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Why I Moved from Beijing to Kunming Posted by on Nov 10, 2014 in Uncategorized

Last year, my girlfriend and I made the decision to leave our good jobs, nice apartment, and generally awesome life in Beijing to go on an extended backpacking trip and eventually end up down in southwest China in Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan. For our last few weeks in Beijing, our students kept asking why we were leaving our comfortable lives in the capital to move to what most would describe as a third-tier city. Since we arrived in Kunming two months ago, we’ve also been asked by many people here why we left Beijing and chose the Spring City for our next home. I’ve given it some thought, and here are my reasons for the move. My experience might help those who are pondering a move to China decide between one of the major cities or a smaller one.

Why I Left Beijing

Lots of good times were had in Beijing.

Lots of good times were had in Beijing.

Let me preface this part by saying that I had some of the best years of my life in Beijing. It will always feel like a second home for me, and it’s without a doubt one of my favorite cities on Earth. That being said, after 4.5 years of living and working there, I was ready for a change of scenery. There were many factors that lead to our decision to move, but here’s a summary of the main points:

The Weather Sucks

A rare winter smile... it's usually miserable.

A rare winter smile… it’s usually miserable.

I’m from Michigan, so I’m used to hot summers and cold winters. It’s just so much worse in Beijing. Winter is bitter cold, but that’s not a huge problem for me – it’s the vicious wind and super dry air that gets to me. My skin peels like a snake’s during the Beijing winter, and my day is ruined the second I forget to grab my chap-stick or pack some lotion. Sure, the spring is nice, but it’s far too short and is also often accompanied by sandstorms. Summer is gross and sweaty, and the heat is multiplied by all of the concrete and steel. Fall is the best time of year, but just like spring it’s gone before you know it. One thing’s for sure – nobody moves to Beijing for the weather.

Unbearable Air Pollution

Beijing’s horrible air pollution is always on the news.

When I first arrived in Beijing back in 2008, the Summer Olympics were about to begin. I was amazed to find a rather clean city with a big, blue sky day after day. Of course, that blue sky was only temporary. Many changes were put in place during the games to clean up the ‘Jing, but as soon as the world left it was back to normal. In my years living there, it has only gotten worse. It was getting harder and harder to motivate myself to go out of the house in the morning. When you look out your window and can barely see the building next door, you don’t exactly want to rush outside. On bad days, Beijing looks like the setting of some apocalyptic movie. Although they cleaned up again recently for the APEC summit, you can bet your kuai that the smog will return as soon as Obama is back in the White House. When the air you’re breathing in on a daily basis is consistently labeled as “hazardous,” you begin to contemplate why you even live in this place.

People Suck

Not all people suck in Beijing, but a lot of them sure do. In general, people can be quite rude, pushy, and hot-tempered. This actually makes a bit of sense – Beijing is a huge, crowded, expensive, and demanding city. People from all over the country desperately want to live there due to the better access to health care, education, and economic opportunities. Not everyone can live there, though. It’s damn near impossible to get a treasured hukou (户口 – hù kǒu), the residence permit that makes you an official Beijinger. In Beijing, it’s also nearly impossible to get a car. If you finally do win the lottery and get the chance to buy a car, you’re in for lots of fun driving it on congested roads alongside horrible, accident-prone drivers. Buying an apartment is a whole other ballgame, as real estate prices in the city have jumped to levels far outside the budget of most people. Many people commute a long distance to work long hours at a job that barely pays their bills. The streets, buses, subways, and markets are always crowded. All of this eventually adds up, causing people to take their frustrations out by yelling, pushing, cursing or even fighting. Never have I heard the word “sha bi” (傻屄 – shǎ bī) tossed around more than on Beijing subways and roads. It means “stupid c**t” in English and it is just as terrible a word in Chinese, but people in Beijing seem to have no qualms yelling it at you if you get in their way.

The Cost of Living is on the Rise

We lived in a nice place, but it was getting too expensive.

We lived in a nice place, but it was getting too expensive.

As I mentioned, buying an apartment in Beijing is out of reach for most. Rental costs constantly go up as well, although no improvements are made at all and landlords here are notorious for being cheap and stingy. Our 3-bedroom apartment in Beijing went from being 6,500 RMB/month ($1,061) in our first and second years to 7,500 ($1,224) for the third. We moved out, and the girls who live there now pay 8,500 ($1,388) per month. This higher cost of living was not being matched by higher wages, either. We got a small raise at our main jobs after a year, but not nearly enough to pay the added cost of rent. When Beijing got more expensive, we decided to move to a cheaper city. That begs the question…

Why Kunming?

