When we chose Dali, China as our home for the months of March and April, on of the main attractions for us was its reputation as a veritable garden of cherry blossom trees. It’s a reputation that’s off the radar of most westerners though because any English language search for cherry blossoms in China will only bring up results in and around the largest Chinese cities. Dali is small by Chinese standards (only about the size of Boston), but what it lacks in population, it makes up for in scenery. When those cherry blossoms start blooming, they do so in front of a backdrop of snow capped mountains and calm, reflective water. In this post, we’re sharing our photos from the Cherry Blossom Valley.
When we booked our Airbnb for the month of March, we asked our host if the apartment was near any cherry blossom trees. She replied that there were a few just outside the window. That was at least good enough for us to make the booking. We knew that we would get at least a few photos of those lovely pink flowers. But it turns out our host was underselling the location a little bit. What she might have told us was that Shanshui Jian – the housing development we were staying in – was built around a site that the locals refer to as the Cherry Blossom Valley.
Photographing Dali, China’s Cherry Blossom Valley
The Cherry Blossom Valley is a steep gorge on the slope of Cangshan mountain. A stream flows down the center of it, and the sides are lined with hundreds of cherry blossom trees, so dense that they nearly block out the sky with pink flowers. It’s not a completely natural setting. The area has been landscaped, with flowering bushes and other plants coating the ground as well. The stream, which flows more strongly in the Summer rainy season than the Spring, is lined with large stones that prevent erosion and enhance the scenery.
Walking up the Cherry Blossom Valley is easy because there is a path that follows the edge of the gorge. The path is paved with stones, and it has stairs for the steeper parts. On the way up, one must occasionally cross a footbridge over the water below.
As I mentioned earlier, the Cherry Blossom Valley is surrounded by the Shanshui Jian housing development. After about 15 minutes of walking – assuming that you haven’t stopped to take any photos – you will come to a guarded gate where only residents are permitted to continue. But having stayed inside the development, we can assure you that the most dramatic scenery is open to the public. Here are our tips for getting to Dali’s Cherry Blossom Valley and coming home with great photos.
When to Visit Dali China’s Cherry Blossom Valley
No matter where you go to photograph cherry blossoms, the season will shift a little from year to year depending on the weather, but in Dali, full bloom usually happens sometime in mid-March. We felt that we got our best photos between the 15th and the 25th, Not every tree hit its peak at the same time, but they hold their flowers for a few days after hitting full bloom, which means there is ample time to get your photos while the scenery is at its best. Even if you aren’t there for the best days, there will be at least some flowers for nearly the entire month of March. We even saw a few trees that still looked nice on the first couple days of April. After that, the blossoms had mostly given way to leaves.
As for the time of day, we’d recommend that you visit before nine in the morning. You don’t have to get there at the crack of dawn because 1) the geography all but guarantees that golden hour light either won’t be reaching you or won’t be coming from the right direction, and 2) the challenges of reaching the location for anyone other than a local mean it doesn’t start getting crowded until late morning. That being said, the locals are well aware of the site, and they do show up in droves to take photos. So don’t dilly dally.
How to Get to Dali, China’s Cherry Blossom Valley
If you don’t speak Chinese, getting to the Cherry Blossom Valley will definitely be the hardest part of your trip. There are a few small expat communities in Dali, but English isn’t prevalent by any means. The Yisan Boutique Hotel, is very close to where you want to start, but really, even if you go directly to that hotel, your goal is to get to the place on the side of G214 that looks like this:
- Take a Taxi: If you don’t think you can pronounce the location name in Chinese, you can either copy “Shanshui Jian” onto your phone and show it to the driver, or you can copy it into Baidu Maps and have the app give the driver directions in Chinese (we did this when we first arrived in Xiamen, China and our driver had no idea where our Airbnb’s street was).
- Take a Didi: Didi is like China’s answer to Uber or Lyft. You enter the address that you want to go to, and the app finds a driver for you. It’s very affordable and pretty reliable, but it still has some downsides for foreigners. For one thing, many people have observed that their foreign credit cards don’t work with it. For another thing, even if you have the English version of the app, you still might have trouble. A lot of Didi drivers like to call the passenger as they approach to confirm the ride and the pickup location, and if you don’t speak Chinese, this might be the end of your transaction. That being said, if you do manage to get Didi working for you, it will transform your trip to China.
