House-hunting in China — Easier than it Seems

This morning, I woke up on the 32nd floor, looked out of my bedroom window, across the smog that clouds the rising sun, across the skyscrapers, across the building sites, to the mountains in the distance and thought, “My GOD! I’m in China.”

For a child of the Cold War, nothing quite beats arriving in China, stepping behind the bamboo curtain.

And here we are in the bustling, thriving, explosively expanding Kunming, in warm south-western China.

As a city, Kunming is, by Chinese standards, pocket-sized. With a population of around 7 million, it’s slightly less populous than London or New York, but far, far bigger than any other North American or British city. In Chinese terms, it’s a baby. It doesn’t even make their top ten.

China has, perhaps unfairly, a reputation for being a very difficult place to travel. Not just for the language and script difficulties. But for aggression, fraud, scams. Someone told me, in fact, that “China is to Vietnam as Vietnam is to Laos.”

So, flying out of gentle, lovely, mellow Laos into China, we were — despite sage words from Wandermom — expecting the worst.

And, as so far with China, we’ve been pleasantly surprised. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that we’re both a bit in love…

It’s been, to be honest, remarkably easy. A transition from rural beauty to industrial powerhouse, overnight.

hut and karst and rice fields in rural Laos.

Though there was the odd hiccup.

We arrived at the airport, y’see, with only Lao kip, a currency about as convertible as the fine notes of Myanmar and North Korea, due to the Lao Politburo’s practically minded habit of setting the exchange rate as it sees fit.

I’d figured that the change place at Wattay airport, Vientiane, would be open. At 5am? Dream on, sister.

At Kunming, I approach the currency exchange place and, optimistically, present my bundle of Lao kip.

Come on! You’re a Communist country too, right, China?

“Nowhere in China will change these,” says the lady, in excellent English.

Never fear! I think.

I find an ATM. It speaks English but spits out my card.

I go to airport information, wave my card at them and sign that I would like to find a place to use it. The machine downstairs speaks English, too. But it is also allergic to my card.

That means we have no money.

And no sleep.

And Z wants to get shot of his backpack.


After getting up at 4am, I’m not really in the frame of mind to try and communicate “FIRST international ATM, THEN this address HERE,” to a Chinese-speaking taxi driver.

Enter the taxi lady. She’s been loitering at the airport door with the other taxi touts asking us if we want a taxi — in a remarkably mellow and non-persistent fashion.

Given that there’s a rank of metered cabs right opposite, it’s an offer, all the same, that has the waft of
Vietnamese taxi scam about it.

Still, she speaks English. “I don’t want a taxi,” I say. “I want an international ATM.”

She trots us across three roads and a building site, through traffic which makes Saigon feel like a walk in the park, and into the business section of the airport.

By way of a thank you, I pay at least double the metered fare for a ride in her mate’s car to the street with the expat bars, and take a card for her tourism business.

We’re in the bright lights of the big city. (These are the ones from our living room window.)

view from our balcony

Now, our plan for China was always to start with a month in a flat somewhere, to get a handle on the language and the culture, and not be too overwhelmed.

We were thinking Shanghai.

But then we heard good things about Kunming. It’s where both flights and buses from Laos terminate. It’s a logical starting point for a journey that will take us eastwards. It’s also cheap.

So, Kunming it is.

I find a cafe with wifi and smooth lattes. Z demonstrates, yet again, his ability to sleep any time, any place anywhere.

I log back on to the expat website, where I’ve been following up on rentals for the last few days. Nothing’s new, so, as I don’t speak Chinese, I call an English-speaking middleman I’ve been emailing. Rick has an expensive, and very lucky, mobile number, full of 8s.

Rick meets us at the bar in a couple of hours — he’s a smart, young guy, graduated in English from Yunnan University, with excellent English, so sharp I can’t help but think of him as Rickaaaaayyy.

We make some small talk, and jump a taxi out to some high-rises on the north end of one of Kunming’s main cross streets, Beijing Lu.

It’s a curious district, so new it doesn’t really have a name. A hundred metres down the road from a bona fide, 100% legit Louis Vuitton store (and, like I said, this isn’t a particularly big Chinese city), there’s folk selling sweetcorn, peaches, pomegranates, grapes, sour plums and roasted sweet potatoes on the street.