We had been to Kunming previously on a visit in 2011 and had a friend living there. He constantly told us we should move there and teach in his school, and we always had it in the back of our minds. Once we decided to leave Beijing, our plan was to backpack through SE Asia. We still wanted to come back to China at the end of the trip to get back to work, so Kunming seemed like the logical choice. We could get our visas for Vietnam and take a bus there instead of buying an air ticket. We could also store our stuff with a friend and come back to jobs in the new school year. Everything worked out except that last part, as our friend decided to switch places with us and leave Kunming for his own Banana Pancake adventure. The job was never the most important part of our decision, though.

Welcome to the Spring City.

Welcome to the Spring City.

Kunming is known as the “Spring City” because of its moderate climate. Homes here don’t even have air conditioning or heating, as it never gets too hot or too cold. The air is fresh, since there isn’t much manufacturing going on in the area. Construction leads to some pollution, but it pales in comparison to Beijing. Our rent in Kunming is only 2,500/month ($408), and we have our own 2-bedroom place in a great location.

The Tiger Leaping Gorge is a bus ride away.

The Tiger Leaping Gorge is a bus ride away.

As the capital of Yunnan, Kunming is a great place to be based for traveling around one of the most fascinating parts of China. Yunnan has so many incredible places to visit that we figured it would be a good idea to just live here for a while.

Jam out with ethnic minority groups all over Yunnan.

Jam out with ethnic minority groups all over Yunnan.

Of the 55 ethnic minority groups, 25 can be found in Yunnan. If you’re interested in the unique minority cultures in China, this is the place to be. It’s not hard to find the food, music, festivals, and more for these many groups if you live in Kunming.

Have a rest... you're in Kunming now!

Have a rest… you’re in Kunming now!

The lifestyle is much more relaxed than in Beijing. As such, the people are generally friendlier. I’ve been here two months, and I have yet to hear someone yell “sha bi” on the street. Of course, I get more stares here and more random people shout “Ha-luo!” at me, but they’re just more surprised to see foreigners than people in Beijing.


There are many things I miss about Beijing, and I have fond memories of my time there. There are also plenty of times where part of me wishes I were back there. For one, Beijing is an international city with people from all over the world. You have far more options for cultural activities, dining out, and nightlife. That being said, we’re already happy with our decision to move. Life is more relaxed and far less stressful here in Kunming, it’s nice not needing a mask to go outside, and we’re excited about exploring Yunnan. Perhaps we did it right after all – living in a mega-city for a few years and then heading to a much smaller city to slow down a bit. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them here.


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About the Author: sasha

Sasha is an English teacher, writer, photographer, and videographer from the great state of Michigan. Upon graduating from Michigan State University, he moved to China and spent 5+ years living, working, studying, and traveling there. He also studied Indonesian Language & Culture in Bali for a year. He and his wife run the travel blog Grateful Gypsies, and they're currently trying the digital nomad lifestyle across Latin America.


  1. Alexis:

    Hi Sasha! I have been researching cities in China and I am really interested in teaching in Kunming. I was wondering if you had any tips or recommendations for living and working in Kunming. Thank you!

    • sasha:

      @Alexis Hey Alexis, Sorry for the late reply. The blogs get full of spam so sometimes good comments get lost in the mix. I would say just get a tourist visa, save some money, and come check it out for yourself. It’s easy to find a room to rent or there are also plenty of hostels. You can interview with schools, see if you think you’ll like it, and then if you decide to stay and sign a contract you can go to Hong Kong to get your working visa. It’s a great city – I’m happy I moved here!

  2. Kai:

    Dear Sasha,

    I like your comments on the two distinctly different lifestyles in Beijing and Kunming. I think that they are pretty valuable when people choose where to live in China. I am a 28-year-old Chinese who has been living in Sydney for three years. Before I came to Australia, I lived in Beijing for six years. I saw those photos of you posted in this blog. There are so many familiar places remind me of my life in Beijing. Now, I got a job in Kunming! It is a research position about tobacco growth. I have been struggling with the same question – should I look for jobs in Beijing or accept this job offer in Kunming. I asked about my families and friends, and also searched for comments online. That is how I found your blog. I agree with your view of leaving Beijing. However, I am still a bit worried about life in Kunming, which I reckon would be less fancy compared with either Beijing or Sydney. I am also concerned about the education quality there. What do you think about the compulsory education in Kunming since you have been teaching in China? But it appears to be more relaxing as you described. Anyway, I am planning to fly back to Beijing around this-mid August and begin the job in Kunming in early September. Just give it a try. By the time I arrive at Kunming, you would probably have learned more about Kunming than me. Hope to catch up with you later in Kunming.

    Best regards,


    • sasha:

      @Kai Hey Kai,
      I’m curious about what decision you made? I must say that both Kunming and Beijing are great cities. It totally depends on what kind of place you’re looking for and the lifestyle you want to live. I hope you made a good choice and are enjoying yourself either way!

