Digital Nomadding it up in China 技術工作者遊牧12 August 2017
travel digitalnomad china
你好 from behind the Great Firewall! I’ve decided to spend some time in China (as it’s probably a good idea to give Thailand a rest for now. After all Nomadic means to reap the benefits of multiple places), and plus I heard Guilin and Yangshuo are beautiful (which is probably one of my favorite places in China).
Guilin having the best accomodation options. If you’re ever in Guilin and need somewhere cheap and good quality to stay, check out Wada Hostel. In terms of price (5 EUR a night), it’s one of the best hostels in the world (the Beijing Wada Hostel though, not sure if it matches the Guilin one but its OK - maybe a bit overpriced for what you’re getting). Great beds (with privacy curtain), awesome staff, wifi with VPN, and good location. And for those who want to ditch cash, they take WeChat pay.
Yangshuo for the amount of things to do in town. The Wada branch there is also quite good too.
I’ve also come up with a chinese term for my profession - 技術工作者遊牧 (“jishu gongzuozhe youmu” or Nomadic Technology Worker literally).
Here are some things I’ve learnt while nomadding in China, and some tips for future nomads who wish to explore this place.
Mobile Phone Types
The best phone to use in China is the Apple iPhone. When you cross over into China, you’ll notice that Apple Maps switches to a local mapping provider.
Apple Maps actually works quite well in the mainland (and it also offers pinyin translations into english too).. It also has detailed public transport directions.
Money and Payments
You should probably have either WeChat or Alipay installed. Personally I prefer WeChat Pay as AliPay tends not to work if you do not have a Chinese ID (I’ve yet to test this theory out).
WeChat Pay works for most vending machines, small restaurants, hotels, hostels and you can book train tickets, bus tickets and flights. Also rent bikes and hail cabs.
WeChat Pay works in the metro in the following places:
- Selected stops in Shenzhen
- Everywhere in Guangzhou
- In Chengdu you can buy a stored value card with WeChat or AliPay
Using WeChat Secretary, you can cash in and out of WeChat Pay using bitcoin, although I can also sell you RMB for bitcoin / litecoin / dash if you ask nicely (at market rates for China)
Getting a Chinese bank account is actually not too hard on a tourist visa. Some banks may not want to do it though, but others will do it for you (gotta love the KPIs where they get bonuses for accounts they open.).
This is probably assuming you’re not a US citizen, but I don’t think China cares what the US says so US citizens may have more luck here.
Having a banking base gives you access to fund your WeChat and AliPay account without having to worry about bitcoin and also withdraw cash from it.
However you can use vpayfast.com to fund it by Visa / Mastercard / American Express / Paypal as well.
I’ve checked different bike rental apps, and have settled on MoBike for coverage and it’s foreigner friendliness (it works with Passport - and verification is only a few hours). You need a Chinese phone number though, but you can pick up one for 50 RMB.
Before you leave, ensure that you have a working VPN. You might find it impossible to keep it updated when you are down there.
This is important if your email and documents is in Google Apps. Also Dropbox is blocked.
And if you need to upload stuff to Amazon S3, you occasionally get timeouts.
You’ll also find Google Translate very useful for decyphering chinese characters for stuff
I think it’s relatively a new concept in China, but WeWork has a presence in Beijing and Shanghai.
Unfortunately, even with WeWork’s international presence you still need to use a VPN in order to actually do work (especially if you use Google Apps for documents / email /calendar), or Dropbox.
Not sure of any local equivalent for Dropbox. Mega seems to work well, but its slow.
Hopefully theres a branch open in Chengdu (so far it’s one of my favorite Chinese cities)
Mobile Phone Data
If possible, get your mobile phone data from Hong Kong, it will let you use the internet unfiltered (but you have to pay a little bit more). You can always use a VPN, but this lets you skip that step. You’ll still need a Chinese Phone number to reserve train tickets and take didi chuxing rides though.
Document and Collaboration Apps
Seeing Google Drive and Dropbox is out of the question, try using Quip for storage.
If you’re on Android, you should download the Maps.me app before you go. In fact, even iOS should work too - however it’s not necessary as the mapping on iOS uses a local provider (which also uses all the local APIs).
Fun fact, Taiwan is a province of China according to the iOS mapping API.
Yes it’s actually better than Google. It will even give you public transit directions too, and has a very comprehensive database.
Maps.me is a good Android alternative, and also a good alternative for iOS users too.
The key feature is offline maps so you can download maps when you’re on wifi.
The data is actually quite accurate.
Google Maps Weirdness
This is why Google cant be used here (even if you get it working using a VPN).
Note that the pin location is about half a kilometer away from your actual location. Don’t try to use apps that depend on this API. It’s useless.
Note to app developers (particularly travel apps!), learn about this limitation and build better apps.
Lessons Learnt from China Nomadding
- Always be Charging. With your phone as your portal to life (in China WeChat = Life. No WeChat No Life), it’s very important to keep it charged up. They sell power banks quite cheap (I recommend Xiaomi though. It’s basically the Apple of China, but beware of copycat stores - just see how the staff are dressed, its a big giveaway)
- Good place to test your websites loading time.
- If you’re an app or web developer, don’t use google APIs to build your site. For location, I recommend using foursquare or open street maps. Foursquare is easier to use but some of the datasets can be a bit dodgy (thanks to create venue tool using part of the google api). If you use google analytics, put it to the end of the page rather than the front
- Also, uploading to Amazon S3 is much faster if you activate your VPN first.
- If you’re a web designer, don’t use google fonts. I was struggling to find out why my profile portfolio site was taking a long time to load (and not loading completely). Turns out it uses Google Fonts which I will turn it off..
- For UX purposes, don’t use reCAPCHA.