A Digital Nomad in Dali, China

What $1.25 gets you in Vietnam
June 6, 2012
On America’s Roads: Before I Begin
June 13, 2012

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.

WiFi Access

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. Consider a VPN that works in China.

Yunnan Coffee in a Dali Cafe

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.

view of rooftops of Dali Yunnan China


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.

Stephen and Juno

Inexpensive living

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.

three pagodas of Dali China

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.

Friday Market in Shaxi Yunnan China 24

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.

Know of any other great temporary homes for Digital Nomads in China? Let me know in the comments:

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Stephen Bugno
Stephen Bugno
Stephen Bugno has been traveling the world and writing about it for the better part of 20 years. His articles and essays have appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Seattle Times, and Transitions Abroad magazine. He blogs at Bohemian Traveler and edits the independent travel magazine GoMadNomad.com. He most recently set up a tour company offering authentic, small group tours at Unquote Travel. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


  1. Tom McGinn says:

    See if “Mr. China’s Son” Cafe is still there. The man’s name is He Leyi.

  2. Tom McGinn says:

    Bottom left picture and it is outside the old city on the west side of town.

  3. Born27 says:

    Wow! everything about that place looks beautiful and it’s great to hear that you have an exciting experience. I have always wanted to go to China because of their rich culture.Thanks for the info and for sharing some of your photos. Love it!

  4. Jeremy says:

    I can’t believe they block Facebook!

  5. Stephen Bugno says:

    @Jeremy They do! The Chinese govt can pretty much do whatever they want.

  6. Charu says:

    China–I must do it thoroughly one of these days. I hear so many mixed things, good and bad, but I’ve been dying to explore the tea provinces of the Chengdou Region. Glad to know one doesn’t have to be totally unplugged in China. Love the pic of you and Juno!

  7. Chris says:

    How about visa restrictions? Most tourist visas for China have a maximum 30 day stay, right? Is there any way around this if you want a longer stay?

  8. Stephen Bugno says:

    Hi Chris,
    It depends on your nationality. China has different rules for different passport holders. As a US citizen I got a multiple-entry visa valid for one year. I could stay up to 90 days each time. My girlfriend has a Korean passport and she was only given 30-days before she had to apply for an extension or leave the country and re-enter. Hope this information helps. Let me know if you have more questions.

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