Scooters and bicycles drive down the pavement of Kunming, China.

Silent but deadly electric motorbikes, fat arsed and heavy with their batteries, cruise down the pavement — and yes, that is the pavement. Z coos over a Porsche hybrid, just one of a range of serious cars.

A scarfed woman carries a baby slung across her back as well-to-do students swish by in vertiginous heels, skinny jeans and lacy tops. An elderly man in a Mao cap scavenges cans and stores them in the basket of his bike, while slick young hipsters head past in skinny jackets and kids in polos race to the gaming arcade.

One side of the street is a wall of neon, yet the centre is a welter of abandoned construction, a Bladerunner mess of steel and cement.

There are buildings going up *everywhere*. All over town.

It’s chaos. Dynamic, crazy, dirty, smoggy, chaos.

We like. A lot. But hell, we liked Manila.

living room up in the skyscrapers

We take the lift to the 32nd floor, and Rick opens the door to the apartment.

“Wow!” says Z. He’s been wanting a skyline for a while, and this is most definitely a skyline. The towering blocks beside us have room enough for us to see the mountains, yet light up the room at night like a disco.

“I guess I’ll just have to get over my vertigo,” I say.

There are two bedrooms, with neat double beds and white linen, and wardrobes. A living room with a sofa, some chairs and a flatscreen TV. A small kitchen. A nice size Western bathroom (when flat-hunting in China, note that Chinese-style apartment means “has squat toilet”). And a little balcony.

All done out in a kind of Chinese IKEA cheap neutral-minimalism which suits me just fine.

It’s a bit further out of the expat bit of town than I’d hoped — probably a mile on the buses that ply Beijing Lu at pace.

But it has wifi. A Western bathroom. Laminate floors. A washing machine. Floor to ceiling windows. Z’s sold.

And all we need to do is dump our stuff, go out for a couple of hours while they clean the place up, and we’re ready to move in.

It’s even easier than finding our little house in the rice fields in Bali.

And for Z, the bedrooms are the height of sophistication.

Zac in the bedroom of our new apartment.

All that remains, I figure, is to sort out the price. My vertigo will just have to deal.

“2600, right?” I say to Rick, which was the price we’d discussed earlier.

“Yes,” he says. “But the utilities…”

“Utilities?” I say. “They’re extra?”

“Yeah,” he says. He begins to tot things up on his iPhone-alike mobile.

“Hang on, though,” I say. “When I emailed you, I said my price range was up to 2500. And when we talked you said 2600.” (From what I’ve figured out, a 2-bedroom Western style flat in Kunming runs from 2000-2500 yuan per month, or about £200-£250.)

At which point he pulls the neatest switchback I’ve ever heard. “Well, maybe we can discount on the agent’s fee.”

“Agent’s fee?” I say, starting to feel the sleeplessness kicking in, and utterly unwilling to leave.

“Yeah,” he says. “Normally, the agent’s fee is one month’s rent. But because you are only staying one month, we can maybe discount…”

We get it down to 3500 in the end. It’s a good day’s work for Rickaaaay.

And, frankly, I’m happy to pay over the odds for a nice flat on a good road on the first day we arrive with a personable English-speaking middleman on the end of a phone.

And you know what I find HILARIOUS?

Every one of the 100-yuan notes I hand over in this utterly capitalistic transaction has Chairman Mao’s face on it.

chairman mao on hundred yuan note.

It’s an adventure, China. The script makes it so. There are 2500 characters in the Mandarin alphabet, so it’s not like Thailand or Laos where you can puzzle scripts out if you have to, or sweet, short alphabets of 20-something letters like Greek, Russian and Hebrew.

You’re going in, basically, blind. You’re going into a restaurant with a sign you couldn’t hope to read, and picking optimistically from photo menus, with dishes that you have no idea about — it’s only when the Sichuan pepper numbs your lips that you can tell you’re in a Sichuan restaurant.

What with the tones and the range of sibilants — when it comes to “sh” and “zh” and and “tsy” sounds, Mandarin makes Polish look easy — it’s a hard task to be understood.

But it’s exciting, too. From the little things, like figuring out a Chinese washing machine (clue: press the start button and hope), or how to hang out your washing on a 32nd floor balcony when the lines are high above you (clue: put your clothes on coathangers and use the pole to hook them up), to negotiating a trip to the supermarket or buying a mobile SIM card, to, I guess, the bigger things, like exploring properly and getting a handle on the language.

