The towns, villages, and temples around Erhai Lake in Dali are too spread out to walk between them, and public transportation isn't convenient for most of them. It's easier and more flexible to ride around the lake by electric scooter or motorcycle, as many Chinese visitors do.
This itinerary takes you in a full circle around Erhai Lake, starting and ending in Dali's Old Town. The trip visits a few well-preserved old towns, many Buddhist temples, three islands, and some lovely parks. Along the way you'll pass small villages full of traditional buildings, farms with rice paddies, mountainside tombs, and rocky cliffs.
Navigation is pretty easy—most of the directions consist of continuing on the same road or following the water. The road can be a little curvy in parts but isn't a particularly difficult drive, and though you'll get to see cliffs, you're never driving right next to a steep drop. All information in this article is up-to-date as of May 2019 unless otherwise noted.
Dali has a history as an ancient kingdom, and many historic towns and traditional buildings remain scattered around Erhai Lake. Many visitors just visit Dali Old Town and the mountains next to it, but riding around the lake by motorcycle gives you the mobility to see lots of other areas and the flexibility to explore on your own.
The trip is about 150 km in total. It can be done in one day, but this is a little rushed and a lot of riding for one day, and means that you probably won't have time to visit all the stops. If you want to spread it out over two or three days, that's certainly possible—Dali Old Town, Xizhou, Shuanglang, and the city center all have plenty of accommodation options, and there are hostels and guesthouses scattered around the perimeter of the lake.
If you are doing it in one day, the Three Pagodas and Zhangjia Garden are obvious stops to skip—they're close to the old town, so it's easy to visit them by themselves instead of as part of this longer loop.
This article describes a clockwise ride around the lake starting and ending in Dali Old Town, but many other variations are possible. Electric scooters are easy to find for rent in Xizhou, Shuanglang, and the city center as well as in the Old Town, so you can start in any of the major settlements on the way. That said, Dali Old Town is particularly easy to get to and particularly large (so worth spending some extra time in), so it's probably the most natural starting point.
It's also perfectly possible to do the trip the counterclockwise (leaving south from the Old Town and doing the stops in reverse), though in that case some of the detailed directions in this guide would have to be disregarded.
Finally, electric scooter isn't your only option. Aside from the obvious possibility of renting a real motorcycle (significantly faster than your average scooter), you could also rent a car, ride a bicycle, or take a tour bus. These all have their disadvantages—a car is unwieldy enough that it makes some of the sites more of a pain to visit, particularly Shuanglang and nearby Nanzhao Island. A bicycle is even more flexible than a scooter, but it's also slow—still, if you're in good shape and have the time to stretch the trip into multiple days, there are plenty of guesthouses spread out around the lake to make a cycling trip work. A tour bus, obviously, has the least flexibility of any of these options—it can take you to some of the places on the route but won't stop at all of them—but it is relatively simple, especially if you can't ride a scooter.
A few things you'll want to bring:
- A good hat that will protect you from the sun and stay on your head. The roads near the lake can be windy, so get one that fits well and has a string that goes around your neck.
- Sunscreen – the sun is strong up here at an altitude of about 2,000 meters.
- Water, though if you don't bring enough you can buy it on the way.
- Layers – Dali is warm during the day and cool in the morning and evening, so wear an outer layer that you can take off when it warms up.
- Gloves, to protect your hands from the sun and the wind when riding.
Dali is one of the main tourist destinations in Yunnan, so it's not hard to get to. You can fly into Dali airport or take the train or bus from a larger hub such as Kunming. For detailed information, see Dali#Get in.
Scooter rental places in Dali Old City are a dime a dozen. Prices vary depending on how much battery life you want. A one-day rental of a scooter with a maximum speed of 40 km/h and two fully-charged batteries (plenty of battery to comfortably circle the lake – ignore the tour bus touts who say you'll run out of power and get stranded) cost ¥80 in May 2019. Many scooters can seat two people.
