Two “D”s are often used to sum up the cityscape of Kunming; ‘destruction’ and ‘development’. Most of the inner city areas have been built within the last 20 years and recent figures suggest Kunming has doubled in size in the last five years. Deciding where to live amongst all the new, uniform apartment blocks can at first seem a daunting task to a new arrival.
Understanding the City
Before trudging the streets under the Yunnan sun, it is important to understand a little bit about the city. Kunming is divided into five administrative districts; Panlong, Guandu, Xishan, Dongchuan and Wuhua, and has two main ring roads. Where you choose to live in Kunming really depends on what brings you to the Spring City. Many students prefer to live within or just outside of the first ring road near Wenlin Jie and its cluster of Western cafes, close to Yunnan university and Yunnan Normal university. There is another foreigner community in the Xishan district around Kaiyuan, which seems to be mostly involved with NGO work. Many foreigners with young families have chosen to settle in the north of the city near the gigantic Metro and nearby Western restaurants in Beichen. Lastly, if you are here for business, you might choose to live in the centre of the city near the Nanping Lu/Zhengyi Lu crossroads, a densely crowded shopping precinct packed with stores and many of the head-offices of Yunnan companies.
The new arrival will have no difficulty in finding an estate agent, which are as prolific as the mosquitoes around Dianchi Lake. In my experience, there is nothing to recommend one over another. The best course of action is therefore to decide where you want to live. Once you have decided upon a location, head to that area because each estate agent will have a list of properties in their local environment.
Before spending an entire day trekking up and down stairs visiting unsuitable apartments, be sure to make clear what you are looking for. For Kunming, it is especially important to state whether you want electrically supplied hot water or whether solar power will do. All the older apartments in the city, and many of the newer ones, only have solar power. This is fine throughout Yunnan’s long sunny months, but becomes quite unpleasant during the colder, cloudier months of November to March. Some foreigners find the idea of a Chinese squat-style toilet unacceptable. If you fall into this category, be sure to emphasise this point before the beginning of the search, as local estate agents are generally oblivious to a foreigner’s toiletry requirements.
If the idea of a long apartment search exhausts you, or your patience has already been worn thin by a fruitless search with estate agents, you might like to try some of the local expat Internet sites, which are generally full of ads for room shares or others wanting someone to take over a lease. Most of these will have been posted by expats already living there. You will have the advantage of an apartment (and landlord), which has already been tried and tested by foreigners who probably have similar requirements to your own. As with any agreement, make sure you have a clear understanding of what the rent covers before moving in, and what your contribution to the flat will be.
If you are taking over a lease, it is common for the sake of expediency for the new occupants to pay the old occupants the value of their deposit, while the landlord keeps the same money now in your name. Before doing this, however, make sure the landlord is satisfied with the state of the apartment, otherwise when it comes time for you to leave, you might end up paying for someone else’s damage.
As we mentioned, most Kunming apartments have been built within the last 20 years. Having said that, this still translates into quite a large difference in standard of interior decoration. Most apartments will come furnished. However, finding an apartment with décor and furnishings that won’t make you poke your eyes out with a fork after a week of living, there can be quite challenging. My last apartment viewing was going well until we got to the bedroom and discovered a very grand bed, complete with stuffed pheasants screwed to the top of each bedpost. You have been warned.
High-rise apartments are common throughout the city, and by the time you read this I can guarantee that there will be several square kilometres more of them! Apartments are generally two or three bedroom residences with at least one bathroom. Most will have a balcony that may well have been enclosed with a glass window. Often, high rises are situated inside a garden complex with common services such as rubbish collection and a small army of baoan, Chinese security guards. Small, local Chinese supermarkets can generally be found near such complexes.
Old Style Apartments
If the idea of a high rise doesn’t suit you, there are still older style apartments dotted around the city. Many of these are located in the ‘city villages’. For better or worse, there is currently a huge drive to redevelop these areas and I expect most of them to disappear within two years. Living in an old style apartment offers complete immersion in a traditional Chinese way of life. Most likely, you will get to know and love your local community of grannies, who sit outside all day peeling vegetables and playing mahjong. You will face all sorts of questions from your neighbours regarding your marital status, job and income. In short, you will have great fun. Unfortunately you will also have to deal with terrible plumbing, stinky bathrooms, cold winter nights and zhanglang, cockroaches!
For the business expat, Kunming also has a limited number of serviced apartments. These are primarily located in or near the centre of the city. The best way to track one of these down is to visit the local expat websites and if you can’t find a current ad, trawl through the history of ads in the accommodation section.
Rents vary according to area and quality of apartment. Obviously, the centre of the city sees higher rents, averaging around 2500 RMB per month for a modern, furnished two-bed apartment. Cuihu Park (Green Lake Park) inside the first ring road near Wenlin Jie experiences some of the highest rents in the city. Outside of the first ring road typically expect to pay around 700 RMB per month for a room in a shared apartment.
In Kunming a 12-month contract, with a month’s deposit plus the first six months’ rent paid upfront, is de rigueur. Since rents are not as high as Beijing or Shanghai, for example, this shouldn’t break the bank. Some landlords may be willing to negotiate a shorter contract, but they will normally take this as an opportunity to up the rent.
For their services, which include provision of the contract, an estate agent will charge a month’s rent as their fee. If you are renting a particularly expensive apartment, you can negotiate this amount. Most estate agents will be happy with around 700 to 800 RMB, although as always, everything is down to your negotiating skills. In order to save a nasty argument after a long day’s house hunting, it is perhaps better to discuss this point before beginning your search.
Worth noting is that Kunming’s landlords are famous for their reluctance to return deposits, even if the apartment is in perfect condition. One tactic I have used successfully in such cases is to demand a fapiao for our year’s rent and threaten a trip to the local police station in event of refusal. Of course, this won’t work if you have initially demanded a fapiao as part of the contract.
Registering with the Police
Recently the Kunming authorities have been cracking down on unregistered foreigners, so be sure to visit your local paichusuo, local police station, within three days of moving in. In order to register, you will need your passport, photocopies of your passport’s visa and photo pages, your apartment contract, more photocopies and finally a passport photo. The process normally takes about half an hour and most police stations will have someone who can speak a little English, should you require it. Re-registration is required every time you re-enter the country or move house.
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