Given the increasing attention deficit that the youth is suffering from, I decided to split this one into multiple posts. The series is for relevant for any of the following groups (in the decreasing order) –
- People going for a short period of work to Shenzhen.
- People who want to do a hardware startup and just figured out that they need to go Shenzhen. It is the Mecca of electronics.
- People who travel to Shenzhen often (>2 times a year)
I am writing the post on Information Channels first, because communication is more important that anything else. I can’t (for that matter no one can) describe Shenzhen in every detail in one book let alone a blog post. With the right tools to search and communicate, anyone can figure out the rest.
The most important basic human rights are – access to clean and healthy air, water, internet, food and shelter (in that order). I don’t believe I have any fish as my audience. So, I don’t need to write about getting air and water in the right proportions in Shenzhen. And to the relief of the land animals, at the least with respect to these two elements, china is no different. But when it comes to internet, if the literary critics allow me a small degree of freedom, china is “infoccating” (intentional double c for the effect). To the uninformed, this is the realization sequence –
- Our hero lands in china, goes to the hotel, connects to wifi to figure out a few things. Types something in google and nothing happens for a long time. Somebody had mentioned Baidu to this goody-2-shoes and so he types www.baidu.com and yo! bingo ! internet!!. But then, it slowly dawns upon him that majority searches need translation. Also, Baidu’s AI has much to learn. Google natural language search through the years has unknowingly let us become dumb once again.
- Then he goes to a restaurant and looks at the menu. Recalls that he was bad at Pictionary anyway. The smarty pants picks up his phone with a grin and tries google translate ….. nothing happens…. 2 mins.. still nothing…. and finally realizes that he has hit the aptly called Great Firewall of China once again!! Now what?? Act like a monkey so someone may toss a banana or two and finally get something vegetarian to eat!
Google services are Firewalled in China except in few companies and the higher end hotels. So are Facebook and twitter. Whatsapp works though! You see, Zuckki did not pay $19B for nothing. So what is the way out? VPNs to the rescue. It is said that even a 2 year old in china knows how to connect to VPN. But not all VPN services are really useful. Specially the free ones. After many trials and errors, I have locked on to VyprVPN. Use the paid version. It costs about $10 a month at the moment. Totally worth it in China. Do not forget to cancel the subscription once you return. It is easy to get fleeced with automatic monthly subscriptions. Chinese firewall is not that easy to breach, the VPN keeps getting disconnected if you try the usual suspects – HK, any site in US, South East Asia etc. Try something exotic like Argentina or some eastern European country. Argentina was my personal favorite. As an alternative to all of this, I tried working with Baidu services for sometime – Maps, Translate etc.. But gave up after sometime. For two reasons.. 1. They suck. 2. With the phone permissions that you need to grant them, you have basically sold your soul.
For communicating with people, Wechat is a must. It is even better than google translate. Google translate on a VPN or even otherwise takes 2-3 seconds to turn around. Wechat does it under 1 second. In my cumulative stay of greater than 20 days, I have not come across a single person in China without a Wechat ID. Wechat features an inbuilt translator. Each person on either end can type in his own language and the other one can view the message with translation. Just walk up to any person you want to talk to and show your Wechat ID QR code. This is one gesture that most people recognize (even though they don’t agree countrywide on the basic gestures such as the gestures for numbers 7 and 10). The other person will scan it and you are instantly connected! Wechat is also more than just the one-to-one chat. It is a platform for chatrooms and other services. One such very useful one is the Spoonhunt service. The service helps find nearby restaurants sorted by cuisines and customer ratings.
To be able to do any of the above on the move, it is necessary to have good mobile internet. There are plenty of options for buying prepaid SIM card. The service that has maximum coverage in China is China Unicom. I usually walk upto a store with some Chinese currency and a passport and buy the appropriate package as per the length of stay and data requirements. Within Shenzhen, the nearest store is typically within 10 minutes of walk. Cash is a must in most places in China. 99.99% of the places do not accept VISA, Amex, Mastercard based cards. At the time of this post, ~200RMB is sufficient to buy a week’s worth of talk-time and data. Google hangout dialer or skype can be used for international calling whenever the tower signal is good. It can be hard using VoIP during the metro rides. In emergencies, GSM based calling is reasonable too. At the time of this post, it is 10RMB/min for a call to India. Although, I have not felt the strong need, some people have suggested using online services to pre-order a SIM card to the hotel – http://www.3gsolutions.com.cn/. The convenience of getting the SIM card without having to walk to a store is probably worth it. Also, when you are buying a SIM card at the physical store, it is one conversation for which you can’t use google translate or Wechat services. The other advantage with the online service is that you can share the Chinese phone number in advance with the people concerned. There is also an option for a pay-as-you-go permanent Chinese phone number. In my last visit, I used the VPN service from 3gsolutions and found it to be good, infact better than VyprVPN. It is a bit pricey though at $7/week. The VPN service works even for people who have not bought a simcard from 3gsolutions. For people who want to frequent between HK and Senzhen, refer to this – http://hktravelblog.com/sim-cards/top-hong-kong-prepaid-sim-card/