The East Gate, with electric tourist bus in front

After driving past the huge, modern looking city of Dali we turned off to the old town (or Dali Town as it was signposted) and threaded through the small but ruler straight streets to our hotel. The buildings were low (mostly two storey) with gently pitched roofs of grey tile, ornate wooden window frames, lots of tiling or decorative painting on the walls, and virtually every ground floor was a shop or eatery of some kind. The streets were paved in grey stone and, apart from the largest ones, were shared between pedestrians, scooters, delivery trikes and the occasional taxi, apparently very harmoniously. The skies remained cloudy but there were patches of blue breaking through and the threatening rain had so far failed to materialise.

You're not from around here are you?

After checking in to our hotel (like so many of the ones we saw it was ornate & fancy in the lobby but sleekly modern in the rooms) we assembled for a walking tour of the town. The town was laid out in a square and although the city walls were long gone large & imposing gates remained at each of the cardinal directions leading 'out'. Two wide streets connected N-S and E-W gates, meeting at the centre, and with all the smaller lanes following the same grid layout it was fairly easy to orient myself and wander around without any real fear of getting lost. Scooters were everywhere and as nearly all of them were electric (along with lots of tiny cars and small, 8-seater tourist 'buses') you quickly learned to rely on your eyes more than ears when crossing the road. Despite this the streets were easy to navigate and it was a very pleasant town to spend time in.

For lunch we walked to Foreigners Street (really!) where we had another splendid group meal. Cosily packed around a small table we soon found ourselves having to spend as much time on plate management as eating, consolidating dishes as new ones kept appearing from the kitchen and trying to keep track of which of them you'd sampled. This became a common story during our stay, there seemed to be a mismatch between western and oriental ideas of crockery sizes with plates & bowls often appearing either awkwardly small or ridiculously large and frequent situations where there didn't seem to be enough space on the table to fit everything. Somehow we managed.

Dance display (click for video)

After lunch we walked out to the Three Pagodas, a group of towers at a nearby Buddhist temple. As we left the old town we passed through a sort of light industrial area and then along a busy road, not a particularly interesting or enjoyable route. This sort of thing had happened before, both on this and previous SE Asian trips - it was as if there was an assumption that westerners enjoyed walking, regardless of the surroundings. Once we reached the site Leon revealed that we weren't going to go in as it wasn't worth the entry fee and after taking some pictures and admiring the golden phoenix statue outside he prepared to lead us back to town along the same route. Instead we asked him to translate at a line of waiting tuk-tuks and had a fun (although noisy - these weren't electric) ride back to Dali.

That evening we assembled in the hotel bar for drinks. The barman spoke no English but had a nifty app on his phone where he'd type in Mandarin and it would display a (usually pretty understandable) English translation. The local beer (I tried to find a different brand every time) was thin & weak, like so many we sampled, so when a couple from the group decided to head out for an evening meal I tagged along to see if I could find something with a bit more body. We headed back to Foreigners Street and found a nice looking restaurant although, as with so many places, it was decidedly cooler than I'd expected. A light supper was ordered but the local beer selection was essentially the same as at the hotel. Rather than order a European brand - I'd not flown a third of the way around the globe to drink Carlsberg - I found the ideal solution, a bottle of Beerlao from Laos, just across the border. Delicious.

Next morning's breakfast was one of the worst of the trip, lukewarm friend eggs and sweet toast (although the coffee was OK). We were the only diners in the cold 'Western restaurant' despite seeing lots of Chinese guests in the hotel, the suspicion was that there was an 'Eastern restaurant' somewhere else serving a more local selection.

Rushan - cheese on a stick

The morning's activity was a walk to the local market, not far across town. This was fairly typical of markets in this part of the world but no less fascinating for that, a warren of stalls with fruit, veggies, meat, fish and an assortment of other foods & products laid out in abundant profusion. Lots of the shoppers had baskets attached to their backs like open-topped rucksacks into which their purchases were loaded, usually by the stallholders themselves. Mopeds, scooters & trikes wove through the passageways, announcing their presence well in advance by repeated blasts of the horns. It was smelly, crowded, busy, noisy and bursting with life.

On the way back we stopped at a street food vendor to try one of the local delicacies we'd been promised - rushan, a toasted cheese snack made by the Bai minority group. The cheese is stretched, dried, deep fried and sprinkled with sugar and it tastes pretty much as you'd expect, as well as being remarkably tough. Not a highlight.

The afternoon was free and I spent it wandering around the town, letting myself meander randomly on the basis that so long as I stayed within the town boundaries I'd always be able to find my way back. Along the way I found:

Sharply styled

I'd not managed to get a haircut before the trip started and my mop was getting annoyingly shaggy. The idea of a Chinese trim appealed to me but the barbers I'd seen so far had been very modern and clearly aimed at a younger clientele, a bit daunting to enter (even without the language hurdle) and hinting at the prospect of a sharply trendy result that I wasn't sure I'd be able to pull off. Finally I passed a more mundane looking place and after walking up & down a few times to build up courage I went in and threw myself at their mercy.

Despite having no language in common (and a good number of decades between our ages) we found common ground in the Universal Langage of Men, a series of hand gestures, facial expressions, and vague (but surprisingly understandable) sounds that managed to convey "I'd like a good trim with enough for some shape left on top and the front kept short". The cut was quick and the result just what I was hoping for. My stylist had to resort to writing to show the price (it was ridiculously cheap) but I did convey the amount of tip I wanted to leave purely by gesture. I came out looking good and feeling very pleased at overcoming both my own fears and the communication difficulties.

For dinner that evening Leon led us to a restaurant just a few doors down from the hotel. I couldn't tell if this was just the easiest option, if a great restaurant just happened to be very close by, or if eating out in China was so good that you could just drop in at the first place you found for a splendid meal. Judging by some of our future meals the last option seemed the most likely, and the meal was, indeed, very good.

In sharp contrast breakfast was just as dire as the day before. Fuelled mostly with mediocre coffee we decamped to our minibus for the drive to Kunming, our next stop.

The crossroads at the centre of town

Electric scooter rental

Breakfast bun shop

More pictures

Even more pictures

Market pictures