  3. Delphine:

    I live in Jiangsu province at the moment, in a very small town. I visited Beijing recently and fell in love with the city. I’m thinking of moving there once my contract ends. (I’m a science teacher in highschool, international department.) But I love outdoors activities and some friends have been telling me about Kunming. How is the expat community in Kunming ? What about cultural activities, bars and restaurants ? You mentionned your rent is cheaper in Kunming, so in general cost of living is cheaper than Beijing ? Would you say it’s easier to find a job in Kunming or Beijing ?
    Thanks 🙂


    • sasha:

      @Delphine Hey Delphine,
      Thanks for reading and thanks for the comment! Here’s what I have to say about your situation, broken down by each city:

      PROS – More (and better) job opportunities, bigger expat circle, more culture, way more choice of bars/restaurants.
      CONS – Expensive rent, air pollution, traffic, huge city where it’s hard to get close to people.

      PROS – Better weather and air, tight knit expat community, enough variety to keep things interesting, great outdoors opportunities, much cheaper
      CONS – Much less exciting than Beijing, not as many job opportunities, somewhat boring nightlife (comparatively speaking)

      As a science teacher, you should have no trouble finding a job in either city. If you’d like more tips just let me know!


  4. Elisabeth:

    Hi Sasha! Are you still in Kunming? I’m thinking about relocating from Beijing to Kunming with my six year old daughter and would love to ask a couple questions.

    • sasha:

      @Elisabeth Hi Elisabeth, I’m no longer in Kunming but still have many friends there. Would love to answer any questions you might have. I’ve gone ahead and e-mailed you so please check it 🙂

  5. Todd E Hildebrand:

    Hello Sasha, hope all is well wherever u may be.
    I’ll be moving to China the fall of this year, and after Googling and reading, and reading and Googling I believe I have decided on Kunming. Beijing really isn’t an option. Call me old fashion but I like my air clean! I’ve heard it is very easy to just show up to whatever city u want to teach English in and find a job, do u believe this to be true?
    Thanx, Todd

    • sasha:

      @Todd E Hildebrand Hey Todd, Good choice on China, and even better choice on Kunming! As far as just showing up and finding a job – yes that really does work, especially if you’re a native speaker. To really be legit, though (i.e. get a working visa), you’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree, a TEFL certificate of some sort, and 2 years working experience (any field will do). I’ve put together an entire guide to teaching English in China over on my website if you want more info!

  6. Marty:

    Hi Sasha,

    I am considering moving to Kunming with my partner and four year old, leaving Australia.
    I have degree, plus TEFL, should securing a job be ok and do you think it would be too much of a culture shock for my little boy? He is chilled out.
    Any advice, contacts would be appreciated.

  7. Barfiya:

    Hi Sasha.Is their an english school for english speaking kids in Kunming? If yes, how much is the pay for one school year?

    • sasha:

      @Barfiya Hi Barfiya… I’m really not sure, but I don’t think there’s an international school in Kunming like there are in Beijing, Shanghai, and other big cities. I did a quick search for you and wasn’t able to find anything, either. I don’t think there is a big enough expat community yet, or enough interest from locals to warrant such a school, as they are usually rather expensive to open and run.

  8. Alex Alger:

    Sasha, is there any fear in Kunming of growing terrorism after the 2014 subway attacks? Or is that considered an isolated incident. Thanks, Alex

    • sasha:

      @Alex Alger Hi Alex,
      After living in Kunming for a year, I would say it seems to have been an isolated incident. I never heard any fears of suspected terror attacks in my time there and never felt in danger in any way. I certainly wouldn’t let it deter you from visiting there. It’s a great city and the province as a whole is amazing!

  9. Chelsea:

    Hi Sasha,
    I have some questions about life in Kunming. Would you please email me? Thanks!

  10. Peter:

    Hi Sasha,

    I am from Kenya and will start living in Kunming starting first week of September. Do you still live there?

    I have many questions to ask about amenities, going out and about; culture etc.

    I’d love to hear from you!


    • sasha:

      @Peter Hi Peter,

      I do not live in Kunming anymore, but would be happy to answer some questions. It’s a great city and I’m sure you’ll love it there!

      • Amine:

        @sasha Hi Peter,
        I’m planning to go and live in Kunming starting October.
        Email me so we can exchange information about living in Kunming and China in general.


  11. Chris:

    Hi Sasha,

    I am from Singapore and thinking to move to Kunming. I am from accounting background which is qualified ACCA membership. However I found that the accounting job opportunities there are lesser, even none of it. They are more looking for English teacher. I am a bit worry about my future career. Anyway, what do you think I can do before moving to Kunming? or who or what organization should I look for in order to helping me to get the job before moving to Kunming? I would appreciate if you could give me some guidance.

    Thank you very much.

