue.

capsized boats


The next day, though, we went to Haishe Park (海舌公园), a wetland that offers an amazing lake view, and is full of birds.


Wu Wei Temple (无为寺)- Kung fu training

the Cangshan Mountains are another landmark of Dali. there are many temples and towers located in these mountains, but we decided to visit Wu Wei Temple, where many Kung Fu enthusiasts (many of them foreigners) come to learn Kung Fu.

when we went in the afternoon, there hadn’t been any disciples out practicing, but i did see a girl sitting on the ground and reading.

she told me that she was from Russia, and that she was staying here to study Kung Fu for 2 weeks. they happened to be on a two-day break so her friends went downtown. she found the place online, and they didn’t have to pay for the accommodation. she said that she was having a great time.


Bai-style Tie Dye (扎染)

one of my favourite things that i got to do in Dali was the hands-on tie dye lesson.

the Bai people take pride in their tie dye (it’s obviously different from the retro hipster shirts in western culture), which involves stitching or tying up the parts that are supposed to be the pattern and then soaking it in herbal dye. these tie-dye pieces are not only their attire, but also art pieces.


i got to make my own, and really, the process of stitching sitting next to Bai old ladies was the most liberating and calming thing that i had done in a long time.


This is what the piece of cloth looks like after being tied up.


so there you have it. to some degree, Dali was like a metaphor of my summer so far- it is underwhelming sometimes, but there is also sweetness in that reality, as if one is grounded in something that isn’t all that unpleasant. and then there are the spontaneous moments that pop up.


i’ll do another post about food in Dali, so stay tuned! meanwhile, tell me how your summer is going: down in the comments, or perhaps through some mysterious telepathic way of communication that only makes sense in the summer heat.




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