Lanzhou. Source: wikipedia.org
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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I beg to add Shenyang to that list. Three years ago, I was assigned to study over there for a master degree. That place is a complete shithole. Here are my 5 main reasons: 1) Weather This place is dusty as hell. Due to its location in the Songliao plains, it creates a wind corridor that blows from Mongolia to Japan. Needless to say, during the winter time, you have to face a solid -20 degrees with pollution/sand scratching your face. Not exactly cool. 2) Cleanliness Totally lacking. People vomit, piss, spit and blow their noses everywhere. Not hard to describe, the street facing our university is littered of human mucus 11 months per year (except during the month of July, because the rain washes it). Just don't forget to put on your slippers when you come back to your place. 3) Language As mentioned before in the comments, Shandong People have this idiosyncratic dialect / language that makes impossible to understand If your not a local. Cool thing guys, Dongbei people (except Harbin) are all from Shandong immigrants background. Needless to say, Shenyang has the thickest accent of them all. To give you an idea how strong it is, despite having a HSK5, I just cant order a bowl of rice at the university kitchen. We dont understand each other. 4) Historic heritage. Except the old Manchu imperial palace and the Northern Tombs, there is nothing to see nor do. The city has been razed 3 times and the CR took care Of the rest. But the soulless communist buildings are legion. 5) People Despite being among the friendliest people in China, local people don't want to mingle with foreigners in general for two main reasons. First, they are overzealously conservative/nationalist. Second, they know that foreigners don't stay in the city for long. Sad to say, but It makes a self-fulfilling prophecy. All the best guys and avoid Shenyang for you mental health.
Jan 22, 2019 14:21 Report Abuse
Big cities like Beijing and Shenzhen.
Sep 08, 2017 20:19 Report Abuse
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 Report Abuse
24 hour sandwich delivery? Where the frak can you get that in the world?
Jun 02, 2017 23:26 Report Abuse
China. Almost all major cities have 24h burger deliveries. I'm a frequent user (not proud of it :D).
Jun 03, 2017 19:49 Report Abuse
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 Report Abuse
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 Report Abuse
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 Report Abuse
Interesting list and article... I would add Taiyuan and Zhengzhou to that list... those are some horrible cities.
Jun 01, 2017 23:02 Report Abuse
My own least favorite city is Rizhao. From its towering, obese, and hairy inhabitants (both men and women), to its sidewalks littered with human feces, to its idiosyncratic dialect, it's a very unenjoyable place to live and work. Perhaps its worst feature is realized only when one looks at its history: where there is now a polluted city of scum and possibly genetically modified inhabitants, there was but ten years ago a lovely and quiet seaside city that could brag about having some of the most breathable air in mainland China. Let me share with you one of my most vivid memories of this place: perhaps one or two months ago while riding an escalator in an up-scale mall, I was shocked to see a grandmother direct her approximately five year-old grandson to urinate ON the escalator as they rode it. The sight of a child pissing on some modernized architecture succinctly describes the nature of Rizhao, Shandong.
Aug 27, 2014 20:38 Report Abuse
I would agree with Thom360. For those who don't like China, the airport is just over there. Surely you can find employment elsewhere that pays just as much or even more, right? Right? Right? Ri...?
Jul 05, 2017 14:30 Report Abuse
I lived in Fuzhou my first year in China and found it quite lovely. It had a big enough foreigner base that I know who the above "Cody Klassen" is, but I hardly saw him/hung out with him (only because my social circle wasn't in the same places as his).
Fuzhou is developing at a more rapid pace than other 2nd tier cities because of Taiwanese investments, and the the change it's already gone through (comparing what I was told it was like before I arrived, what it was like when I was there, and what it was like when I visited again) is astounding.
Jun 26, 2012 01:21 Report Abuse
Completely agree about Urumqi. Lived there for seven months and absolutely hated the place. The Han there are unbelievably racist toward the Uyghur population and very ignorant of the culture/language of these (very friendly) people. So many times I was told: 'You can't trust the Uyghurs, they steal and are violent'. Absolute nonsense. Rather, I was lied to, taken advantage of and generally treated like a thrird rate human being by the Chinese there, whereas, the Uyghurs I met were without failing hospitable and welcoming to foreigners.
Free East Turkestan!
Jun 22, 2012 21:19 Report Abuse
The title should be "Five cities in China That I Did Not Like"
Completely lame article.
Jun 22, 2012 20:23 Report Abuse
Y'know, at this point I would LOVE to visit Shanghai!! I just spent a really cold winter in Daqing. I've already spent some really cold winters overseas. But OMG, I'm sooooooo ready to leave. I used to live down south and liked it soooooo much better. Here in Daqing, it's hicksville. Family Mart? You've gotta be kidding. I wish!! The Chinese here are ARROGANT,OBNOXIOUS,TYPICALLY ANNOYING/CHILDISH IDIOTS!!!!!!!!!! Just like in So. Korea!! :( I do not like the local store MORONS here and won't go to them!!! :( I might as well be from planet Mars. WANKERS!!!!!!!!!!!!
Not all the Chinese here, but you get my meaning. Cultural wasteland..yes!..that's Daqing!!!!!!!! Oil rich city...WOOOOOOOOOWWWWWW!!!! Doesn't impress me at all!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :(
Jun 23, 2012 08:57 Report Abuse
hangzhou sucks. So far the shittiest place i have been living
Jun 21, 2012 23:06 Report Abuse
These are not easy articles to publish and likely to be unpopular with anyone proud of their hometown mentioned. But thanks and I think its important and helpful.
For some odd reason this reminded me of a scene from an 'X-Men' movies where the optimistic young lady, using only a paper map, dreamed of visiting Canada's 'Uranium City'. Her imagination envisioned some magical place high-technology or some wonderous land. Years later, she arrives to find herself in a frozen town full of drunks and a 'city' made mainly of one local bar.
In reality, the movie exaggerated the awesomeness of Uranium City. Its less than that. Less than 100 native people and zero business. May not be a paved road.
Okay, well the idea being that foreigners might want to know what they are getting into and this article is a 'fair warning'. As mentioned, this doesn't even mean its a 'bad city' either. It's just that some are better or worse for foreigners.
I haven't been to many cities in China so I can't add much. To be honest, Changchun is not a bad place and I found the people to be quite friendly and honest and hard working. But it also seemed to me dull. No magical landscapes. No remarkable ancient ruins or walls or palaces (well, nothing I saw in any promoted lists). It's a vast expanse with zero aim towards tourists or foreigners in its seemingly complicated public transport. Some days it was absolutely hours upon hours of buses, taxis and long long walks to get back and forth.
And it was relatively cool even in August. I'm told winter is long and cold.
BTW: I remember a would-be immigrant to Canada asking (enthusiastically) if I knew about Hamilton, Ontario. They were (for some reason) excited about a job prospect and the thought of moving there.
Well, I suppose if you were born and raised in Hamilton then yes that would be your beloved hometown. But why anyone would WANT to move to Hamilton I have no idea. Its not a bad city. But IF you could work in Canada I could think of just about 20 other cities you'd RATHER be in than Hamilton.
Also, how many Chinese might immigrate to 'Vancouver' but find themselves in the nearby city of 'Surrey'. Which has been described as a cultural wasteland, crime-infested, a lot of frustrated drivers, few attractions and quite frankly not much for visual appeal.
Another Chinese couple was beyond excited to move to Winnipeg (nice people, nothing wrong) until realizing it was, quite possibly, Canada's most boring AND coldest city.
Jun 21, 2012 09:52 Report Abuse