The Villages of Dacangzhen: Southwest China’s Finest-Saved Secret

Practically each traveler to southwest China’s picturesque Yunnan province passes by the city of Dali, with its postcard-ready slender pagodas and peaceable stone-paved streets.

However few vacationers, together with the rising variety of Chinese language who go to the area, know an much more fascinating enclave lies only a 30 minute bus experience south of Dali, previous pine forested hills in a spot often called the Dacangzhen Valley.

Dacangzhen is house to one in every of Yunnan’s oldest and most tenacious Muslim communities, who’ve steadfastly stored their traditions and religion alive on this nook of devoutly Buddhist Yunnan.

Exploring the valley is an interesting glimpse of what occurs when the Far East meets the Center East, a cultural mélange stored alive by locals who’re more than pleased to share their story with the few outsiders who make their approach right here.

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Driving down into the Dacangzhen valley from Dali, you first go the small city of Mamichang, with a placing reminder that this isn’t simply one other unusual nook of China.

A towering ceremonial stone gate stands at first of an in any other case humble street main as much as the hillside city, carved with dramatic prospers that would appear extra at house in Baghdad than Beijing, and topped with a big crescent moon. The message “Mamichang welcomes you!” is written in giant black brushstrokes – in each Chinese language and Arabic.

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It’s a steep climb to the highest of the hill, however the traveler’s eye is consistently drawn upward by much more hand-painted Chinese language-Arabic slogans splashed throughout the city’s stark white partitions. The messages are an intriguing, typically complicated combine of presidency sloganeering, motivational aphorisms, and quotes from the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad.

Crowning the hill is the city’s mosque, an intriguing mixture of Islamic religion and Chinese language sensibility. The pointed eaves of the minaret recall to mind the well-known slender pagoda in close by Dali, whereas the folding picket doorways of the prayer corridor show elaborate, multi-colored carvings of Mecca, Medina and different holy websites half a world away.

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The mosque is a well-liked place for the city’s older residents to collect, chatting and gossiping in Chinese language, however greeting one another with the Arabic blessing “salaam aleikum.”

Spend a while getting a really feel for this very distinctive place, however don’t neglect there’s a lot extra to see. You shouldn’t have any drawback flagging down the native equal to a tuk-tuk on the backside of the hill, and may pace on to your subsequent vacation spot.


Donglianhua is a really uncommon type of place: a vacationer city with out vacationers.

The native authorities determined to develop the city as an attraction in 2008, paving the roads and putting in useful indicators and markers in Chinese language, English, and Arabic, explaining the city’s historical past and making it inconceivable to get misplaced. Nonetheless, outdoors of the foremost Chinese language holidays, Donglianhua is nearly a ghost city, with a small handful of locals outnumbering the even smaller handful of tourists.

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The centerpieces of the city are the mansions of the Ma brothers, who for hundreds of years dominated the commerce routes that handed by the Dacangzhen valley. The most important and most elaborate (and just one that costs for admission) is the house of Ma Ruji.

It’s simple to lose monitor of time exploring the colourful stone carvings and murals that begin above the principle gate and proceed all through, discovering sudden particulars similar to two pretend clocks convincingly painted on both aspect of the principle courtyard. Climb the rickety steps to the highest flooring of the mansion for a view throughout the outdated tile rooftops of Donglianhua and out to the mountains rising past.

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Additionally price trying out is the Mansion of Ma Ruqing, which regardless of being put aside as an area landmark can be nonetheless the house of a number of native households. As unusual as it might really feel to step into their dwelling house, the residents are greater than welcoming, and if you happen to go in with a smile and some phrases of Mandarin, will probably be blissful to indicate off the ancestral corridor, with indicators and pictures explaining the Ma household’s rise to energy and tumultuous exile after the Communist victory in 1949, scattering the clan from Taiwan and Thailand.

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Be certain that to take a look at the city mosque, as properly. With out the crescent moon above the gate and weathered Arabic signboards lining the doorway of the prayer corridor, there’s nothing to tell apart it from a Chinese language temple, and a really stately one at that. A tiny, two-room museum beneath the principle pagoda-like minaret explains Donglianhua’s historical past (solely in Chinese language) and contains some fascinating vintage artifacts and pictures.


If you’re trying to find the historic roots of Dacangzhen, head to Xiaoweigengcun. It was one of many earliest settlements within the valley, a fortress for the Central Asian troops who first introduced Islam right here, as proven by the city’s title, which accurately interprets to “small walled mound.”

