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Known as the Pearl of the Plateau, Yunnan's Erhai Lake has been enchanting both native and foreign visitors for thousands of years. Nestled like a shining gem in a tectonic fault on the Tibetan Plateau in Yunnan Province, the lake is somewhat crescent or ear-shaped. The name translates as Sea of Ear and has always been the lifeblood of the native Bai population. The lake provides irrigation waters to local small farmers and is a prolific source of fish to provide much of the local diet.
In keeping with the Chinese tradition of naming scenic features - inflowing streams, small islets on the lake, rock formations near the shore, manmade bridges - all have poetic names and often long-standing stories and legends attached. Parks have been created to frame beautiful vantage points overlooking scenic views.
Cangshan Mountain towers above the lake's western shoreline, offering a jade green backdrop to complete the lovely scene. Eighteen named brooks contribute their waters to Erhai Lake. The mountain, with multiple peaks above 11,480 feet, provides an inviting place to walk among 3000 species of native plants consisting of primarily evergreen trees and bushes. During the spring, rhododendrons and azaleas bloom in riotous profusion across the hillsides, followed by camellias in summer. Flower enthusiasts the world over know Cangshan Mountain for the lovely blooms that are grown there.
Hardy hikers can trek to near the top on a narrow pathway clinging to the mountainside at dizzying heights. Many more take the cable-car gondolas to the top, where they can visit temples, a giant chessboard, and multiple vistas of the lake and valleys far below. Often shrouded in mists, the ever-changing cloud formations and unpredictable weather make for both oft-told local legends and a need for clothing for inclement weather all year long.
Lying along Erhai Lake's southwestern shoreline, the old City of Dali is the cultural repository of hundreds of years of area history. Located on the old South Silk Road route, Dali has experienced the effects of several differing cultures, the remnants of which appear preserved in the very walls and architecture of the city. Always interesting, Dali has a number of outstanding points of interest that most visitors wish to see.
Dali's Ancient City was the seat of government during the Ming Dynasty. Portions of the old city walls and gates remain, along with churches and temples, marketplace and hand-crafted artwork produced by the Bai ethnic minority residents. The Dali Municipal Museum, housed in the reconstructed mansion of Du Wenxiu, features examples of stone carving, wood carving, pottery, jade carving, paintings and calligraphies. The museum also holds an important collection of over 120 stone steles (upright slabs or pillars) carved during different dynasties as far back in history as the Song Dynasty.
A short distance from Dali, Butterfly Spring is famous for the hoards of colorful butterflies that appear at the spring when the 'butterfly tree' blooms above the pool. An annual festival is held in honor of the butterflies. Zhoucheng Village near Butterfly Spring is a must-visit destination to observe traditional Bai tie-dying of fabric. Here, visitors may be treated to the traditional three-course tea ceremony for greeting visitors. One short sightseeing trip all visitors must make either on foot or by bike is to the Three Pagodas. The Central Pagoda is nearly 1200 years old and one of the best preserved Buddhist structures in China. Although the original temples of the complex were destroyed by earthquakes in the 1920s, the three pagodas are still sound and offer excellent views across Erhai Lake. A series of hallways and rooms carved into the adjacent mountain make for an interesting tour.
Boat tours may be taken on the lake where guides point out legendary spots and allow passengers to observe the traditional fishing methods of the Bai. Many stop at one of the small islands on the lake featuring a temple. Bicycles may be rented in Dali to tour the lake; a roadway circles the lake past several temples, scenic viewpoints and parks. The Erhai Lake Scenic Area holds the Water Moon Pavilion, Kwan-yin Pavilion, the Haishe, Heavenly Mirror Pavilion, Xizhou Mid-sea Pavilion, the Zhuhai Pavilion and Small Putuo Hill. Erhai Park offers lovely gardens overflowing with a profusion of flowers along the shore.
Lodgings are available along the lakefront in a series of small local inns. Dali holds a few modern hotels and other forms of accommodation. Ethnic foods and cafes can be found throughout the city, with many meals featuring fresh-caught fish as the basis for the main course. Erhai Lake has become a popular tour destination, with many tours of the area recommending two full days to see everything of interest. First-time visitors might be well-advised to allow tourist agents to arrange for suitable lodgings as there is little information available on the smaller inns.
The second-largest highland lake in China, Erhai Lake covers over 62,000 acres and has an average depth of 36 feet. The lake is home to a diverse group of carp species, including several that are found only here. These fish are caught by local fishermen using a unique method of training domesticated cormorants to bring the fish to them. Uncommon in much of China, the lake's waters are still quite clean and clear, but area population is growing. In 1997, an infestation of blue-green algae spurred local officials and scientists to take action to head off future problems, and pollution controls were begun to avert future issues. The algae are gone and efforts are underway to alleviate water quality problems at the first sign of trouble. Continued vigilance will assure that Erhai Lake remains clean and scenic for future generations of both native and visiting populations to enjoy. Come and see the flowers . . .it's a once-in-a-lifetime sight.
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