It's also possible to rent a full-fledged motorcycle instead of an electric scooter. A motorcycle can go much faster, shortening the amount of time on the road between stops. That said, rumor has it a scooter doesn't require a license while a motorcycle does.
- See also: Driving in China
The journey starts from 1 Dali Old Town (大理古城). You've presumably spent at least a night here before starting the itinerary and had a chance to experience the old town's charms, so no need to dawdle before starting your ride. Set off early—if you're planning to do the whole itinerary in one day, you should be on the road before 08:00.
Once you've rented the bike, head to the northwest of the Old City. Go north on Xijingxian (西景线) for just a few minutes and you'll get to the Three Pagodas.
(If you already visited the Three Pagodas when you were exploring the Old Town, you can skip this stop. To do that, head east from the Old Town instead, then when you hit the major road Dalixian (大丽线), turn left to go north and you're on your way.)
The 2 Three Pagodas (三塔) are a symbol of Dali, and the hillside park around them is full of beautiful Buddhist temples and statues. It costs ¥75 to get in, so if you don't want to pay, or if you're just anxious to get going, you can just admire them from a distance and then keep riding.
The Three Pagodas are right next to the old city, so your journey really begins now, after visiting them. When you leave the pagodas, don't continue on Xijingxian but instead head further east to Dalixian (大丽线), a less hectic, more scooter-friendly road. Then turn left to head north.
On this part of the journey you'll pass lots of farms, full of farmers tending their crops, and little villages full of traditional buildings. Take some time to head out into some of the villages to experience village life and admire the architecture. When you're ready, continue on Dalixian to get to Xizhou.
3 Xizhou Old Town (喜洲古镇) is another well-preserved old town, much smaller and less developed than Dali. It's easy to find a parking space for a scooter or motorcycle, then wander around the town for a few minutes. If you neglected to bring a hat, water, or a light jacket, you can buy them here.
If you didn't have breakfast before starting out, try bābā (粑粑), a Xizhou specialty, a sort of thick stuffed pancake that you can get sweet or savory. The savory ones all seem to have meat, but the sweet ones are vegetarian.
When you're finished in Xizhou, keep heading north on Dalixian until you see the sign for 蝴蝶泉, then turn left to get to the Butterfly Spring.
The 4 Butterfly Spring (蝴蝶泉) is a deep blue pond in a park that attracts lots of butterflies. The park also includes walking trails, a butterfly museum, and a big butterfly house. It's free to park a scooter; parking a car costs ¥5. Entry to the park is ¥40. If you're short on time and not that into butterflies, you can ignore the sign and just continue on Dalixian.
When you leave the Butterfly Spring, take the third left onto Dalixian, not the second left onto Xijingxian. After 2-3 kilometers, the road will take you close to the lake. At that point, keep hugging the lake (as much as the major roads allow you to) until you see Hongshan Temple on your left.
5 Hongshan Temple (红山庙) is worth a couple minutes to look around. You can park on the side of the road for free. There's a bit of a beach nearby to enjoy the lake too. Then keep hugging the lake to get to Shuanglang.
6 Shuanglang Ancient Village (双廊古村) is the third of the three major historic towns on the route. An old fishing village on the coast, you can't miss it. The question is where to park your scooter: inside the village you're not allowed to park (stopping is okay, but if you park and lock the scooter you can be fined ¥50). Outside the first entrance to Shuanglang there's a parking lot where you can park for ¥10, but this isn't actually a very convenient option – the town is built around one main road which continues for a long distance, so if you park at the beginning, walk through the village and walk back, it'll be a lot of walking.
The most convenient option is to ride into the village. You can't ride a scooter through the first entrance (there are metal posts to stop you) so continue past the first entrance and turn right at the first significant opportunity to get into the village at a side entrance. Then you can ride around and explore. If you want a place to park, keep going until you get to the intersection with Yuji Street (玉几街). Turn right and continue to the entrance to Yuji Island (玉几岛), outside of which is a free motorcycle parking lot. You can leave your scooter there while you walk around and explore the village—since it's in the heart of the village, it's a much more convenient spot to park than the entrance.
