Outside Dali : Exploring Xizhou’s Bai architecture

Detail of courtyard gate in Xizhou

Detail of courtyard gate in Xizhou

When I arrived in Xizhou (喜州), which means the ‘Happy Prefecture’ In Chinese, I asked a man in his forties squatting by the bus station where the old town was.

– ‘The old town? What old town? You mean Dali old town?’ he asked visibly puzzled by my request.
– ‘No, no … Xizhou old town’, I precised.
– ‘Mei you‘ (there is isn’t) he said simply.

Never take a ‘mei you‘ for granted. Yet, I was wondering whether the old town had been destroyed and replaced by these red brick houses we see everywhere in the countryside or whether the guy simply did not know … Both explanations seemed plausible.

Search for what I came to see, I immersed myself into the morning market, meandering between makeshift stands where one can buy anything ranging from fruits, spices and rice noodles to clothes, batik, plastic clocks and even dentures . It’s happy rural China mayhem. The crowd is compact and loud, and Mini-van honked their way through the market.

After 15 minutes of strolling through the market, the new Xizhou was behind me and I was finally stepping into the historical core of Xizhou famours for its traditional Bai architecture.


Xizhou’s cultural heritage

Honeycomb-like pattern and dragon in a Xizhou courtyard house

Honeycomb-like pattern and dragon in a Xizhou courtyard house

You have to come to Xizhou to get an idea of what traditional Bai architecture really is. In Dali this type of local architecture is blurred by all the store-fronts, guesthouses and foreigner-friendly restaurants.

The asset of Xizhou are its well-preserved courtyard homes, many of which are protected cultural relics. The town is not overrun by tourists (so far) and friendly locals are eager to invite the travelers who admire the ornate gates into their spacious courtyards where four generations live under one roof.

The ubiquitous honeycomb-like patterns which decorate the white walls, the meticulously carved wooden window covers, the auspicious symbols that ornate the gates and all the details which characteristic of Bai traditional architecture contribute to make of these Xizhou courtyard houses living art museums.

Entrance of one of Xizhou's historical residence

Entrance of one of Xizhou’s historical residence

A historical legacy

In the 1800s, a few Xizhou family clans successfully tapped into the development of traffic on the old Tea and Horse Road (茶马古道) and rose as wealthy merchants. Tea, but also musk, tin, silk and other goods were transported between Yunnan, Tibet, Sichuan and Southeast Asia. Like many other  towns and villages which were on the path of the caravans of the Tea and Horse road, this class of successful local entrepreneur left behind massive courtyard mansions that travelers can still visit today.

In the streets of Xizhou

In the streets of Xizhou

Going to the Erhai lake

If the main goal of heading to Xizhou is to see the traditional Bai architecture and to visit the courtyard houses (an experience you can’t get in Dali old town), a stroll through the fields east of Xizhou towards the Erhai Lake (洱海) with the Cangshan Mountain (苍山) in the backdrop will complete the day.

If you decide to stop in traditional Bai villages during a tour of the Erhai Lake, Xizhou will be one of your first stop followed by Shuanglang (双廊镇) and Dacheng (大城) in Wase Township (挖色镇). You can also include Xizhou on your list of one day-trip departing from Dali old town.

How to get there 

Xizhou is just 20 to 30 km north of Dali old town. You can either bike, take a bus or hire a car.
Bus : there are no direct buses from Dali old town to Xizhou. The best way is to wait for a bus on the Dali-Lijiang First Class Road near the Dali East Gate. Buses heading towards 剑川,洱源 or the infamous 蝴蝶泉 stop in Xizhou.

Car or mini-van : a one-way trip from Dali old town should cost around 40 RMB.

Going back to Dali : from Xizhou back to Dali, there are plenty of Xiaguan-bound buses that leave once they are full and they all pass by the Dali old town.