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

Practically each traveler to southwest China’s picturesque Yunnan province passes by way of 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 generally known as the Dacangzhen Valley.

Dacangzhen is house to considered one 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 a captivating 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 method right here.

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

A towering ceremonial stone gate stands at the beginning of an in any other case humble highway 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 massive 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 assemble, 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 overlook there’s a lot extra to see. You should not have any downside flagging down the native equal to a tuk-tuk on the backside of the hill, and might 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 not possible to get misplaced. Nevertheless, exterior of the main 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 way of the Dacangzhen valley. The most important and most elaborate (and just one that expenses for admission) is the house of Ma Ruji.

It’s straightforward to lose observe of time exploring the colourful stone carvings and murals that begin above the primary gate and proceed all through, discovering sudden particulars comparable to two faux clocks convincingly painted on both aspect of the primary courtyard. Climb the rickety steps to the highest ground of the mansion for a view throughout the previous tile rooftops of Donglianhua and out to the mountains rising past.

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Additionally value testing is the Mansion of Ma Ruqing, which regardless of being put aside as an area landmark can also be nonetheless the house of a number of native households. As unusual as it might really feel to step into their residing house, the residents are greater than welcoming, and if you happen to go in with a smile and some phrases of Mandarin, might be completely happy to point out 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 to take a look at the city mosque, as nicely. With out the crescent moon above the gate and weathered Arabic signboards lining the doorway of the prayer corridor, there may be nothing to tell apart it from a Chinese language temple, and a really stately one at that. A tiny, two-room museum beneath the primary 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 riot towards Chinese language rule within the mid 1800’s, which resulted within the full destruction of the village and the bloodbath of almost all its inhabitants, a tragedy that the locals nonetheless commemorate yearly.

A quiet place, Xiaoweigengcun involves life 5 instances a day as the boys of the village collect for prayers on the mosque, led by their imam, simply noticed in his lengthy white gown and vivid 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 a bit of worse for put on. However throughout the dusty courtyard is a really totally different sight – the primary prayer corridor, constructed within the mid-1990’s in a really fashionable and vaguely Turkish fashion, with boxy vivid inexperienced onion domes rising from each nook. The mosque may be very actually the middle of village life, with properties and outlets radiating outward in the 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 conventional Chinese language New 12 months’s customized) and others mounted with material 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 clergymen who wrote it. 


In case you’re visiting on the weekend, make sure you cease by Yonghecun, a small riverside city that hosts a bustling road 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 ladies. Muslim housewives of their multicolored and sequin-bedecked headscarves present a stark distinction to the dour blue and gray outfits of the boys.

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 vital fashionable is erkuai, a fast snack simply whipped up by roadside distributors, with greens and meat wrapped up inside a skinny, nearly translucent rice cake.  

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The market additionally options some distinctive Dacangzhen specialties. The celebs of the present are the candied melons, trying nearly fluorescent in glowing sugar-coated orange and inexperienced. For curiosity’s sake, it’s arduous to withstand shopping for a slice, however be warned that they style even sweeter than they appear. 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 refined, with truffles and pies filled with nuts and candy purple beans.

It’s the right place to fill your stomach and your backpack, taking alongside a couple of snacks to get pleasure from on the brief journey again to Dali.

Don’t Miss Dacangzhen!

Dacangzhen is a very 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 fact 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 may be all the time 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 fashionable Xiaguan district. Buses usually depart each ten minutes, beginning at 7:30am and ending round 7pm, with the journey costing 14 RMB ($2) every method.

The perfect – and just about solely – choice for going between the cities within the Dacangzhen valley is to flag down one of many tuk-tuks that you just’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 a couple of choices for spending the evening. Your finest guess will most likely be the Jiahua Lodge (嘉华酒店) on Cangxi Lu (+08 726381793), or the Gui Qu Lai Lodge (归去来酒店) just some meters up the identical road (+08 726382699).