The last time I went to China, five years before our recent trip, I left my phone in airplane mode for the entire two weeks. Back then, I didn’t have a data plan that worked outside of the United States. None of my grandparents had internet service in their homes. Even when we stayed with my aunt and uncle, who did have wifi, the connection was slow and unreliable. For one of those weeks, I was offline entirely. On the flip side, the Chinese internet was much less censored in 2012. When I was able to get online at all, I could access Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest without issue.
Over the course of those five years, the Chinese government erected the Great Firewall of China, and all of my grandparents got online. During this visit, when my 84-year-old grandfather gave us a tour of their new apartment, he made a point of showing us the wireless router. When I arrived in China last month, I was armed with an international data plan from T-Mobile (which, we were pleased to discover, bypassed the Great Firewall), a VPN service, and a folder of apps that I had downloaded onto my phone in advance to help us with communication, translation, and navigation.
Being able to access these tools and connect with our family and friends back home in real time made the experience of traveling halfway around the world immeasurably easier. They gave us a measure of independence and forestalled the feelings of isolation that had always wafted at the edges of my previous visits. I’m so grateful for technology, which has made the world smaller and the barriers between us easier to transcend. And I’m grateful for these apps, which made our days easier while we were traveling in China.
Before we left for China, I wanted to figure out which VPN service was currently the most reliable for use in China. In March 2017, ExpressVPN was the clear winner, highly recommended by almost every source I found. I paid $12.95 for a one-month subscription, which I could use on up to three devices. (If you’re interested, this referral link will give you 30 days free.) While we were in China, I did experience intermittent problems with ExpressVPN, which seemed largely location-based; it struggled in our AirBnB in Xi’an but worked beautifully in our hotel in Beijing. On the whole, though, it worked well enough for my needs, and the success rates improved substantially once I discovered the strategy of trying to connect to different locations. If load times were too slow when I connected to Los Angeles or New York, they often improved if I tried Taiwan or Japan. I would absolutely pay the $12.95 again for a month of being able to access Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Google Maps, and the rest of the uncensored internet from China.
Pleco was the best Chinese-English dictionary app I found, and it turned out that Lawrence’s Chinese teacher had also recommended it to him independently. We sprung for some of the advanced features, and if I were staying for longer in China, I would have happily paid for some of the more advanced dictionaries too. I found the optical character recognizer a bit disappointing, but the handwriting input let me translate words from signs or menus that I couldn’t read, say, or type. Many times, by using Pleco to help fill in the gaps in my limited Chinese vocabulary, I was able to string together a passable attempt at communicating.
While I preferred Pleco as a dictionary and for English-to-Chinese translations, Google Translate was more useful in situations where I wanted to translate entire sentences rather than individual words from Chinese to English. Especially if someone had sent me a text message in Chinese, I appreciated being able to copy and paste the entire message and cobble together an approximate understanding of its meaning.
WeChat is China’s most ubiquitous social network, and there’s no parallel in the U.S. for the way the Chinese have integrated it into their everyday lives. From my parents, I already knew about WeChat as a platform for sending text, image, and voice messages to individuals, groups, and networks, as well as for making phone calls, but I was astonished when I arrived in China and saw its use extend far beyond communication and into the way people navigated and conducted business on a daily basis. While we were in China, we witnessed people using WeChat to pay for the majority of their everyday financial transactions (from restaurants to grocery stores, the most popular way to pay seemed to be scanning a WeChat QR code), buy bus and train tickets, and send each other their locations on a map when trying to meet. I personally find the app’s interface clunky, but that’s hardly relevant: there is no alternative for the pervasive role WeChat plays in modern China. Even my grandparents, in their 80s, use it daily.
Metro China Subway
As we hopped from place to place, it was handy to have subway maps for all of China’s major cities in a single, English-language app. Metro China Subway will even recommend routes between stations and display the fare for your trip (which, in Beijing, varies based on distance traveled).
If you’re literate in Chinese, Baidu Maps comes highly recommended by my uncle, who used it for turn-by-turn GPS directions and traffic information to avoid areas of congestion every time he drove, as well as for walking and transit directions when we were without a car. However, when we were on our own, we were limited to English-language options, and Google Maps came through for us when we were in a pinch in Beijing. We had taken the subway to Tiananmen Square and, from there, entered the Forbidden City through its main gate, to the south. It was only hours later, as we tiredly followed the closing-time shuffle out the distant north gate, that we realized we were miles away from our earlier subway station and hadn’t thought to look up directions back to our hotel. Crowds swarmed around us, and lines of buses to destinations unknown boarded continuously and then took off. With only the roughest of directions from a single, undetailed map we found posted on a placard — and Google Maps, which finally loaded on our T-Mobile data plans after several excruciating minutes — we managed to walk to the nearest subway station, half an hour away, without having to backtrack a single step.
Airpocalypse takes China’s notoriously poor air quality in stride by letting us know just how bad it was, on a scale of “no mask needed” to “only in China is this considered normal.” As a bonus, it gave us the weather forecast in Fahrenheit, saving us from having to make daily conversions from Celsius.
Bonus (For Chinese Speakers): Didi Chuxing
I’ve never taken an Uber or a Lyft, but we did use Didi, the most popular ride-sharing service in China (and, consequently, in the world), a number of times when we were with my uncle. He told us that he preferred Didi to hailing a taxi because the price is set in advance, the fares are cheaper, the drivers (knowing you’re about to rate them on a five-star scale) tend to be friendlier, and you can enter your destination into the app instead of having to verbally explain where you’re going. Using Didi, we got rides around Xi’an for the equivalent of $2-3 USD. In Beijing, we quickly found drivers who took us the hour and a half from our hotel to the Great Wall at Mutianyu and back again for under 200¥ each way. That’s about $30 USD to drive four people almost 50 miles away.
And that’s it!
On one of our first days in China, I realized that I had no idea how to say “app” in Chinese. It was a word that I had never before needed in my Chinese vocabulary. It turns out, most Chinese people call an app an APP, pronounced letter by letter. A-P-P.