To be honest, a trip to the supermarket is quite the adventure.

And, in some ways, the language side is easier than I’d thought. All the streets have names in Roman script, as well as Mandarin, as do big buildings, banks and brand/chain stores.

We’re both glad we’re here. And once my son gets the telly working, I’m looking forward to some Chinese TV…

Best thing of all? Living up this high is seriously helping my vertigo…

What’s the highest you’ve ever lived? Drop me a comment and let me know.

22 Responses

  1. Rickaaaaayyy!!!! i love it. glad you found him! 🙂 and glad you found a place. that high? no thanks, esp hanging laundry! Yikes! did you ever drop anything?

    • Theodora says:

      No! But I’m glad I checked as to how I was supposed to hang things up because otherwise I’d have been balancing on a chair. NOT a good idea.

  2. Paz says:

    Yes, it is all an adventure and people are extremely friendly…even if they aren’t smiling at you. I would recommend asking Rickaayyy if he is available for translation for time to time. He may also have a friend that does it. You won’t need it all the time, but it is good to have a phone number to call in case you need something urgent. They normally are very very cheap and they always answer their phones…everyone does in China. Also another tip is to get business cards of places you would like to return to. 🙂 Finding them one time is easy…finding your way back their at times can be more difficult. Enjoy your flat! It looks great and love the view. We are on the 8th floor. Good thing it is lucky! 🙂

    • Theodora says:

      We’re actually meeting a Mandarin tutor today, so maybe she can double up as a translator as well? Gosh! The 8th floor. Surely you have to pay a premium for an 8th floor flat in China? I know when I was picking my phone number I steered well away from all the 8s…

    • Theodora says:

      Thank you, Jeff! You’ll be pleased to hear that we have made ourselves understood in Mandarin several times now. I think the beauty of a modular language is that it lends itself to pidgin.

  3. Tracy says:

    OK I’m officially excited to be heading to China soon after reading this. I really like your plan of stopping somewhere for one month to get a grip on things. Z said he wanted civilisation – I guess the 32nd floor with a big skyline view just about fits that bill!

    • Theodora says:

      It’s very exciting, but people are also very helpful. We start Mandarin lessons on Monday, can cope with buses and stuff, and after chatting to our tutor I even managed to ask which floor the kids clothes were on in the mall (by saying “child, floor”, pointing at some clothes and looking hopeful — but progress of a sort). AND we can ask the way to the toilet without pointing at our genitals.

  4. Phil says:

    Rickaay. haha 🙂 Eye opening post. I think China would explode my brain. But at the same time, you just made it come across as surprisingly manageable.

    • Theodora says:

      It’s no more brain-exploding than Africa, Phil, just in a different way (though of course you don’t have the colonial languages to help you out as you do in Africa): put another way, it’s as mind-expanding as Africa. Rickaaay, incidentally, is a reference to a British soap opera, EastEnders…

  5. Erica says:

    I had never wanted to go to China and with all the blog reading I have been doing, you guys have piqued my interest for sure.

    I would LOVE to live somewhere with a skyline out my window!

    • Theodora says:

      I’m fascinated by it. I recommend you come! Skylines aplenty over here. Not sure we’ll be doing Chongqing, though. That’s China’s biggest city, with pushing 30 million people all stacked up on top of each other.

  6. Rachel says:

    Ha ha we had eactly the same conversation on price over the flat in Thailand – ‘oh but the price I said on the phone is for a six month let and you only want 3’. Ditto the business card tip – invaluable, and if you want to go somewhere and can’t find directions just go to any 5* hotel and act like a guest – they’ll write the instructions down for you to give to a cab driver/ask man on street. We had one of the best meals ever in Nanning by just sitting in a teppanyaki (sp) restaurant and eating what they showed us. Who needs menus?! Enjoy the break.