  12. Kent Zavacky:

    Hi Sash, realize not in kunming anymore but question. Getting TEFL cert at present . Looking at the non polluted cities in China for teaching. As geography major immerse self in maps and Kunming looks ideal. So I will assume there is s demand for new Eng teachers there. see city has millions. Looked up Lijiang 1.2 million , is there a demand there? I am also 53, is that an issue? Any info welcome . Great information

  13. Kristina:

    Thanks – found your article when looking to learn more about Kunming because we have a student coming to live with us in Canada from there. I’m suddenly very curious about a place I’ve never heard of, and yours was the first thing I saw.

    • sasha:

      @Kristina Thanks for the comment! Kunming is a great city, and people there are generally friendly and easy-going. You guys will have to go and visit some day!

  14. citra fitri:

    thank you. nice information.
    Do you still live in Kunming currently?

    • sasha:

      @citra fitri Thanks for the comment. I do not live in Kunming anymore. We lived there for one year and really enjoyed it, though!

  15. Bek:

    hI Sasha
    Thanks for more information.
    I have question for teaching children. I’ll begin to study in Kunming from Octomber as a student of bachelor degree. And during my studies can i find job as a english teacher in some places such as kindergarten or school children ?

    • sasha:

      @Bek Hi Bek… your best place to look for teaching jobs is Although I would be careful with trying to find work as a student, because that’s not exactly legal. Plenty of people teach English under the table, but there’s always a risk with that. Best of luck to you and enjoy the Spring City!

  16. Veronica:

    Hi, Sasha! So good I found your website! I am planning to go to Kunming with my boyfriend. We are trying to find a cheaper place and also surrounded by more greenery than Beijing. I was just wondering how you managed to rent a place there. Here he was using Ziroom and sometimes Airbnb. Still, we prefer cheaper options to find a 2 bedroom palce. Any advice on this would be so much appreciated!!

    • sasha:

      @Veronica Hi Veronica… We got lucky and found an apartment on before we got there. A guy was trying to move in to his girlfriend’s place and pass off the final 6 months of his lease and we worked it out. There are always apartments listed on there and even rooms for rent. You’ll have to commit to at least 6 months but more likely a year. Our landlady there also wanted us to pay 6 months rent at a time, so keep that in mind! Airbnb is a great option to find a place for a month and see if you like it. Best of luck!

  17. Eddie:

    What is an upper-middle-class apartment complex you recommend? I will move to Kunming in August 2020. I am an American retired 53-year-old male English teacher who speaks a fair amount of Chinese and has worked in Beijing and Datong. I like areas with good high schools.

    • sasha:

      @Eddie I have no idea. I left Kunming 3 years ago so I’m sure the city has changed a lot. The best place to search for apartments is Best of luck!

    • Ben:

      @Eddie Hello Eddie, did you make the move to Kunming? I’m in Thailand currently but looking at Kunming. Be interested if you have current experience of the city. Regards. Ben gloucestermonster @ hotmail . com

  18. Dayani:

    Hi Sasha,
    Thank you for your blog. We are flying into Kumning in August. We have a 12 hour layover. Will you please recommend any sites that we can visit? Are you able to recommend a tour company? Thank you in advance.

    • sasha:

      @Dayani Hi Dayani… with just 12 hours I think the best thing to do is just visit the city center. Take a walk in Green Lake Park, visit the Yuantong Temple, and eat some “over the bridge rice noodles” somewhere. I never really took any tours in Kunming, so sorry I can’t be of much help in recommending a tour company. To be quite honest, I despise organized tours in China. I had mostly terrible experiences with them an always prefer to explore on my own or with friends. Enjoy your trips!

  19. Jim:

    I am an American, living in cn for 14 years now. Married a wonderful cn woman and have lived in Kunming for one year. It is the best place I have found for: reasonable rent or buying apartment, great weather year round, low traffic (living in south of city near lake. The only thing I don’t like is the food. Miss dongbei and shaanxi food.

    • sasha:

      @Jim Thanks for the comment, Jim! Kunming really is a great city. I really enjoyed our time there and would definitely live there again given the chance.

  20. Dan Harris:

    Hi Sasha,

    Great post about Kunming! A stumbled across it due to researching Kunming. I am very interested in coffee and tea and the Chinese language.

    Can you possibly give me a expat WeChat group to join. And as a first time visitor where would you recommend stying in Kunming.



    • sasha:

      @Dan Harris Hey Dan, Sorry for the delayed response. Honestly I haven’t used WeChat in years since we left China. My best advice is to jump on and create an account there. They’ve got a message board as well as ads for apartments. I personally enjoyed living near the lake and the university. A lot of expats live in the ‘burbs but that’s not really our style. Then again I’m sure Kunming has changed a ton since we left… things move fast in China! Best of luck to you. It really is a great city and I would love to go back some day. -Sasha

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