An independent traveler's mecca, Dali is one of my favorite places in China. Flanked by the Cangshan mountains and Erhai Lake, the city is divided into Dali New City (Xiaguan) and Dali Old Town (Gucheng). With good hiking options in the mountains and small minority villages along the lake, Dali offers a gamut of activities to choose from. We'll spend a day hiking the Cangshan mountains (with or without taking the cable car to the starting point) for some stellar views of the town and Erhai lake. After a tiring but fulfilling day, we head to Yi Rang Tang in Dali Old Town for a scrumptious veggie buffet prepared by Buddhist monks. It is all-you-can-eat for less than a dollar, but the bowl has to be licked clean. No wastage whatsoever. We finish the day sauntering around the old town hitting a few bars if we feel like it. Another popular activity is renting bicycles and riding the circuit around the Erhai Lake while stopping at some of the minority villages and interacting with the locals. The weather was not in my favor the last time with incessant rain, but it still made for some memorable moments enough to make me come back.
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Caiyun North Road
This street is popular in Kunming because it is home to the gigantic Luo Si Wan wholesale market, a complex so huge that walking from one end of it to the other could feel like an Everest expedition. This place has aisles after aisles dedicated to every imaginable materialistic need of ours: clothes, shoes, cosmetics, bags, kitchen appliances, furniture, handicrafts, edibles - you name it. Make sure you put your bargaining skills to good use and if in case you feel hungry, there are hawkers both inside and outside the market selling freshly roasted corn and fried goodies. Getting there: Since buses are capable of confusing most travellers, it is easy to flag taxis in Kunming. However, since the drivers do not really speak much English, make sure you have a map of your destination or ask your hotel receptionists to write down the names for you in Chinese. Luo Si Wan is relatively very popular and you could have to shell out anything above 70 Yuan. The traffic could however be a major annoyance.
120 kilometres from the centre of Kunming, the Stone Forest or Shilin is an extremely impressive example of Karst formations for some and an indication of an unknown supreme power for the others. A cluster of giant grey limestone pillars that have weird names given to them, the forest is supposedly a result of erosions caused by wind and rainwater if one ignores the many Chinese legends attached to it. Shilin is a major tourist attraction, so do not let the crowds intimidate you. Simultaneously, do not be surprised by the exorbitant prices either, it is perfectly normal for one to pay 150 Yuan in order to enter this natural wonder. Getting there: You could rent a car from the centre of Kunming or take a taxi to get to Shilin and the best idea is to ask your hotel staff to arrange one for you. Expect to pay anything between 250 to 300 Yuan. Carry a lot of water and some food because a lot of walking and climbing steps is involved.
The Jiuxiang Scenic region is located 90 kilometres away from central Kunming and it comprises five scenic areas: Diehong Bridge, Sanjiao Caves, Dasha Dam, Alu Long and Mingyue Lake, covering 175 square kilometers. However, this beautiful natural wonder is most popular for its karst caves that have formations in a plethora of shapes and are brilliantly lit in order to amplify their beauty. There is a lot to explore and for those who do not love walking, cable cars can take visitors from one area to another. Getting there: Visiting Shilin and Jiuxiang on the same day is a very good idea, therefore renting a car or taking a taxi up to the Stone Forest is the best thing to do and you could ask your hotel staff to arrange one for you. A return journey should cost you 250 to 300 Yuan. If you are looking for a cheaper option, bus connections, albeit complicated, are available. The tickets for Jiuxiang come for about 120 Yuan and a lot of walking is involved. Since you will be spending up to six hours travelling, try and leave early in the morning in order to wrap up your tour by evening.