    • Theodora says:

      Yes, I carry a) our Rough Guide (with its ABSOLUTELY rubbish Mandarin phrase list at the back) and b) our address written in pinyin, my attempt at phonetic for me and Mandarin everywhere we go. We’re actually picking up quite a few words at the moment, start lessons on Monday and have made ourselves understood…

  7. MaryAnne says:

    Awesome flat! It looks a lot like ours (the Ikea aspect!) except something like that tends to go for 8k here in Shanghai. Nicely done! I’m glad you negotiated, as really, everything is negotiable here. One thing that you might want to know for future reference is that although the agent’s fee is a month’s rent, the tenant should only pay about 30% of it. The rest is the landlord’s responsibility, I think.

    We got ours negotiated to include the fapiao (a very expensive monthly ‘receipt’ worth 5% of the monthly rent which is required by a lot of work places in order to get your housing allowance reimbursed).

    Welcome to China!

    • Theodora says:

      Interesting — I think we paid, basically, almost exactly 30% plus a slight hit for utilities. He went all the way up to a whole month’s rent, I reckon, just to stop me squeaking about the utilities. That’s a really handy tip, thanks.

      And, yes, my impression was — from cruising — that this would be around 8000 in Shanghai, plus whatever short let fee they apply. We are enjoying China immensely. And I’ve just found out that Kunming has one of the largest minigolf courses in Asia. Hope to meet up in Shanghai!

      • MaryAnne says:

        What are you paying for utilities? Our China Telecom internet (‘high’ speed) is 150/month. Water is negligible, as is gas (under 100 each usually) and electricity veers between negligible in mild season (now) and absurd (like 500-1000) during the depths of winter and the awfulness of summer.

        Kunming is a place I’d love to live– I’ve heard it’s quite hard to find a job there as a foreigner because competition is fierce!

        • Theodora says:

          Well, I ended up paying 3500 — so 900 over the rental for the agent’s fee and the utilities. So I’m paying 250 yuan for utilities if he’s charged me the standard 30%. Our internet’s pretty fast, and we’re using sod-all electricity — no A/C or heating thanks to us being in the “spring city”. There do seem to be a lot of expats working here, but they all seem to cluster on one easy strip in the centre, near the university. We’re really liking it here, in fact. Everybody’s very helpful with our attempts to speak Chinese. Z’s constantly dived on by old ladies on the buses. The shops are pretty cool, and there’s minigolf and ice skating in a park outside town. If we’d been staying for longer, I reckon I could have got a similar thing for significantly less — 2500 seems to be about right. But I wasn’t bothered about overpaying slightly for the ease of just settling straight in…

  8. Ainlay says:

    Welcome to Kunming! We found it a fun, young city in the center, especially near the university where there are LOTS of cool cafes with wifi. But rather boring on the outskirts where we started out so I hope you don’t have the same problem. On the other hand, that is where we found our cheapest meal in China – combination of various rice and noodle dishes for a grand total of 50 Yuan ($8) for all five of us – including sodas.

    • Theodora says:

      We like Kunming a lot — and, yes, the Western cafes on Wenlin Jie are a magnet. We’re not that far out of the centre at all, really — three or four stops on a bus, and with lots of malls and shops. But it’s more Chinese than Western here by a long shot — we’ve only seen other Westerners in the Wenlin Jie axis. Went to the Haigeng Park yesterday, which is absolutely amazing… Tibet? I’m jealous.

  9. chinvc says:

    HA!!I laughed at least 5 times during reading this blog!I’ve never thought that supermarkets and hanging washing would be such puzzled problems for foreighers!
    It’s strange why Chinese-style apartment means “has squat toilet”.Actually,Chinese families use water closets commonly,only some public places use squat toilets.
    Hope you have a nice trip!
    And i suggest you coming to HANGZHOU,the capital of ZHEJIANG,with beautiful sceneries and prosperous business.

    • Theodora says:

      Hi there! Yes, the simple things are the bigger culture shock. Because I’m from the UK, where most people still live in one, two or three storey buildings, I’m not used to hanging washing out in flats — plus, in the UK, my friends who live in flats tend to use low folding things to hang their washing (either over the bathtub or on the balcony). NOT high wires, like you have here…

      I didn’t mean that “Chinese style” meant that all Chinese people had squat bathrooms. It’s just that people who advertise in English for foreigners (as I understand it) use “Chinese style” to mean “has squat bathroom “). This may just be a Kunming thing. Some of the buildings have very old plumbing and can’t support Western style WC. I don’t know we’ll have the time to make Hangzhou on this visit, but we hope to be back for longer.