There aren’t too many places in China that I would recommend to digital nomads, but Dali is one of them. Dali is an ancient city, but among the old stone buildings and cobbled streets there are cool bars, boutique clothes shops, bohemian cafes, and coffee shops to connect to wireless internet.
I started this series with a Digital Nomad in Luang Prabang and Using Chiang Mai as a Remote Workplace. Read those to get an idea of other good places to live if you earn you money online and can base yourself from anywhere in the world.
I wouldn’t say this for very many places I visited in China, but in Dali the availability of Internet access was good. Most guesthouses, cafés, and bars have free WiFi. That is the good news. The bad news is that Chinese officials have permanently blocked access to Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Vimeo, and a host of other social media websites. This means you’ll have to use a proxy to bypass the censors.
City with a village feel
Dali has the feel of a small city—little traffic congestion, clean air, not too noisy. But it acts more metropolitan compared to other cities of its size. Dali attracts creative types from all across China. There is live music and other cultural events going on quite regularly.
You should also know that Dali is the original hangout in China for Western backpackers. Although numbers have recently declined due to the massive popularity with Chinese tourists—I assure you Dali is still a cool place to come and hang for a month or too—drinking coffee, playing guitar, hiking in the nearby Cangshan, visiting villages, writing in cafes, loafing in bars, etc.
A digital nomad needs a break, right? For that there is cycling along placid Erhai Lake, cooking lessons at Rice and Friends, hiking opportunities in the Cangshan Mountains, which provide the stunning backdrop to the town, and an array of interesting villages and towns to visit surrounding the lake. There is at least one market each day of the week. On Mondays, check out Sha Ping Market, a colorful and distinctly local experience.
I wrote a full, detailed post about traveler’s expenses in Yunnan Province based on a day in Dali. To sum it up, Dali is a very affordable town for the writer, blogger, artist, stock trader, consultant, or whoever you may be working online. If you live a minimalistic existence, $10-15 could get you by each day. But for $20-$25, you can eat well, sleep comfortably, and make excursions often.
Alternatives to Dali
Old Town Shaxi, although an extremely quiet place, could make a nice alternative to Dali. Many of the guesthouses are situated in old mansions and sitting in a courtyard would make an atmospheric work locale. There are a few very low-key cafes, most located around the tranquil town square. Shaxi is about 90km (3-4 hours) north of Dali on the ancient tea-horse trail.
Additionally, you could journey up to the mega-popular Lijiang, where you’ll find plenty of tourist amenities: guesthouses with WiFi, cafes, and eateries. There is a lot nearby Lijiang for nice day trips. But be forewarned: Lijiang is chock-full of tourists and prices are a bit higher than Dali.