The mellow little town of Dali is my favourite China oasis, my retreat when the pace of the cities seems too frenetic. It’s the capital of the minority Bai people in the southwestern province of Yunnan. The centre of the walled old town is China-lite, a tourist-friendly strip of hippyish cafés, but outside it’s pretty and relaxed, and the countryside around is breathtaking: in the dramatic Cangshan mountain range to the west I came across esoteric temples, guesthouse retreats, hot springs and even a secret monastery of kung fu monks. At the huge Erhai Lake, just to the east, I sat and watched locals fishing with trained cormorants.
As the closest uptight China gets to bohemia, the town has become the haunt of alternative types from the big cities, which makes the bar life intriguing, and I bumped into a few famous writers and bands, down to renew their creative juices.
Chinese student dropouts turn up, learn to fire-juggle and dream about opening a café. But the place maintains, at least for the moment, its rural charm.
The main street, cobbled Renmin Lu, for instance, looks the way Chinese roads do in the imagination – its terraced houses have decorative shutters and grass growing between the roof tiles; minority women in traditional dress squat beside their produce, while tailors and cobblers work in their little stores – and, towering over it all, are the mist-shrouded mountains.