I admit it: I am a slave to Google services. I use Gmail for work, Docs to manage documents with my students, all my notes are in Keep and I don’t know how to go to new places without Google Maps. To all this I also have to add my dependency on Chrome which I have synchronized with all my devices. It will be a big problem when I go to other alternatives but that drama can already be lived if you travel to China.
A few weeks ago I was there, a visit to Shenzhen and Shanghai for work purposes. It was not the first time I visited the country: I was there three years ago and I remember that it was a disconnection experience due to the fear I had of roaming charges. This year the experience was different: I was connected, but half.
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The VPN, a key (at a small price) to the outside world
On my first night in Shenzhen I received a SIM card from a local operator. Great, I thought, so I could keep up with the people of Madrid without relying on the hotel’s WiFi. Before connecting a thought crossed my mind: “Wait, Google services here are blocked by the government firewall”.
I did a test, I did not lose anything, and indeed there was no way to access Google. My Android email wasn’t syncing either, Twitter didn’t load and the only thing that came to me were WhatsApp messages. At the time I was at a dinner party and I couldn’t calmly investigate so I decided to do some tests.
Bing worked, Yahoo! also. GoGoDuck was capped, Reddit was not. He was making a mental list of everything he carried and what he did not carry. I was surprised that 4Chan was not on the government blacklist. When I travel to the United States for several days I always take a SIM card and this forum is always blocked by some mobile operators considering it as adult content. Very curious. I keep testing websites.
In this first approximation I see that most of the services that I access regularly do not work. I can stay informed and read many websites but some basic services did not work. Nothing serious, but once dinner was over I went up to the hotel to investigate. It was clear that my solution was going through a VPN.
Success! Juan Carlos 1, China 0.
I knew enough about VPNs. They have been my key until recently to access Netflix from Spain for example. I decided to do some research through Bing and found out in some Reddit threads that talking about VPN in China had a rule in common with the Fight Club by Palahniuk. Nobody talked about them, but secrecy had a reason for being.
People who use VPNs in China fear that popularization will end up being their death. That for some reason one towers over the others (Tunnelbear for example) and having more visibility is an easy prey to detect and block. Therefore, when we investigate, we will rarely see clear references to which ones manage to bypass the blockade.
I tried several known payment options and all of them were blocked. Finally, researching I came across Express VPN. One month of use was eleven euros And considering that I was going to be in China for a week, it was a good investment considering that I needed to access my mail, connect to the work chat and, incidentally, catch up on what was happening on the net through Twitter.
I downloaded the apk manually from my computer (I couldn’t install it from Google Play obviously), installed it, entered the data and crossed my fingers. “Hong Kong 3” told me in a hopeful green that I was connected. I opened Google and bingo, there it was. Bypassing the China firewall was easy.
Bing and I hit it off well during my stay in China, but when I returned, our love left us.
After doing some tests I removed the VPN. “Why?” you will be wondering. Every day I get a lot of emails, the Twitter cache is large and some attachments that reach me are quite heavy. Those days in China he juggled between the Chinese SIM card and the WiFi that he was asking for in hotels and restaurants.
My data bonus was small and I knew that if I had the VPN on all the time I would end up spending what I had available in very little. I took advantage of that excuse to find alternatives to Google in such everyday things as the search engine or maps. This is where I discovered that the Mountain Viewers have a good grip on me.
Muscle memory is treacherous and on mobile it took me to get rid of the reflection of searching directly in the Chrome awesomebar. Every time it failed, I frowned, had to type “bing.com”, wait for it to load, and do the searching. Later I remembered that I could change the search engine in “Settings” and then I regained that agility that I had before.
Another of my biggest shock was looking for alternatives to Google Maps. I tried with Bing, I entered the street I wanted to go to, I saw the route … The mobile web version is not particularly intuitive to see the streets and navigate the map but it worked for me. At that point, I decided to curl the curl.
I got into a taxi, took my cell phone and pointed out the direction I wanted to go (it was in Chinese, fortunately). I looked at him firmly, trying to say that “for what you want more, take me here I have no idea what it says”. He had to understand it because he nodded. I sat as i went trying to follow the trajectory of the trip with the GPS but the web was not for the work.
Fortunately, I reached my destination without problems. The days went by, I rationalized the use of the VPN so as not to exhaust my short 250MB on the SIM. I took advantage of the time in hotels and restaurants to use it there and download all that data that would otherwise devour my little bonus. With that said, let’s talk about hospitality.
Hotels, accomplices of western tourists
2012, I was in Shanghai in a four star hotel. It was good and it was located in an area with a lot of traffic of Westerners coming to the area to do business (to be exact it was the financial district of Pudong). I remember that in my stay three years ago I was able to access Google, Facebook and Twitter without major problem. All good.
On my return to China I thought that in the hotels I was not going to have problems with the national firewall but in Shenzhen I ran into it. It was a good hotel and in my moments in the corridors and the breakfast b breakfast I discovered that there was a lot of western.
A friend from Hong Kong used to pass me this image when I told him in China about my problems with the VPN and my difficulties in going to stores and buying.
There was no way around the hotel lockdown with a VPN but with mobile tethering it was possible so problem solved. When I arrived in Shanghai there were no difficulties and the WiFi of the hotel I stayed in was already set up with their VPN to pull traffic through Hong Kong. In the end, between some networks and others I was able to be connected everything I needed without problems. It was eleven euros of VPN very well invested.
What surprised me three years ago and hit me again a few weeks ago was that crony that is in some hotels. As a friend from Hong Kong explained to me, it is not illegal to use a VPN in China but following the logic of censoring previously convinced services, it is rare that they give that wide sleeve to certain places.
Following a more pragmatic reasoning, it is understandable that places that are used to receiving Western foreigners (I make this nuance because in Asia there are some services that we use that do not have as much pull) decide to give that facility. It is not that it is a complaint but it is a comfort that is appreciated and that for some travelers may be a reason to opt for one hotel or another.
The price of being hooked on Google
I was upset having to search for alternatives to Google and use tricks to connect to the services I use every day. Much more than a jet lag that this time I did not accuse. It is frustrating to discover that your muscle memory is trained in such a way that the first days in China I found myself clicking on applications that at that time I could not see.
I would remember the censorship, turn on the VPN and access the rest of the Internet, everyone that the Chinese government tries to block. I download the mail, I wait for Twitter to download all the new messages. I disconnect to save money, I can’t help but remember those days when I had a PDA and connected via WiFi at home and then did things offline.
It was tedious but it also helped me to corroborate what I have commented on more than one occasion with friends: I use the services of a company a lot and in the end putting all the eggs in the same basket is not the best option. I know I should try to distribute them but on a day-to-day basis, what Mountain View offers solves many problems for me. If one day that changes, I am going to have to arm myself with patience.