One of the most iconic sights of China’s southwestern Yunnan Province is the Three Pagodas of Dali, found 1.5 kilometers north of the ancient city. The striking towers were built in the 9th and 10th centuries at the base of the Cangshan Mountains, with Lake Erhai visible on the horizon. Miraculously, the brick structures have withstood two devastating earthquakes and the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. Legend has it the pagodas were built to scare off dragons that once plagued the area.
But first we had to find them.
Heading out from Dali’s north gate, we eventually came to an ornately painted arch with stone lions out front. We had found the entrance to the reflection pool park which boasts a superb view of the Three Pagodas. We were given an English brochure with our tickets which cost 121 RMB (about 20 USD) a piece. Tickets allow entry to both this park and the main Three Pagodas site, although few tourists seem to be aware of the former. Aside from a lone tourist, we were completely alone here. After some photos and a quick loop around the pond, we left for the main attraction.
Continuing north, we walked down a street where people were doing things like extracting oil from leaves and making cotton bedding by hand. After crossing a major highway with nary a stop light or cross walk, we came to a parking lot filled with tour buses and figured we had surely reached our destination. Since we already had tickets, we were able to breeze past the waiting crowds and head straight in.
Dali’s Three Pagodas, made of red brick and covered in white mud, form an equilateral triangle, the largest one forming the front point. The main pagoda, built in the 9th century, is square-shaped and stands nearly 70 meters high. Each of its sixteen stories has an alcove with a white marble Buddha image enshrined within, though this feature isn’t visible from the ground. The two smaller round pagodas were built in the 10th century and have 10 stories each. They lean precariously and unsurprisingly inspire those goofy photos of tourists alternately pretending to hold them up and push them over.
Chongsheng Temple is nestled against the foothills behind the Three Pagodas and was the royal temple of the Nanzhao kingdom, which ruled the region during the Tang Dynasty. Sadly, the original structures were destroyed by natural disasters, war and the Cultural Revolution, with the existing buildings erected in 1999. On the back of our brochure, the temple is billed as “the biggest Han Buddhist building in China.”
Amazingly, a fair number of folks seemed happy to pose with the towers and then leave. The further we went into the complex, the fewer people we encountered, though the intermittent sudden downpours might have chased them away. In a bizarre weather phenomenon unique to the terrain, dark clouds appeared, the temperature dropped sharply and rain fell in sheets. Then, just as suddenly, the sky cleared and the sun returned as though the storm never happened. The temperature changes were so drastic that steam rose from the pavement!
The main sanctuary is all the way at the back of the complex, furthest from the pagodas and close to the mountain. It is surprisingly beautiful and worth seeking out. The center of the room is dominated by a dozen or so gleaming Buddhist statues in varying sizes. Some are downright intimidating! The pièce de résistance, however, is the gorgeous wood paneling along the room’s perimeter. The panels are intricately carved with scenes from the Buddha’s life and are simply magnificent, though I’m not sure as to their age. Should you want to visit the temple without the climb, green tourist buses will shuttle you from the Three Pagodas and back again.
Tell me: are the Three Pagodas of Dali, China on your bucket list?