Things to Do in Kunshan, China + ATTRACTIONS + UNIQUE EXPERIENCES. SEE MY TRAVEL ADVENTUReS IN KUNSHAN! | by a FORMER Kunshan Expat
As I sit and punch in letters on my keyboard on this 14th day of December 2015, I can’t help but reminisce on all of the good, the bad, and ugly experiences I’ve have during my time in China. It’s certainly been an interesting adventure over the past 4 years; after all, I’ve met and made friends with people from all across the world, picked up some Mandarin, traveled to numerous tourist destinations in-and-around the country, taught hundreds of students, been on the local news, ‘starred’ in a local TV series, been in a stable relationship for over 2.5 years, learned MMA, and have been called “wai gou ren” nearly 1 million times and counting.
Everyday has literally been a stimulating escapade since my arrival, and like most foreigners living and working in China, I have plenty of intriguing and amusing stories to tell that most people back in the West wouldn’t believe. Furthermore, I’ve come to realize that much of my wonderful experiences in China have largely been due to several reasons: 1. having a stable job, 2. being in a stable relationship, 3. surrounding myself with mostly positive people, and 4. having Kunshan as the foundation for all of my adventures.
That’s right; living in Kunshan has greatly benefited my overall experience in China. I first arrived in Kunshan back in January of 2012, fresh from the US and eager to take on China. I can recall literally knowing only few tad-bits about China (and related to China) before I landed: the Great Wall, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Rush Hour, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, Donny Yen, Chinese take-out food, chopsticks, nunchucks, Panda Express, and Kung Fu. And yes, I was indeed one of the ignorant folks that believed most Chinese knew Kung Fu; I mean, just about every movie I had seen about China centered around some variety of martial arts.
Nevertheless, I had signed a 1-year contract with an English training center and quickly settled into my new home. Within a few weeks I began traveling, making new friends, learning about Chinese culture, trying new foods, and racking up memorable experiences. Fast forward a few months later and I had already determined to extend my stay; my overall reasons at the time being the same as they are until this very day. Let’s take a look at the major sticking points:
PROS OF LIVING & WORKING IN KUNSHAN, CHINA
For one, living in Kunshan has been very convenient. I’ve explored many large cities and metropolitan areas across China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, and Shenzhen, and in a land filled with roughly 1.4 billion people, Kunshan earns point for being less congested, less fast paced, more organized, and easier to navigate. For instance, though the city is not large enough for a subway, one could easily reach their destination via car, taxi, bus, bicycle, or my favorite, an E-bike. There are also several plus popular roads running North, South, East and West, that are home to the majority of the hotspots around the city
In addition,Kunshan’s landscape is a well-blended mix of spacious rural area and bustling city life, thus providing it with a big-city-small-town feel. This means that you can find everything from tranquil parks, vast stretches of untapped land, fewer skyscrapers, and wider roads, to lively shopping streets, jam packed public squares, and rapid developments making way at every turn. It is this fusion of landscapes that makes living in Kunshan far better than residing in a Chinese city where one side dominates the other. Furthermore, this paves the way for less stress during your stay, which in turn leads to a happier, healthier, and safer lifestyle.
Two, any foreigner in the city will probably tell you that the best aspect of living in Kunshan is its low cost of living. A nice apartment will cost anywhere between 1,500-2,500 RMB a month, whereas a basic apartment, i.e. studio, in Shanghai may start out at around 3,500 RMB, if you’re lucky. I’ve never paid more than 2,000 RMB a month in my 4 years in town, though I’ve only lived in 2 apartments. In addition, transportation in Kunshan is dirt-cheap. Taxis start at 10 RMB and increase after the first 3.3 kilometers, and buses are only 1 RMB. That’s right, 1 RMB! E-bikes vary in price depending on preferences, but prices tend to run about 1,800-3,000 RMB. I bought my own E-bike in August of 2012 for 1,900 RMB and it has been my main source of transportation ever since. I could easily make my away across town without ever spending a dime! I’ve also occasionally managed to cycle around the city on public bikes as well, having placed a cheap yearly deposit fee of only 150 RMB for a bike card.
In essence, living in Kunshan has allowed me to save a big chunk of my monthly earnings while still maintaining a fun and adventurous lifestyle. I could store a few bucks in the bank and pay off the bills, then eat and drink what I want, travel where I want, and party where I want, without hesitation; well, for the most part!
Third, Kunshan lies along the Shanghai-Nanjing intercity railway line, which means that I could easily explore the other nearby larger cities without having actually to live there, and I did. Shanghai and Suzhou are just 15 min. away by high-speed train. It takes about 40min. to arrive in Wuxi, 1hr to Changzhou, 1.5hrs to Zhenjiang, and 2hrs to Nanjing. Many expats, especially newbies to China, will often hop on a train and head to Shanghai on a Friday night and return to Kunshan in the late evening on Sunday. In fact, most expats will describe their trip in the following fashion: “I went to Shanghai, I partied, I did some sightseeing, and I had a blast, but I’m glad to be back in Kunshan and away from the hustle of bustle of the larger cities.”
