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5 Worst Chinese Cities for Foreigners to Live in

Jun 01, 2017 By Bo Brennan , Comments (10)     Add your comment Newsletter

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5 Worst Chinese Cities for Foreigners to Live in
Lanzhou. Source:

Oftentimes, as foreigners living in one of China's larger, more metropolitan cities, it's easy to become spoiled by all of the little conveniences. In Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and their metropolitan ilk, we're spoiled by our Carl's Jr. hamburgers, our waiters who speak English, and our sweet, sweet watering holes where it's not unheard of to pay 50+ RMB for a gin and tonic.

Yet, for foreigners living in other cities in China, the picture isn't always quite as rosy. Granted, if you're looking for out-of-the-way and the nebulous "real" China experience, you probably won't even notice the absence of 24 hour sandwich delivery services at your disposal. But even then, the desolately bleak and faceless characteristics of many of these urban centres will be enough to drive any self-respecting laowai away. Here are five of the cities in China you'd only want to live in.   

1) Lanzhou
China has many beautiful places. Lanzhou, an industrial city in Gansu Province, isn't one of them. Here, the pollution mixes with the naturally dusty features of the landscape, settling over the city in a warm, miasmic embrace of swirling toxic chemicals. The drab, uninviting landscape around the city matches nicely the light mud-brown colour of the Yellow River.

A good majority of roads in certain areas are in a state of constant disrepair or simply haven't been paved at all. Wandering around the city I had never gulped down so much pollution and dust in my entire life. By the time I reached my hotel after a day of sightseeing, I was panting and short of breath. If, for whatever tragic reason, you have your heart set on Lanzhou as your next home city, pack an extra pair of lungs.

2) Wulumuqi/Urumqi
The capital of China's far flung Xinjiang Province, Wulumuqi is peculiarly out of place in a sea of interesting and culturally unique cities in China's autonomous Uyghur region. Granted, it's the only place in Xinjiang were you are going to find a Carrefour, but if you're travelling so far out into Western China, you don't want to see a city simply transplanted from the east coast.

If you want to experience the real Uyghur culture, head to Kashgar or Turpan and see a wildly different side of Chinese life. Also, it should be noted, that when I went to Wulumuqi in April of 2011, the police presence in the city was palpable. It was not uncommon to see several armed soldiers patrolling the streets keeping the king's peace. Nothing serious happened mind you, but the ever-present sense of potential violence was quite unnerving. 

3) Lhasa
While Lhasa does have some amazing cultural heritage sites like the Potala Palace, Sera Monastery, and Jokhang Temple… that's about all it has going for it. Unlike the surrounding countryside, the city is not overtly beautiful or memorable outside of the big attractions. The city suffers from the same problem as Wulumuqi for being transformed into a city from the east coast of China.

Also, like Wulumuqi, Lhasa suffers from various political tensions that can make life significantly more difficult for foreigners. In addition to your normal passport, you will need special permits just to travel there, making living there a nigh-Herculean task. The extra headaches (or is it the altitude sickness?) on top of the already painful process of acquiring visas in China make Lhasa simply not worth the effort.

4) Daqing
It is well-known that Daqing and the rest of Heilongjiang Province have some of the most soul-crushing winters in all of China. Depending on how far away your home country is away from the equator, this may or may not be an issue. Daqing regularly faces upwards of -30 degrees Celsius during the coldest months in winter. During the summer months, Daqing becomes slightly more tolerable, which is a little like saying a hangover is more tolerable than the preceding night of vomiting.

Unlike its more famous cousin, Harbin, Daqing doesn't offer the same amenities that foreigners can expect to find in China's first and second tier cities. Also, Harbin has more famous attractions and holidays, most notably the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival. Daqing does have its own ice festivities, but if you're going to suffer through sub-zero temperatures, you may as well do it seeing the biggest and best the region has to offer.

5) Fuzhou
When I stepped outside of the Fuzhou train station last year, I felt an overwhelming sense of apathy. In China, I had seen cities like Fuzhou a hundred times. It's not that Fuzhou is a bad city per se. In fact, it's just your typical middle-of-the-road second tier city. But if you're going to move halfway across the world to live in China, you'll want to do a little bit better than "meh, it's okay".

In addition, because Fuzhou decided to specialise in inconvenience, the city is both not quite big enough for a well-developed public transportation system and simultaneously not quite small enough to get everywhere on a bicycle. With no metro system, you'll have to depend on the overcrowded buses or taxis to ferry you to and from various points in the city.

Finally, Fuzhou suffers from what you might call "location issues." The problem with Fuzhou lies in the fact that it is upstaged by its popular and more relaxing coastal cousin, Xiamen. The two cities may be only a couple hours apart physically, but they're leagues apart in terms of lifestyle. So, if you're planning to move all the way to Fujian Province, skip right past boring Fuzhou and head to the beautiful beaches of Xiamen instead.

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Keywords: worst cities in China where not to live in China Chinese cities to avoid bad places to live in china

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10 Comments ( Add your comment )


Interesting list and article... I would add Taiyuan and Zhengzhou to that list... those are some horrible cities.

Jun 01, 2017 23:02

China is a big country. I found some of the real China in cities like Yibin and Mianyang in Sichuan. or Luizhou in Guangxi. These aren't the most polluted cities, nor the cleanest. You will find Walmarts, Carrefours, and RT marts is these cities along with efficient transportation systems. China is pretty diverse these days. I haven't been to the cities mentioned above.

Jun 02, 2017 02:29

Shijiazhuang, Harbin, Wuhan, and Guiyang also come to time. Shijiazhuang for the pollution, Harbin for the climate, Wuhan for the rude people, Guiyang for the desolation.

Jun 02, 2017 07:53

this writer is quite presumptuous and only a bit less clueless. i mean, really, first of all, how do you know why many of us choose to work in china? putting down cities because they do not have amenities you care about and assuming others share that view is an insulting and irritating way of writing. never forget that you likely spend time with like-minded people who then spin yarns of how and why they choose to live and do x, y, and z and the somehow assume that all other non-chinese share those perspectives which, clearly, we do not! then you detail the desire for a great chinese experience, the real china, etc... just after equating 'doing better 'with having access to non-chinese food. really? anyway, many of us actually learn to cook and prepare the food we want and therefore do not need to limit our living choices based on what foods are available in restaurants. finally, the way you describe the cities of western china makes you seem particularly clueless. did it ever occur to you that beneath what you see as dirty and drab there may be some very rich and beautiful people and places and that is the way you see it and not the way it is which paints a sad picture? your comments about urumqi display a remarkable lack of sensitivity and insight, enough that i'd plead with you to stop writing about things you have no clue about.

Jun 02, 2017 13:13

I liked Lanzhou as a whole but while I was on a 30 min fast train ride from the airport, I saw a factory spewing out pollution. Sigh.

Jun 02, 2017 18:37

24 hour sandwich delivery? Where the frak can you get that in the world?

Jun 02, 2017 23:26

Tucson, Arizona. I used to get it from Silver Mine Subs and Jimmy John's when I was in undergraduate school at the University of Arizona.

Jun 03, 2017 15:53

China. Almost all major cities have 24h burger deliveries. I'm a frequent user (not proud of it :D).

Jun 03, 2017 19:49

Nicely written article. It's interesting to note how China expats respond to certain cities. Robk hated Zhengzhou, but I loved it. I concur that Fuzhou reeks of apathy, but I know other expats who love it so much they have bought apartments there. I guess how we respond to any given city in China is based on our personality, experiences and expectations.

Jun 04, 2017 07:24

Why isn't Chengdu on the list?

Jun 06, 2017 22:06

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