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It was additionally the scene of a bloody rise up towards Chinese language rule within the mid 1800’s, which resulted within the full destruction of the village and the bloodbath of practically all its inhabitants, a tragedy that the locals nonetheless commemorate yearly.

A quiet place, Xiaoweigengcun involves life 5 instances a day as the lads of the village collect for prayers on the mosque, led by their imam, simply noticed in his lengthy white gown and brilliant yellow turban.

As in Donglianhua, the arch of the gate is topped by a really Chinese language-style minaret, this one barely tottering to the aspect and slightly worse for put on. However throughout the dusty courtyard is a really totally different sight – the principle prayer corridor, constructed within the mid-1990’s in a really trendy and vaguely Turkish fashion, with boxy brilliant inexperienced onion domes rising from each nook. The mosque could be very actually the middle of village life, with properties and outlets radiating outward in direction of the fields past.

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The slim, whitewashed alleyways present a stark distinction to the earthy streets of Donglianhua. You’ll discover some doorways flanked with purple scrolls bearing Arabic blessings (an Islamic tackle a standard Chinese language New 12 months’s customized) and others mounted with fabric banners displaying intricate serpentine and geometric designs, vaguely resembling some language neither Arabic nor Chinese language. These are Taoist talismans, indicating properties belonging to Xiaoweigengcun’s non-Muslim minority, with characters written in a sacred script decipherable solely by the Taoist monks who wrote it. 


In case you’re visiting on the weekend, you should definitely cease by Yonghecun, a small riverside city that hosts a bustling avenue market each Sunday. After a day spent on empty roads and quiet villages, the crowds that flock to the market are a welcome shock. And whereas mosque gatherings are largely a male affair, the market is dominated by girls. Muslim housewives of their multicolored and sequin-bedecked headscarves present a stark distinction to the dour blue and gray outfits of the lads.

Regardless of the Center Jap influences that permeate Dacangzhen, the meals right here is completely Chinese language. You’ll discover the identical basic dishes offered in different Yunnan villages, albeit with pork changed by beef or mutton. One of the standard is erkuai, a fast snack simply whipped up by roadside distributors, with greens and meat wrapped up inside a skinny, virtually translucent rice cake.  

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The market additionally options some distinctive Dacangzhen specialties. The celebrities of the present are the candied melons, wanting virtually fluorescent in glowing sugar-coated orange and inexperienced. For curiosity’s sake, it’s onerous to withstand shopping for a slice, however be warned that they style even sweeter than they give the impression of being. You’ll additionally discover a number of bakers promoting native pastries – a rarity in non-Muslim villages. The flavors listed below are a bit extra delicate, with truffles and pies filled with nuts and candy purple beans.

It’s the proper place to fill your stomach and your backpack, taking alongside just a few snacks to take pleasure in on the brief journey again to Dali.

Don’t Miss Dacangzhen!

Dacangzhen is a really sudden shock, offering a journey again into the area’s colourful and tumultuous historical past, and a glimpse at a really totally different lifestyle that appears a world away from the truth of recent China. Whether or not you go to for simply a day or keep to discover even longer, a visit to the Muslim villages nestled on this quiet valley is a refreshing and eye-opening detour, and a reminder that in a spot like Yunnan, there’s at all times greater than meets the attention. 

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Getting There and Getting Round

Attending to Dacangzhen from Dali takes solely a fast half-hour bus experience from the southwest bus station (西南车站), on the southern tip of the trendy Xiaguan district. Buses usually depart each ten minutes, beginning at 7:30am and ending round 7pm, with the journey costing 14 RMB ($2) every approach.

One of the best – and just about solely – possibility for going between the cities within the Dacangzhen valley is to flag down one of many tuk-tuks that you simply’ll discover rumbling down the in any other case empty nation roads. Relying on the space, a experience ought to price between 10 to 15 RMB ($1.45 – $2), however might be a bit decrease if you happen to’re sharing house with different passengers.

The place to Keep

Dacangzhen is a straightforward day journey from Dali, however if you wish to spend extra time exploring, you’ll have just a few choices for spending the evening. Your greatest guess will most likely be the Jiahua Resort (嘉华酒店) on Cangxi Lu (+08 726381793), or the Gui Qu Lai Resort (归去来酒店) just some meters up the identical avenue (+08 726382699).

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