Changing China

Giant on the move

China’s third-tier cities

March 19, 2008

Forget Beijing and Shanghai. If you want to see real China, go to some of the country’s third tier cities.

They’re fascinating, and I’ve been trying to go to as many as possible before leaving China for my next post. Places like Chifeng, Ulanhot, Ankang and Golmud.

ChifengNever heard of them? Not surprising.

The Lonely Planet and other guides for foreigners either give them a passing mention or ignore them totally.

Why I like going to these cities is still a bit of a mystery, even to me. I suppose it’s for two reasons, and my friends think I’m crazy for it.

The first is I love going to places where foreigners are few and far between. It gives you a chance to talk to people who are not jaded at the thought of seeing yet another “lao wai” (the Chinese slang term for us) on the street, and sometimes the answers to the questions I pose surprise me with their honesty.

“Why on earth are you here? There’s nothing to see in Chifeng,” a taxi driver told me as she drove around the Inner Mongolian city, which has been picked as an Olympic tourism city for this summer’s Beijing Games, though nobody in Chifeng quite understands why.

The second reason is the architecture. Lots of people think the building style that marked a 30-or-so year period starting in the 1950s in China is very ugly.  Lots of sharp angles, big windows and pale colour schemes.

Not me. I think they are startlingly beautiful. And less and less are being preserved in the big cities in the rush to develop. But in the third tier cities they are still going strong. Chifeng has quite a few left, including the train station and tiny airport.

Chifeng airport is perhaps my favourite building in all of China. For a long time a photo I took of it was the wallpaper on my mobile phone.

Yet it’s not always much fun in the third tiers. 

Upon arriving in Ankang, a 40 minute flight south of Xian into yet another beautiful airport, it had just finished sleeting. The air was crisp and fresh in a way you almost never experience in Beijing, but the streets downtown had turned into black sludge.

“I’ve surpassed myself this time. Ankang is truely horrible,” I texted to a friend in Beijing, promptly getting back an “I told you so” reply.

Ankang did have its highlights. The food was great, especially the flat rice noodles they fry in a sharp chili past with lamb and bean sprouts, and the air was at least clean (local people joke it’s because Ankang has no industry). Ankang

There are lots of other cities on my list I want to visit. Chaoyang and Jinzhou in the rust-belt northeastern province of Liaoning, Dazhou in Sichuan and Ganzhou in southern Jiangxi.

I just hope that the buildings I’m so passionate about don’t get demolished before I get there.

Pictures of Chifeng (top) and Ankang (below) by staff photographers


I thought it was just me that liked those kinds of places :)

I know what you mean. Places like Yangshou you are just another laowai, but go to any other out of the way place and you can have some truly memorably experiences!


One of my friends from Ankang once showed me pictures of rivers there and they were beautiful. Hope the scenery has not been ruined there.

Posted by june wong | Report as abusive

Third tier cities are still too high-profile. To see the real quiet town life in China you need to got the forth-tier cities (county level). My suggestion is you may go to some small towns in near-west part of China ?Gansu and Ningxia). You’ll see some real honest people, but you also need to be careful about your safty since you’ll be very unique and eye-catching.

Posted by orsino | Report as abusive

Your point of view is interesting, but it is one thing to visit these places and another thing altogether to actually live in them.

I lived in Dazhou, Sichuan (which you mentioned as one of the places you wanted to visit) for over two years and I can tell you that it is easily the ugliest, most disorganized, most corrupt, noisiest, dirtiest place I’ve ever lived in. I’ve been in China for many years and lived in various places, big and small in various provinces, but Dazhou definitely takes the prize for the biggest mess called a “city”. I still visit the place from time to time because I have family here (I’m writing this from Dazhou, btw), but man, what a disaster this place is, especially “South City”. Sad…

In sum, I think that it is a pity that grossly unplanned infrastructure messes like Dazhou are romanticised by some folks… The people of such places deserve a lot better than what they get, and people here definitely want better. It’s not “quaint” or cool to live in places like this.

Posted by La Mano Gaucha | Report as abusive

I am toying with the idea of teaching in a second or third tier Chinese city. But I am quite particular about sanitary systems.

Does anyone think I will have a problem staying put for at least six months?

Posted by liz | Report as abusive

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