Encouraged by lower living costs, Beijing expats jump for Yanjiao’s cheaper rent and longer commute

By Zhang Xinyuan Source:Global Times Published: 2017/2/23 18:53:39

Colin Friedman and his 5-year-old son plant a tree outside their home in Dachang, Hebei Province. Photo: Courtesy of Colin Friedman

Steven Schwankert has had to get up at 6 am almost every day for the past three years. The current executive editor at the Beijinger, Schwankert, an American, has to leave enough lead time for waiting in line at the bus station and the hour-plus journey into Beijing to work. If he is lucky and makes it in without getting stuck in traffic, it's a good day.

Schwankert lives in Yanjiao, a small town in Hebei Province, roughly 30 kilometers east of Beijing.

"I am so tired from the daily commute. Although painful as it is, I like my life in Yanjiao. I can't see any reason for me to move back to Beijing now," Schwankert said.

"Yanjiao is cheaper than Beijing, and it's more relaxed living here than in the city."

In recent years, as Beijing's real estate price skyrockets and the overall cost of living increases, more people who work in Beijing are choosing to move to Yanjiao and other small towns to reduce their living expenses. According to a January 2015 report on domestic news portal sohu.com, more than 300,000 people commute between Yanjiao and Beijing to work.

Yanjiao is also attracting more foreigners, who find the area appealing because it's cheaper, quieter and more laid-back compared to Beijing.

The lower cost of living and quiet atmosphere in Yanjiao, Hebei Province are attracting more foreigners. Photo: IC

A good deal

One of the main reasons more foreigners are moving to Yanjiao and other bordering towns in Hebei Province is cost of living. For some, Beijing is too expensive.

"It's a lot cheaper in Yanjiao. The rent is about half [that of Beijing], and the apartment is nice," Schwankert said.

An agent from Lianjia, a real estate agency with offices all over Beijing, told Metropolitan that the average rent for a fully furnished two-bedroom apartment in Yanjiao is around 1,500 yuan.

The cost of travel is not high either. From Guomao in the downtown area of Beijing to Yanjiao one-way is 6 yuan, which is comparable to the cost of travel on some of the subway lines in the city. Also, if they want, travelers can share a taxi into the city for 15 yuan in the day or around 30 yuan after 10 pm when there is no bus available.

According to Schwankert, overall, everything costs at least 15 percent less in Yanjiao, and it is pretty convenient to live there.

"The facilities and services are enough. There are places to shop. A movie theater is not far away from my apartment. In Beijing, I have to go through the entire city to do those things," he said.

He added that there's also an international hospital available to cater to foreign residents.

Colin Friedman from the UK moved to Dachang, Hebei Province a year ago. He had been living in Beijing for 14 years before the move.

"It's in Hebei Province, but I would like to call it the Beijing suburbs," Friedman said. "My wife and I had wanted to buy a house in Beijing, but the price is too high, and we don't have a Beijing hukou (household registration), so it's difficult for us to buy a house and get a mortgage."

They decided on Dachang because it was near enough for them to commute and for their son to go to school in the city.

"There was talk that the Jingjinji area (Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region) would soon take off, and Dachang is right in the middle of that area, and the price was only a third of what it would be in Beijing, so we figured it's a good deal," he said. "Our expectations were right, the price of our property has tripled since we bought it."

A foreigner listens to music on the long commute between Beijing and Yanjiao. Photo: Zhang Xinyuan/GT

Western suburbia in China

For many expats, living in Yanjiao and working in Beijing reminds them of suburban life abroad. The landscape design, buildings, the relatively slow-paced life, and even the long commute all give them a feel of home.

"I grew up in New Jersey, so I am already used to living in the suburbs close to a big city," Schwankert said.

"I like to keep my distance from the city. If I want to rest, I can enjoy the quiet and relaxed suburban life, and if I want work or entertainment, the city is there."

Schwankert worked in Hong Kong for two years before moving to the Chinese mainland. In Hong Kong, he worked in the downtown area and lived on an island that was a 25-minute ferry ride away from the city.

According to Schwankert, it's common for people with a family to move to the suburbs to have a bigger living space and a quieter life.

"It's how suburban life is developed in the US," he said.

Friedman and his Chinese wife did exactly that. Having moved to Dachang with their 5-year-old son, they are quite content with their new environment.

"It's got a very much at home feel for me. The architecture and the design are Western with Chinese characteristics," Friedman said.

"It's not crowded. We can see open spaces and green areas. It's got rivers and trees. My son and dog can run around freely. It's beautiful and fun."

Friedman believes that the design of the buildings in some of the small towns could attract more foreign residents over time.

"It's just like the Chaoyang and Shunyi villa districts in Beijing. A lot of foreigners originally moved there because they like the homey feeling. Later, foreigner-friendly facilities also began to spring up, like international schools," he said.

Room for improvement

Although the border towns are developing rapidly, they still have some inconveniences. Prime among them is the long commute.

"The commute is really a killer. Even on the rare occasion that traffic is good, it would still take me at least an hour to get into the city," Schwankert said. "The traffic gets jammed often, and when that happens, there is nothing we can do but to sit in the car for hours."

The travel time has made Schwankert very scrupulous about time. He plans every day carefully, down to every minute, and has even tried cycling the 30 kilometers to work.

"I have to decide whether it's worth it to go all the way into town every day," he said. "It forces me to live more consciously, organize every day, and avoid any last minute decisions."

Heading home from work is not easy either. The bus to Yanjiao stops running at 10 pm, and if Schwankert misses the last bus, he has to take a car that is not licensed for public transport, which is unsafe.

Both locals and foreign residents in Yanjiao have to deal with traffic on a daily basis, but foreign residents have more difficulty fitting in because the towns are not as international as Beijing.

"Currently, our neighborhood is not quite foreigner-friendly," Friedman said. "In the supermarket, they don't have ingredients that most foreigners view as a daily necessity, like fresh milk and cheese, and there are no Western restaurants available."

He added that there is also no international school in the area yet.

"We had to drive my son to and from school every day. It took up a lot of time, so we transferred him to a local school," Friedman said.

He believes that things will improve in the future, and it has already begun. Just recently a big international hotel opened near his home.

Schwankert said that living on the outskirts of Beijing is not for everyone. He said new expats and expats with children and in need of an international school might be better suited to living in a big city, but expats who have been in China for a while and like the suburban life can give Yanjiao and other border towns a try.

"Yanjiao is not perfect. It's not my dream home, but I have lived here long enough that there is nothing that could make me move to the city," Schwankert said.
Newspaper headline: The suburban alternative


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