Furthermore, I’ve also had the opportunity to visit a number of popular attractions situated within a 4 hour reach from Kunshan via bus tour, including Hengdian World Studios in Zhenjiang, Lingshan Grand Budda in Wuxi, Dr. Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum in Nanjing, Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai, and much more. Living in Kunshan has allowed me to comfortably explore countless nearby destinations with ease.
Lastly, Kunshan is and has been developing at a pretty good pace; more foreigners are entering the city and a wide collection of new buildings and housing communities are being constructed on every couple of blocks. The area near Kunshan South Railway Station, for instance, is currently in the process of laying the foundations for the city’s tallest building, and a water park opened earlier this year in Bacheng, along with Duke Kunshan University on the Westside of town. With that in mind, the city has not only brought in more English speaking expats from across the world, typically working as English Teachers, engineers, businessman, or import and export supervisors, but has also maintained a growing presence of wealthy locals. In fact, did you know that Kunshan is one of China’s most economically successful county-level administrations, or that the city was the #1 contributor of sales on Alibaba this past Singles Day? That’s a pretty impressive feat, right?
I've also had the opportunity to witness close Chinese friends of mine start their own profitable business within a matter of a few months, and have listened to numerous stories from my teenage students detailing the ridiculous earnings of local math teachers providing at-home schooling during the summer. My time in Kunshan has personally inspired me to become an entrepreneur and start my own business, as well; thus, Don’s ESL Adventure!
CONS OF LIVING & WORKING IN KUNSHAN, CHINA
Likewise, my time in Kunshan has not been without its challenges. Though I enjoy writing positively about my experiences in the city, or anyplace for that matter, there have been several major factors that have led to many feelings of disappointment at times in my decision to renew my residence permit for another year. Let’s take a look:
For one, despite seeing a large growth in the number of foreigners moving into the city over the course of the past 4 years, I’d still consider the amount to be relatively small when compared to the equally as small size of the city. Unless I’m passing down Qianjin Road—Kunshan’s main street—or making a trip to the few popular places where expats typically congregate, such as the Heilongjiang strip, Oasis, or Swissotel, it’s unlikely that I’ll bump into any foreigners. In addition, because of the low numbers, there haven’t been many extracurricular activities, such as socials, sports competitions, and seminars, to name a few, organized by expats.
In the past (i.e. 2012-13), I had the chance to attend a small number of successful events held at Fubar, and the Kunshan Expat Association managed to organize some great mixers, but both have since shut their doors for business. Since then there have hardly been any consistent expat functions. This void is extremely disappointing, especially considering that each and every time I’ve stumbled upon photos or ads of events in larger cities like Shanghai, the expats seem to be participating in stage plays, musicals, concerts, parties, picnics, sports clubs, you name it, for just about every other hour of the day! There is a new expat group in Kunshan, however, building some momentum as of the time of this writing, and I’ll make sure to keep you all updated on their status.
Next, Kunshan lacks a wide and diverse range of entertainment to partake in and attractions to explore, especially for someone with an insatiable appetite for seeing and experiencing new things. Sure, the city is brimming with ancient water towns, KTVs, a few track and fields, several malls, a bowling alley, a new water park, an occasional event at the Kunshan Convention Center, an occasional musical at theKCAC, and plenty of movie theaters in every direction, but living in the town has still sometimes felt, well, quite dull and very repetitive because of the shortage in creative things to do. Growing up in Los Angeles, for instance, I'd be able to attend Capoeira classes 2x a week, head to Venice Beach at any time of day, visit a theme park on the weekend, stroll down Hollywood Boulevard on a Thursday night, and watch a live professional sports game on a Tuesday, all within the span of a single week.
Of course, Kunshan is not LA and will never attain the same status, but I’ve always felt that the city could, at the very least, help to develop and promote more leisure activities geared towards the expat community. It is my firm belief that Kunshan would receive a substantial boost in overall likeability if done effectively. Examples include offering English language stage plays and musicals, sports tournaments, seminars, cycling groups, concerts, art shows, comedy nights, festivals, dance competitions, and the list goes on.
Then again, as I’ve mentioned previously, maybe it’s up to the expat community to take initiative and organize these activities. I’ve done my best to catalog most of the attractions in the city and provide information about developments and upcoming events. If you come across anything new, feel free to contact me and I’ll post it. Sharing is caring!
In conclusion, looking back over my experiences in the city and in China over the past 4 years, I’d say that living and working in Kunshan has been great overall. It was Kunshan that introduced me to China back in 2012, and since then I’ve had the chance to fully immerse myself into Chinese culture, pick up some Mandarin, meet and make friends with people from around the world, be in a stable relationship, explore popular domestic tourist spots and nearby countries, work with a decent company, teach hundreds of amazing students, save money, create the foundations for a future business endeavor, and undergo an endless amount of adventures that I can’t wait to tell my grandkids some day. And indeed, there have been many challenges along the way, but my overall experience in the city has been mostly positive.
To all the newcomers and current residents in Kunshan, I encourage you to take advantage of the benefits, opportunities, and attractions that the city has to offer. During your stay, get to know everything about the city and allow it to be the foundation for your adventures and endeavors in China. And while you’re at it, grab a pen, notepad, and camera, and get to writing; after all, I hope that someday I’ll be reading up on your very own unique experiences in the city! Safe and happy travels!
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THINGS TO DO