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January 6, 2010

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Fleeing the rat race and escaping to smaller, cheaper, greener cities

RUN. Run. Escape from the city, where more than 18 million people are squeezed together; housing prices soar to an average 20,000 yuan (US$2,940) per square meter; 12 million bicycles are fighting with more than 630,000 private cars and 50,000 taxis; 11 Metro lines are roaring underground and by 2020 there will be 18.

Getting out, that's what many people want, or say they want.

Shanghai may be heaven to some, and they wouldn't live anywhere else. But for many it's a rat race, and they want to and are moving away to smaller cities where life is a bit quieter and considerably more affordable.

Shanghai is a sprawling, seething, ever-changing place, and while many sing its praises, the Pearl of the Orient and Paris of the East is driving many people crazy. Fresh air, greenery, privacy and peace are rare. The city hurtles along like an express train.

"Since you can't change it, learn to get accustomed to it, or just leave it," says Shanghai native Li Junnian, a software developer who sold his flat and last month moved to picturesque Lijiang, a small town in Yunnan Province.

The 27-year-old plans to open a pub with the 800,000 yuan from the sale of his apartment.

"I want to explore nature, chat with friends, enjoy the purity of the scenery and leave all the urban hustle and bustle behind. What a life," says Li.

As thousands of migrants pour into Shanghai to chase their metropolitan dreams, an increasing number of residents are taking stock of their lives and prospects and moving out to unload some of the burdens of urban life that weigh particularly heavy in Shanghai.

There are no figures on departures, but a lot of anecdotal evidence.

Marriage, housing and medical insurance are the "three big axes" (san ba fu) suspended over the heads of today's urban dwellers.

"These are the biggest expense for white collars in Shanghai," says Lu Hanlong, a researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. "The income might be high, but the living cost is even higher.

"They are worried about the future, about the cost of educating their children and their medical insurance when they get old," says Lu. "These uncertainties make them feel insecure in the big city."

"If I don't go when I am young, it will be harder to leave when I'm older and have a family," says Li, the pub owner-to-be.

Li, unmarried, plans to open the pub in Lijiang in March or April.

He decided to leave Shanghai three years ago after returning from vacation in Lijiang. He started to plan. He quit his job, sold his apartment and spent three years on the pub project, buying property, furnishings and setting up. Frequent trips have been expensive.

The idea was romantic but achieving the dream has been difficult.

"I asked myself many times whether it was worthwhile to abandon my entire life in Shanghai and start a new one in a remote rural area," Li says. "I reminded myself I didn't want to be crammed to death in this city and end up a boring man."

He says he wants to travel and be a backpacker, using his Lijiang pub as a base. From there he plans to head off to Shangri-La and Lugu Lake in Yunnan, the Tibet Autonomous Region, and Daocheng and Yading in Sichuan Province.

Not everyone is as romantic and resolute as Li, packing it all in.

Chen Huijun, 36, her husband and five-year-old son are moving to Wuhan, a second-tier city and capital of Hubei Province, but they're not pulling up roots. They are keeping their Shanghai hukou (permanent residential permits) as well as a tiny 60-square-meter flat in suburban Anting Town in Jiading District - just in case.

Housing in Wuhan is only 5,000 yuan per square meter, about one-fourth of the price in Shanghai.

"We can buy 200 square meters along the Metro line, two cars and can even have two kids," Chen says, referring to the fact that if each spouse is an only child in their own family, the couple is allowed to have two children.

"The cost of living will be cut dramatically and with the rest of the money we can travel and enjoy a real life," Chen says.

She admits the big city has more opportunities and is more open and tolerant than other cities.

"That's why I keep hukou in Shanghai," she says. "Of course, I will return, maybe in 10 years, and I will definitely send my son back to a Shanghai university."

Many people are frustrated by the crowding and pace in Shanghai, but they just can't tear themselves away because of childhood memories and deep affection for the city.

"You cannot find anther place as delightful as Shanghai, where you can stumble onto a charming cafe or boutique hidden in a small lane," says Amanda Han, a 26-year-old freelancer. She had considered moving to a smaller city in nearby Jiangsu Province, but dropped the idea afterward.

"It's not about money," she says. "Shanghai is the place where I grew up. It's deeply rooted in my heart and I have a sense of belonging. Even if I enjoy the beauty of nature in some remote idyllic village, I love the taste of Shanghai's steamed buns even more."

Researcher Lu understands Han's reluctance to leave. "People are complaining about the high cost of living and heavy burden of life in Shanghai," he says, "but few can really leave the city.

"Above all, Shanghai is a place with more opportunities and a bigger platform for young people, who have bigger ambitions."


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