Top 5 Things to Do around Dali and Lijiang

Yunnan Province—which literally means “South of the Clouds” due to its location just south of the Tibetan Plateau—is home to verdant low-lying valleys, spectacular white-capped mountains, rustic towns and villages, and a lively mix of ethnic minority communities.

Dali and Lijiang are two of our favorite destinations in this province and they are great to visit all year round. Within driving distance of these two small cities alone, you can partake in customs by a myriad of ethnic minority groups, including the Bai, Yi, and Naxi people, and experience some of the most diverse ecology and terrain in China.

Ready to explore? Here are five of our favorite activities in the area.

Making Rushan Cheese with a Local Farmer

Top 5 Things to Do around Dali and LijiangPhoto Credit: Elizabeth Phung (Travels through Dali with a Leg of Ham)
A Foodie’s Yunnan Voyage

Rushan Cheese is a part of Dali’s unique culinary culture. The literal translation is “milk fan” and it is a cow’s milk cheese made by the Bai minority people. Of the over 1.5 million Bai minority people who live in China, over eighty percent make their home around Dali and their distinct culture has a strong influence on the region. Rushan is a flat cheese which can be fried or grilled and rolled up on a stick for a typical Yunnan treat. 

On the streets, local people like to add flavor and Rushan Cheese is often served with honey, chocolate syrup, fruit jam or sweetened condensed milk. On a AsiaTravel journey, you’ll have the opportunity to learn the traditional methods of making Rushan Cheese with a local farmer turned cheesemonger. As you wait for your delicious cheese snack to cool, chat with the cheesemaker’s wife as she stitches cloth shoes.

In AsiaTravel founder and CEO Mei Zhang’s travelogue and recipe book, Travels through Dali: with a leg of ham, you’ll hear about Mei’s personal encounter with this farmer and he’s even shared a few delicious recipes to try your hand at.

Enjoying a Bai Three-Cup Tea Ceremony

Top 5 Things to Do around Dali and Lijiang

RELATED READING: AsiaTravel CEO and Dali-native Mei Zhang’s Insider Tips to Dali

Again in Dali, the three cup tea ceremony is a tradition of the Bai ethnic group. This ceremony helps to impart the Bai philosophy about how to lead a balanced life. Often performed at marriages and festivals, this ceremony is an important way in which the Bai people honor guests. 

As one might expect, the Bai three-cup tea ceremony comes in three courses of different teas. The first course has a bitter taste. A high quality green tea from Dali is baked in a pottery jar and boiling water is added. The tea is ready to drink when the water has changed to an amber color. The bitter taste reflects that bitterness has to be endured in life to find its true meaning.

The second course is sweeter (to symbolize the nicer things in life) and is served with brown sugar, walnuts, and goat’s cheese seasonings. Finally the third course is the “aftertaste tea”, which is served in a bowl rather than a cup. The locals add pepper, ginger and cinnamon to represent the mix of experiences found in life. There will be time to reflect upon life with your tea and converse with the three-cup tea ceremony hosts.

Selecting Fresh Produce with Auntie Cheng
Top 5 Things to Do around Dali and Lijiang

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Phung (Travels through Dali with a Leg of Ham)
Yunnan Food According to Mei Zhang

In Dali, we love to pair you with the darling Auntie Cheng, our CEO and founder Mei Zhang’s personal “ayi” in her hometown. An “ayi,” literally translated to mean Auntie, is a traditional Chinese custom of a woman who helps a family with cooking, cleaning, and childcare.

Auntie Cheng will take you to local markets to buy authentic, fresh and local produce. You’ll then return to her home to help her prepare a delicious lunch over a courtyard stove. With Auntie Cheng, you can learn how to properly enjoy the results of your morning’s shopping and cooking according to local custom. Help make a meal and then help eat it – seems like a fair trade off!

Encounter a Village Shaman

Top 5 Things to Do around Dali and Lijiang

Photo Credit: Anthony Tache
5 Off-the-Beaten Track Destinations in China

In the Jade Snow Mountain Range, thirty Yi families preserve the ways of their ancestors. Another ethnic minority group of the Yunnan area, the Yi people practice a form of animism led by a a shaman. The village shaman, or Bimo, will welcome you to his village and share his perspective on local life, the challenges posed by development and his animist faith, a religion that predates the arrival of Buddhism in China.

The Bimo is a sacred hereditary office held by one family over centuries. The incumbent is a well-respected scholar who mediates tribal disputes and presides over Yi ceremonies. Your discussion will continue over lunch, which will include “Yi French fries” (pan-fried sliced potatoes), after which the Bimo will conduct a blessing ceremony and pray for your safe travels. This unique experience offers insight into not only their culture but the living history of the Yi people. 


Dinner Party with Local Naxi Ethnic Minority People

Top 5 Things to Do around Dali and Lijiang

RELATED READING: Get a Taste of Local Life in Yunnan’s Minority Villages

A dinner party is always fun and the Naxi ethnic minority folks from Lijiang are an excellent choice of hosts. Agriculture is the main occupation of the Naxi people, with the chief crops consisting of rice, maize, wheat, potatoes, beans and hemp. There will be plenty of food on the table – and since cotton is also an important local crop, there will be a chance to admire the indigenous dress too.

Your local AsiaTravel guide will help you swap stories and folklore with your hosts in their local dialect and you’ll walk away with a deep understanding of this unique cultural heritage. What a treat!

With its rich artisanal culture and ethnic minority heritage, Dali, Lijiang, and the nearby villages are a great place to slow-down and enjoy the simple things in life: food and budding friendships. There are regular flights to both destinations from most major cities in China but if you have time, we always recommend visiting both. You can start in Dali and drive the 2 hours to Lijiang. You’ll not only be treated to some stunning scenery but you’ll get to stop in Shaxi market town along the way.

We have a number of journeys that will take you to the heart of Yunnan, including a special trip in 2018 led by AsiaTravel founder Mei Zhang. Take a look at our journeys to Dali and Lijiang.

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