7 Yuji Island, by the way, has some historic buildings and views of the water, but it's probably not worth the ¥10 admission fee—there are plenty more historic buildings in the rest of the village. If you're interested, it's open 07:00 to 20:00 and you get to it by walking across a bridge.
While you're in Shuanglang, you can visit 8 Nanzhao Island (南诏岛), which includes forest to hike through, a palace that you can't go into, and a few artificial-feeling attractions such as some statues in the water. There's no bridge; it can only be reached by ferry. The ferry terminal is near the end of that main road going through the village. Don't ride your scooter straight into the ferry terminal's main plaza (the security guard will yell at you if you try). Instead, turn left to find a parking lot where you can pay ¥10 to park for up to 12 hours or ¥15 for 12-24 hours. A round-trip ticket to the island costs ¥50. The ticket doesn't guarantee a seat on the ferry – you might have to stand – but the ride is less than five minutes.
After you've finished riding through Shuanglang, continue south on Daxixian (大西线). From here all the way to the city center, the directions are simple: just keep following the water. For this part of the journey, on the east side of the lake, you're treated to great views of both the water and rocky cliffs beside it.
After about 15 kilometers from Shuanglang, you'll see a tiny island, big enough for a small Buddhist temple and not much else. It's called 9 Xiaoputuo (小普陀). When you get close to the island, you can park your scooter for free (there's a sign advertising parking for a fee, but just park a few meters down the road and there's no need to pay). Then you can take a little boat across to the island for ¥10 round-trip. The drivers pull the boat across on ropes, and it goes back and forth every few minutes. On the island, you can walk around, take some nice photos against the backdrop of the lake, and pray at the temple (incense is free). The island closes at 18:00, and last boat over is at about 17:40.
10 Luoquan Peninsula (罗荃半岛) is a beautiful scenic area, a nice spot for viewing the lake and Cangshan Mountains on the other side, and includes Tianjing Pavilion (天镜阁), whose predecessor dates back to the Ming Dynasty, as well as the 43-meter Luoquan Pagoda (罗荃塔).
It's easy to spot the peninsula and its pagoda. Afterwards, just continue on the same main road. Shortly after the peninsula, you'll pass Jinsuo Island (金梭岛), which has a Bai fishing village and can be visited by boat.
Keep following the same road along the lake and you'll be able to feel that you're heading into Dali's city center at the southern edge of the lake. The road will take you past 11 Erhai Park (洱海公园), a large, free city park popular for its flowers and of course its location on the lake.
The next part of the journey is the trickiest bit of navigation. You need to get across a bridge so you can head north again on Dalixian, the road to the west of the lake that you started out on. The best way to do it is to turn right onto Xingsheng Street (兴盛路) just before Xingsheng Street goes over the bridge. But the intersection is a little confusing: you have to first turn left a little bit before the bridge so you can make a loop onto the bridge. After you cross the bridge, follow Xingsheng Road for two kilometers. Xingsheng Road will turn left; follow it when it does and then take the fourth right on Yuhua Road (榆华路), which will turn into Dalixian.
12 Zhangjia Garden (张家花园), which you'll see signs for from the road, is the last stop on the route. The entrance fee is ¥90.
Then get back on Dalixian and keep following it north to get back to the Old Town, where you're probably ready to return your scooter and get a good night's sleep.
- Cangshan, the mountain range just to the west of the old city, which you see from the road but don't actually visit on this itinerary. (It's probably not realistic to go up to the mountains by scooter—the roads are too steep.)
- Shaxi – historic market town north of Dali
- Lijiang – another historic town and major Yunnan tourist destination
- Kunming – the provincial capital, not so much of a tourist destination, but it is the province's transportation hub and the starting point for trips to the Stone Forest
- Continue on the Yunnan tourist trail