- Take a Bus: In our experience, the buses in Dali are reliable and affordable, but getting on and off of them can be a little challenging if you aren’t familiar with the area. Granted, we were staying far from the city center, and the bus stops weren’t well marked. We had to confirm with a local that the bus we wanted did in fact drive by where we were, then stand there and manually flag it down. When we wanted to get off again, we had to tell the driver to stop (which meant not only knowing how to say stop in Chinese, but knowing when we had arrived at our destination. Your best bet is to talk to your hotel concierge or Airbnb host about the schedules and routes.
- Walk There: If you are staying downtown or next to Erhai, this option is pretty much out. If you are in the Old Town however, you could make it there in about 20 minutes from the South Gate or West Gate. Just head West until you hit G214, then follow it South until you see the location above with all the stairs and golden statues on the West side of the road.
- Just Stay Inside Shanshui Jian: Here is the link to the specific Airbnb we stayed in for the month of March. The host, Hu, was very helpful and the apartment was comfortable and child friendly. However, Shanshui Jian is not very centrally located, so unless you are renting a car or feel confident with one of the transportation options above, you might want to find something downtown or in the Old Town.
How to Explore Dali, China’s Cherry Blossom Valley
Once you have arrived at the beautiful entrance to Shanshui Jian, you can just start climbing uphill. After the stairs, statues and ponds (maybe take a photo there, too), you will come to a swimming pool. Behind the pool on the left is a staircase that will take you where you need to go. At the top of the stairs, the path begins, and you can pretty much follow that, with a few detours to look for your favorite angle.
Outside the Shanshui Jian Gates:
The first location you will come to is a long foot bridge that crosses over the widest part of the valley. There are buildings on the right and left side of the gorge, but the flowers are so thick at the peak of the season that you won’t even see them in your photos unless you are using a very wide angle lens. (See our resources page for a list of our favorite lenses and other gear). Here’s how we took advantage of the bridge in our photos:
- A Photo of the Valley: From right on the bridge, you can get an unobstructed photo (or a selfie) of the most beautiful part of the Cherry Blossom Valley. You will see the stream that flows down from the mountains (though the water level might be low), and the rocks that it tumbles over. On the sides, you will see gardens full of flowering bushes. And of course, the sky above you will be filled with glorious cherry blossoms.
- A Portrait on the Bridge: If you have your family or friends stand on the bridge, you can take your camera onto a platform behind the bridge and get a photo of them in front of the valley. Your view will likely have a few bamboo leaves or other branches in the foreground, but I actually found that this was a helpful frame when using a zoom lens to compose a tighter angle. Consider reading this article about using a zoom lens for creative travel photography.
- A Portrait on the Stairs in the Distance: If you have a good zoom lens, you will be able to take a photo of someone waking up the stone stairs in the distance. This angle is nice because the cherry blossoms fill the foreground, creating the effect of a pink tunnel that really focuses the eye on your subject. It does however require a little commination ahead of time so you won’t have to yell to one another.
Next you will walk along the South side of the Cherry Blossom Valley. From here it is easy to compose nice photos with flowering bushes in the foreground and the valley and river in the background. If you are here toward the end of the season, you will also see lots of cherry blossom petals on the ground, which look especially nice on the white stone stairs.
Once you get to those stairs, there will be a guard house in front of you, but you aren’t done yet. After getting a shot looking backward at the valley and the path you just climbed, you can turn to the left and see a pool of water with a cute little wooden bridge over it. We got some nice photos of Dannie and Lisa sitting on the rocks with their reflections between floating cherry blossom petals.
Just past the foot bridge there is a stone wall with an abstract mosaic of black and white pebbles. This wall would be pretty even without the cherry blossoms, and it will give you an opportunity to add a little variety to your photos. Our favorite angle was shooting through the door as Dannie and Lisa walked on the bridge. Be careful though – to get that shot you will have to stand in a road.
At this point, you can either turn back and follow the path back to the main entrance or you can follow that road to return (the scenery isn’t quite as good, but you might see something you like.
Inside the Shanshui Jian Gates:
If you are staying inside Shanshui Jian (or if you manage to get past the guards – see below) you will have plenty of time to explore and find your favorite angles. For the sake of continuity, I’ll go in the order you would find the places if you continued along the route above.
