“Vicki and I are in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in southwest China,” writes Intrepid Correspondent Paul Terhorst.
“Upon arrival at the Kunming airport, we jumped in a cab and showed the driver the name and address of our hotel–in English. The driver started cackling away, something that must have meant, ‘I need it in Chinese, Pal.’ Then he drove to a traffic circle, talked with some police, and made a phone call before heading to town.
“Vicki and I came to Kunming to meet up with friends, including David, my college roommate, who speaks Chinese. The friends were staying at the New Era hotel, which turned out to cost more than US$100 a night. Vicki and I asked for something cheaper, and we were taken to the New Era apartments, also called the Fairyland Hotel, in the same building, with an entrance next door. The Fairyland offers large rooms with sitting areas, televisions, even (temporarily non-working) Internet access, all for US$33 a night. Perfect.
“We’ve spent two days now wandering around Kunming with David and other friends. Conclusion: Kunming may well be the world’s premier urban retirement spot. Consider…
“The city enjoys nearly perfect weather, never too hot and too cold for only a few days each winter.
“Silent electric motorcycles ensure that downtown stays quiet and peaceful rather than jarring.
“Colorful ethnic minorities make for special food and clothing, teas and spices. We’ve seen two mosques and two churches in the center-city area.
“People are very friendly, and David assures me we can count on a low crime rate.
“Taxis have run us to the outskirts for just a dollar or two; a dinner for three of us, including tea and a couple of beers, came to less than US$5.
“Talented urban planners have turned the city center into a web of walking streets, plazas, alleys, and markets, all without the traffic farther out. Delightful. Old pockets of Kunming remain, quaint and charming. I loved them.
“But with 1.3 billion people, I figure China has little time for quaint and charming. To handle the growing population, China wants growth and commerce, with steel, glass, and neon replacing quaint and charming. That means urban high-rises and shopping malls instead of little wooden houses and street markets.
“Embrace the new Kunming, and you find urban living at its best.
“We stopped in to visit the sales office of a condominium project in downtown Kunming. These city-center studio and two-bedroom condos cost about US$800 a square meter. All units are well under US$100,000.
“Until recently, foreigners could buy apartments. But overseas Chinese and other speculators jumped in, driving up condo prices in Shanghai, Beijing, and other areas to very high levels. To stop the frenzy, the government decided that only residents could buy property. But stay tuned: The rules in China change all the time.
“One huge drawback to living in Kunming: You pretty much have to speak Chinese. The way I look at it, you have two options. You could learn the language. That’s pretty hard to do for most of us, especially if we’re nearing retirement age.
“Or you could wait until the Chinese learn English.
“Kunming seems to host English-language schools on every corner. In a few years–two? five?–large numbers of young people here will speak English. Locals have made an effort to accommodate and to help us with whatever English they know, often telling us how they wanted to speak better English. I believe them. It won’t be long before the Western world discovers the wonders of Yunnan.
“If clean, safe, colorful, urban, modern, low-cost living in a medium-sized city with perpetual spring appeals to you, plan a stop in Kunming next time you’re in Southeast Asia. Bangkok to the south and Hong Kong to the east are each only two hours away by plane.
“Recognize that you’ll be here a bit early. Right now, there’s both a language problem…and a temporary visa problem. Vicki and I got only 30 days for this trip. But Kunming offers such pleasant, tidy urban living you’ll want to keep it in mind for down the road.
“China changes so quickly that these two problems could disappear soon enough…”