Dali was once a small town famous for its special marble (the stone itself is called dali shi in Chinese after its most famous place of origin).
I remembered it as two or three streets of one-story, thatched-roof houses surrounded by rice fields and not much else. Here's a picture of Dali's main street in 1986:
When I traveled there with my friend Susan and brother Pete, there was a single guesthouse with limited electricity and no restaurants – we ended up taking all our meals with a Bai family in their own house. The weekly market at Shaping, sprawled over a hillside, was like something out of National Geographic with Pete and his friend Doug looking like the two whitest guys on the planet (another photo from 1986):
Today, Dali has gotten a huge makeover, to the point where any landmarks, even had they survived, would be unrecognizable. The whole town has become enormous. The center has been closed to traffic and transformed into a beautiful walking street lined with souvenir stores and marble sellers and draped with the famous local batik
Once a haven for a few hardy backpackers, Dali is now a main stop for international tour groups who want to experience a “quaint” Chinese rural village.
The inspiration for the transformation lies a few hundred kilometers north of Dali, in the village of Lijiang. In 1996, Lijiang was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the first in China. The impact was huge: money and foreign assistance came pouring in to preserve the town’s ancient stone walls, houses, and the canals that famously weave through the streets.
The Dali town fathers, seeing masses of tourists flocking to Lijiang (direct flights from Tokyo!) figured two could play at that game.