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Dali

CHINA | Sunday, 20 October 2013 | Views [611]

Dali

I didn’t have near enough time to explore the Dali region, as I should have had to do it justice.  Within the day and a half there, I did manage to walk around the Old Town, get up the mountain, Cangshan, and to the Three Pagodas with Chongsheng Temples, but didn’t spend near enough time at any one of them. 

The Old Town, really isn’t old as it was destroyed by an earthquake in the 90s and has since been rebuilt. While there are older structures, it has a much more modern and open feeling to it than the Old Town in Lijiang.  This allows for are more people to walk around the streets than the narrow alleyways of the city to the north without it feeling like you are a squashed sardine.  There were a number of street artists as well as musicians on the main paths and the people strolling around were a mix of domestic tourists, with a few foreigners – more than I had seen elsewhere in Yunnan – and locals.  The Old Town is in basically a square with gates along the directional points.  The main gate for entering the Old Town is the West Gate.  The street in front of this entrance is the main thoroughfare from points north to the major city in the region, which is called Dali on the train tickets, but is really Xiguan.

Across the street is the road up to the cable car, which takes one up Cangshan Mountain.

The cable car station is just above the Xixia Palace complex, which was used during the Qing dynasty and the movie set of an idealized Beijing type palace.  The set very well done, with real brick and stone buildings, but the styles are somewhat generic rather than specific to a time and place. As elsewhere, there were lots of costume shops, where domestic tourists, especially the women, would get dressed up in period clothes for photos.  I did get one picture of a beautiful young woman who was dressed in a red gown acting like a royal princess.  They were all fun to watch and to see how they negotiated walking on some of the period shoes.

The cable car is in two segments and is quite long.  The ride up the mountain, even in the rain/drizzle, was stunning.  The slopes coming up from the gorge below are very steep and covered with fir trees and rhododendrons. In May when the flowers are in bloom, it must be spectacular.  At the top there is a long boardwalk that first goes down, then around, and finally up up up to a fairly large platform that marks the site of where the ancient rulers would come to offer sacrifice to the gods in order to ensure a peaceful and prosperous reign. Personally, I was glad to have only walked up the boardwalk than from the base of the mountain. I can now understand why only a few of the former emperors actually succeeded in their quest to reach the site. There were a few hiking trails that went higher and around the mountain that might have been interesting to continue on with, but they were blocked off.

The middle section of the cable car led to some of the temples in the cliffs, but unfortunately I was out of time, so I didn’t get to see them.

From the base of the cable car it is only a few kilometers to the Three Pagodas Park.  The three pagodas were built at different times and have been reconstructed many times over the centuries.  The central pagoda, the largest, was one that Empress Wen Cheng built in the late 600s during the Tang Dynasty with 10 roofs. It was toppled by earthquakes and was rebuilt first with fewer, but now with the latest remodeling has 16. 

The Park is huge. Behind the Three Pagodas ,which lie between the mountain range and the Erhai Lake that dominates the cityscape on a clear day (which unfortunately I didn’t have; it was so rainy and foggy that I could barely make out the outline of this very large lake, which one of the largest in China), are the newly reconstructed Chongsheng Temple complex. China doesn’t do anything in a small way, and this complex is a testament to their sense of grandeur. Along the central axis from the central pagoda back to the mountain are many very very large temples with huge bronze based, gold gilded statues of Buddhist deities, the 500 Arhats and Buddhist teachers. The complex was rebuilt starting in about 2000 and finished in about 2011.  While it is currently used as a Buddhist monastery, and there are monks living in the complex, it does have the feel of a tourist site.  Nonetheless, the artistry of the reconstructions and the new statuary are simply amazing.  They did try to be faithful to the spirit of the original works in many cases, including one Avolokitesvara with a man’s body and a woman’s facial features from the 9th C original.  This was especially interesting to me as it fits directly into my research and wasn’t expecting to find this transition in Yunnan Province.

I have included some of the images from both the mountain and the Three Pagodas with Chongsheng temples in the gallery.  The photos do not capture the immensity of these places and, given the weather and lack of good lighting, they also do not adequately represent the vibrant colors of the temples or for that matter the trees on the mountain, but I do hope you can get a sense of these wonderful places.  I do hope to be able to come back to Dali and spend more time getting to learn about the Bai people who live here and their history. (And as I mentioned in the Lijiang section, the Bai are noted for their wood carvings, which decorated the doors, including those to the temples.  A couple of these wood door carving images are also in the photo gallery.)

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