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What’s it like living in a third-tier city in China?


An alley with lanterns outside a restaurant, Zhuzhou, Hunan.


The Xiang River, Zhuzhou, Hunan. 

I first arrived in Zhuzhou (pronounced “Jew-Joe”), Hunan Province in September 2011. I was fleeing England and coming back to China, after a break of over three years since my first visit. This time was different, I was coming to work in China. My cousin had sent me details of a job posting to teach English in China, as he knew I was looking for something like this. The wage was tiny- (400 pounds or around $240 a month) but the job came with a free apartment. Great.


Banners sold for Chinese New Year

So many Chinese, so few of us.

The thing that I liked about it was that it was in a smaller city. This is by Chinese standards though, so it actually has around 1.5 million people in Zhuzhou.

I remember the first couple of weeks I couldn’t sleep properly, because of the noise levels in the city. I’d been to China before, but this time things seemed to rush up and smack me in the face.

I was lucky, in the small training school where I worked, there were other British teachers. In fact, in my second year there, there was a group of six of us. This was good because Zhuzhou, unlike the big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, usually has very few foreigners living there- about twenty at the time I was there. If we saw a “foreigner” on the street we’d nod to them, intact, it was rare to meet one we didn’t know.

How can I describe thee, Zhuzhou?

It’s a little rough around the edges. It’s definitely developing. You could say scruffy, oily or even dirty. I think it adds to the city’s charm. A wide river runs through the city, bisecting it with a beach on one side and long bridges you can walk across. This brings air to the centre of the city - needed in it’s stifling summers, where it’s humid and temperatures reach the early 40’s in centigrade.


These shop fronts are probably gone now. In the Centre of the city.


Scruffy, or very Chinese?


Men playing Chinese chess under the bridge on the East side of the river.

It’s small enough that most of the city center is navigable on-foot and if you need to take a short taxi ride (as we used to get to the infamous 88 bar across the river) it starts at 7 yuan (just a dollar).

This is a colourful town and downright Chinese, where restaurants sit foremost among the shops and ghetto blasters greet the throng of shoppers outside every store. It’s not big enough for a subway system, so when you’re not on a taxi or in a bus, it’s common to take a moto-taxi - you can see these zipping around the city and they have umbrellas almost permanently fixed above them. The moto-taxi drivers also wear thin helmets, the type that construction workers wear. These at least help you tell them apart from ordinary motorcycle drivers, even though the headwear would be useless in a crash.


Things to do in Zhuzhou

I used to love walking around Zhuzhou and delving into the markets for clothes and food - you can find all sorts of stuff available here - even dog meat. There are two interesting parks in the city centre - Shennong park on the East with a barmy mini amusement park, Chinese style and another one which they opened during my stay behind the big statue and TV Tower at Yanji Square on the West of the river, which has a massive lake you can walk around.


Hustle and bustle on the shopping street leading from the train station.


More of the shopping street 

Zhuzhou’s main trades are metals and railway carriage construction but another big industry is clothing, which comes up the train line from Guangdong in the South. The clothes markets near the Train station are frenetic at any time of day, but it’s interesting to see them at their busiest in the early morning around 5 am or 6. Many young women work in this trade, either holding small stalls in the indoor or outdoor markets or working as models (this is pretty strange, as it’s these girl’s job to try on many different clothes to show prospective wholesale customers. In the inside markets, you will find many of them all peeling off clothes and swapping them out in a fairly public setting ). Another way you’ll see these girls is after the markets around the city, dragging huge black bin liners full of clothes they have bought wholesale that morning.

When the sun goes down…


Fountains and lights in Yandi Square at night.


Riding at night. Zhuzhou.

Zhuzhou really comes to life at night. This is when the squares, on both sides of the river are filled with older ladies dancing, line dance style to music blaring from ghettos blasters. Ye Xiao ( a late dinner or supper is really popular here with hot-pot or barbecue being favourites and people sit outside drinking and eating till very late.


By the river.

It’s also common to see people swimming in the Xiang river from the beach side. I did this many times, although foreigners coming later in my stay were incredulous, saying it must be polluted… Ah well. Although I’ve heard that it’s possible to swim across the river, be warned, the current gets pretty fast about 20 meters out. This actually brings to mind the stories of drownings you here- usually young boys, in provinces around China.



The beach, on the West side of the river.

Anyway, it’s a city I totally love. It’s got some modern features but for me, the hustle and bustle, the brash friendliness of the Hunanese people and the fiery food are a taste of the real China, away from the ‘big three’ large tier one cities.

Another thing is the bars, They have multiplied now. When we were there, there were only two or three in Chinese style, with deafening music tightly packed tables that you stand up at unless you’re in VIP, and swill whisky with mixers of red tea. I found this set up strange, to begin with as the dancefloor is usually a raised area like a catwalk and very small- at the end of the night people can be seen on this and often falling off it.

My second home

In all, I lived in Zhuzhou three years. I thought of it as my home in China, long after I’d left there (for Shanghai).

Recently, I went back to Zhuzhou to visit. It was an incredibly nostalgic trip. A friend and I walked around, visiting places that had closed or changed and taking in the city once again. Like any other Chinese city, buildings shoot up so fast here. 

After this visit, I vowed to not leave it so long between trips (nearly 3.5 years since I left) and I even rode a motorcycle back to Zhuzhou from Shanghai a few weeks later - it took 7 days!

I don’t know if I miss this place as much after these two back-to-back trips, but I’ll definitely be back there soon. It’s the place that gave me a grounding in Mandarin (few people speak English in Zhuzhou, so it’s a great place to pick up Chinese language) and even taught me to cook some Chinese food.


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