Six years ago, Bei Yi did something many people considered crazy. He quit a high-paying job in Shanghai as a manager at an industrial glass company, sold his car and apartment, and left one of China’s most desirable cities. His destination: the town of Lijiang, deep in China’s poor southwest province of Yunnan, once a place of banishment for those who ran afoul of the emperor.
Friends and family were perplexed. “‘How can you come from such a lively, important city and move to a far-off mountain area to live?’ they all asked me. They didn’t understand at all,” recalls Bei, now 34 and proprietor of a guesthouse in Lijiang’s old city, which features rushing streams and ancient alleys. “In some ways, my life in Shanghai would have been considered quite good,” he says, sipping Pu’er tea in the bright sunshine on a recent Friday, with his Old English sheepdog lying nearby. “But I was not happy at all.”
Bei’s decision to abandon city life has made him something of a pioneer. Fed up with choking smog, traffic jams, unsafe food, stress, and the general toxicity of life in urban China, a growing number of affluent Chinese are deserting big cities such as Beijing and Shenzhen and settling in remote regions, says Gary Sigley, professor of Asian Studies at the University of Western Australia, who is studying the migration. Bei cites work stress as the No. 1 motivation for his move. (His once-doubting parents have joined him and his wife in Lijiang.)
Although no statistics are available on how many people have moved, Yunnan is a very popular destination. An account of a husband and wife’s decision to leave Beijing and move there was one of the top posts on Sina Weibo, China’s microblogging site, in late February. Yunnan’s attractions include its tolerance—it’s home to 25 minority groups—and pristine environment. Other than tourism, tea, and tobacco, there is little industry.
“Up through the Mao period, Western China and Yunnan were considered dangerous places. You definitely didn’t want to get sent there, because you might get stuck and never be able to leave,” says Sigley, who points out that the new migration is dwarfed by the massive movement of usually less well-off rural Chinese to the cities. “Now people have a romantic view of Western China with its mountains and the culture—they feel like they are going to a special place.”
Other destinations include Tengchong, a subtropical area in western Yunnan known for its hot springs; Dali, 123 kilometers (76 miles) south of Lijiang, famed for its lake; and a former tea-trading town on the Tibetan plateau, rechristened Shangri-La by tourism officials. (The first Shangri-La was a fictional city in Lost Horizon, a 1930s book by James Hilton.) Also popular: Lugu Lake, with its original inhabitants, the Mosuo minority, whose inheritance passes through the female head of the household.
Lijiang, home to the Naxi minority, with its own pictographic script, is nestled at the base of the 5,596-meter (18,340-foot) high Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and renowned for its year-round blue skies. Among the 20,000 or so residents of Lijiang’s ancient city, some 95 percent are urban transplants, up from almost none 15 years ago, estimates Pan Hongyi, deputy director of the Travel Research Institute at Lijiang Normal Technical College. “Many people come planning to visit but never leave,” says Pan. Often the transplants run guesthouses, teahouses, or restaurants catering to tourists.
The flight of coastal Chinese to a better place is a twist on an already well-established trend: Over the last decade, thousands of well-off Chinese have gotten overseas citizenship, settling in Sydney, London, San Francisco, and Boston, in search of cleaner air and safer food. Now “people have started saying, ‘How come we have to emigrate to America or move overseas? There are beautiful places to live inside China,’ ” says Beijing-based businessman Liu Shaotian. To capitalize on the trend, his company, Lijiang Derun Real Estate Development, is investing $161 million to build 400 high-end villas and a five-star hotel in Lijiang.
Beijinger Zhang Huiying, 33, was traveling in Western China in 2009 when she fell in love with the rugged scenery around Lijiang. Two years later she decided she’d had enough. She was commuting more than an hour to get to the health drink business she had founded. Costs, including the salaries of her 10 employees, kept going up, and every night she fell into bed exhausted, only to get up early and start all over again. Now running a guesthouse in Lijiang, she wakes up when she wants to, does yoga, painting, and pottery, and rides a mountain bike in the surrounding countryside several times a week. “In Beijing I had neither the time nor the interest to do these things,” she says.
Last year a survey by Luxembourg-based Regus, which leases offices and conference rooms worldwide, found that 75 percent of Chinese workers say their stress is growing, the highest rate among 80 countries surveyed. A 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center showed just 59 percent of Chinese say they are satisfied with “21st century life,” down from 71 percent four years earlier. Food safety (page 20) topped worries, while traffic, crime, and pollution were other big concerns.
Hao Ge, 46, grew up in a traditional courtyard house in Beijing and recalls that blue skies were common when he was a boy. His old neighborhood has been demolished for office buildings while those few courtyard houses that remain sell for millions of dollars, says Hao. He signed a 10-year lease on a Lijiang courtyard house he shares with his wife, a dog, and three cats. “There is no way I could afford to live like this in Beijing. And anyway, now people there have to wear masks or are afraid to leave the house,” he says.
The biggest drawback to China’s version of paradise is the substandard schools. While some, like Beijinger Hao, move only after their children enter university, others face a dilemma. “My wife and I want to have a child soon. That is the only thing that might make me consider going back,” says Shanghai transplant Bei. “Still, I will always spend a minimum of at least one half my time here.”