Dali, Erhai Lake, Cangshan | Trekking on the Tea and Horse Trail near Dali, Yunnan Province
Hiking in the Cang Mountains near Dali, Yunnan Province.

Dali’s Ancient Towns, Cang Mountain, and Erhai Lake, Yunnan (4 days)

Have an adventure in the Dali area, with walking tours of ancient walled towns and villages, bicycle and boat rides at Erhai Lake, and a big hike in the heights of Cang Mountain that follows parts of the Ancient Tea and Horse Road.

Level 3
Some hiking at high altitude. (Can I do it?)

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Trip overview
Day One main activities Fly to Dali, tour of Dali Ancient Town.
Day Two main activities Big hiking day, walking part of the Ancient Tea and Horse Road at Cang Mountain.
Day Three main activities Bicycle tour through villages on the shores of Erhai Lake, and a walking tour of Xizhou Ancient Town.
Day Four main activities Explore a small island in Erhai Lake, fly back to Beijing.


Old trading towns on the Ancient Tea and Horse Road

The gates of Dali’s old town
The gates of Dali’s old town. (Click for larger image)

On the trip we’ll visit two of the old trading towns on the Ancient Tea and Horse Road.

The relaxed pace of Dali’s Ancient City has been a big draw for backpackers and those looking to escape the big cities of China, and while it’s now very popular it is definitely well worth a visit. The old town has been enveloped by a larger city, but within the Ming Dynasty-era walls of the old city we’ll find a lot to explore.

Not far from Dali is Xizhou, a trading town on the Ancient Tea and Horse Road. The history of Xizhou dates back to the Sui Dynasty (581-618 AD), and the town was part of the Nanzhao Kingdom, an independent state from 737-902 AD. It was an active trading stop on the Tea and Horse Road between from the eighth century, with a lot of tea, handicrafts, and marble passing through.

In Xizhou you’ll see a lot of Bai-style architecture, as well as national heritage-listed courtyards that date back to the Qing Dynasty.

The population of Xizhou is mostly Bai. During the Yuan Dynasty a sizeable Muslim population arrived, bringing a tradition of cheese-making that remains to this day.

Ancient Tea and Horse Road hiking

A mule team on the ancient Tea and Horse Trail
A mule team on the ancient Tea and Horse Trail. (Click for larger image)

The Tea and Horse Road is a network of trading routes, trails, bridges, way stations, market towns, and staging posts that is sometimes known as the Southern Silk Road. With Yunnan in the center, various routes in the network went through Myanmar and on to the Indian subcontinent, up to Tibet, northeast into Sichuan, and down to Laos.

Like the Silk Road, it wasn’t just goods and merchandise that came along the trail: the culture of India, Tibet, and Southwest China also passed back and forth—different types of Buddhism in particular.

The main merchandise on the trail was tea and horses—the horses from Tibet, for use by Chinese armies; and Chinese tea.

We’ll do a big hike at Cang Mountain, taking the cable car up to find park paths and mountain trails to follow part of the Ancient Tea and Horse Road. We’ve done this hike a few times in 2020, and while we haven’t measured it with a GPS we think that it’s up to 20km long.

Erhai Lake bike ride

Cycling by Erhai Lake
Cycling by Erhai Lake. (Click for larger image)

Erhai Lake is the second largest lake in Yunnan Province. Between the lake and the Cang Mountains is a flat plain that is the traditional home of the Bai people. We’ll cycle through the fields and farmland of the Bai people on the plain, finishing up at the shores of the lake. During the 20km bike ride we’ll detour to take a look at Benzhu shrines that belong to a local folk religion that worships local gods, ancestors, heroes, and even legendary animals.

Erhai Lake island visit

To complete our adventure we’ll catch a ferry out to a small island in the lake, taking a look about and having lunch.

Local culture and cuisine

Baba, a popular snack in Xizhou.
Baba, a popular snack in Xizhou. (Click for larger image)

On the trip we’ll fill up on Yunnan cuisine. We’ll definitely try out baba, sometimes known as the Xizhou pizza, and on other stops during the trip we’ll sample the cooking of the Bai people.

Dali is the traditional home of the Bai people. In the 2010 census the total number of Bai people was almost two million – not even 0.5% of China’s total population.

The Bai people live mostly in Yunnan, Guizhou, and Hunan, and 80% percent of them are said to live in concentrated communites like the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture. This area is their traditional home, and consequently the percentage of Bai people here is much higher – around 32% of the people in this area are from the Bai ethnic group.

During the trip we’ll see a lot of the Bai, their traditional clothes, traditional architecture, and their food.

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