After the reflection next to the wooden bridge, return to the guard house and pass through the gate (not the gate on the street by the stone wall). Immediately inside the gate there is a wooden dock that sits in the water. The surface of the water is protected from the wind by the sides of the valley, and there is usually a very clear reflection. The best angle to get a reflection of a person is to have them stand on the platform and climb up the stairs a little further. There is a stone bridge at the top of the stairs here, but we found that the best angle was to shoot through the branches at the corner of the bridge. We had Dannie and Lisa enjoy a little picnic here, just because we thought it was so pretty.
On the other side of the water there is a grassy slope covered in cherry blossom trees that can be photographed from the dock easily enough. While you are there, look up at he stone bridge, which is the perfect place to take a portrait of someone walking among cherry blossoms with the mountains in the background.
For a really good shot of the Cangshan mountains, climb right up onto the bridge and face west. The snow capped peaks rise up in the distance, and down below there is more valley, stream and rock scenery to fill the foreground, along with a tree covered with nice white blossoms.
To the west of the bridge, on the left side of the cherry blossom valley, there are stairs leading down to some boardwalks where there are loads of compositions to work with. You can get shots with the bridge in the background, or take advantage of the beautiful stone wall on the north side of the stream.
Finally, continue up the path (plenty of flowers along the way), and make your way to the playground. At the playground there are a number of really beautiful angles. Of course, if there are a lot of children playing here, you should be careful not to look like a creep with your camera.
First, as you approach the Shanshui Jian playground, you will see some stone stairs with big stone lanterns, lined with cherry blossom trees. My favorite angle was to shoot with a zoom lens from the boardwalk on the opposite sided of the clearing.
On the east side of the playground is a big pool of water with some stones behind it that is good for taking reflection portraits of someone walking near the water. A few cherry blossom trees hang over the water here.
And finally, on the southern side of the playground there is a large pool of water with a small stone bridge crossing it. In the background there is a larger, covered bridge with an Asian style roof. This angle doesn’t have quite as many cherry blossom trees as I would have liked, but it’s so pretty you won’t even care.
After you get that shot, you’ve pretty much finished the cherry blossom valley portion of Shanshui Jian and Dali. But while you are in the development, there are plenty of other trees to find – they are just along the sides of the roads instead of over gardens and streams.
Other Tips for Photographing and Enjoying the Cherry Blossoms in Dali, China
The weather in March in Dali, China actually gets petty warm on a sunny day. But if you are going there early in the morning like we recommend for photography, then it will probably be a bit chilly. Since Dannie and Lisa like to wear pretty dresses for our photos, they usually just shed their jackets while we get a few shots, then put them back on while we are walking.
Don’t Worry About the Guards
Obviously you should be respectful, but the guards are actually really friendly. They are there to make sure that the residential portion of the Shanshui Jian doesn’t get overrun by outsiders. It is possible to get inside, though. One way is obviously to rent a house inside through Airbnb, which is a comfortable way to visit Dali, anyway. But if you just want to walk through and look around, your best bet is to pretend to be a confused, English speaking tourist.
The one time that I wandered outside the gates without Dannie to translate for me, the guard stopped me on the way back in. I couldn’t explain to him where I was staying because I didn’t speak Chinese and I didn’t know the address or street name anyway. Luckily, when a resident walked by, she was able to translate that I was renting a place inside. Even without the details, the guard let me through. Note: this approach will probably work best if you look like a foreigner.
Be Aware of the Altitiude
If you’ve just arrived in Dali from somewhere near sea level, you might want to take it slow on your way up the Cherry Blossom Valley. At about 6000 ft, the air is a little thin, and when we first got here we were constantly getting winded or even dizzy. Just walk slowly, pay attention to how you are feeling, and you should be fine.
While you are visiting the Cherry Blossom Valley, be aware that you are not alone, even if you show up before the tourists. People in Dali, China like to sleep in a little, so especially if you make it inside Shanshui Jian, be quiet and courteous. Avoid running, avoid shouting, and if you see other photographers, try your best not to photo bomb them.
After you’ve finished with the Cherry Blossom Valley, you can continue uphill and make your way to the Dali University campus where there are many more cherry blossom trees. It’s a completely different environment, and even more crowded later in the day, but well worth a visit. We have another photography guide to Dali University’s cherry blossoms for you to enjoy.
If you enjoyed this photography guide, you can take a look at our travel destinations page to see some of the other places we have visited in Europe and Asia. If you are interested in how we fund (or attempt to fund) our travels, check out Operation Digital Nomad, our monthly column about monetizing our slow travel blog.