For a China veteran traveler like myself, this 2-week journey has not been worry-free, yet it has been productive, if not efficient.
The difficult part of working in China, or just vacationing in China, could bring unwarranted stress if you care much about using the Internet, which may be better known in China as an Intranet behind the Great Firewall. This could be especially troublesome when you have multiple large files to transfer between the Pacific Ocean. Here are some of the stress points that are particularly painful:
- Internet speed: This is a problem particularly for budget hotel travelers, who at times could be experiencing Internet connections as slow as a few Kbps, see chart below scenario #4. The fastest (WiFi) connection I’ve hopped on so far in China was at a university library, almost triple my NYC home’s already impressive 50 Mbps (#7). But even with this truly fast connection, it is still pretty slow to visit sites overseas, especially if you need to go around the Firewall using a VPN (virtual private network). Most hotels don’t offer fast Internet as taken for granted in the US, at least not for budget hotels. I’ve stayed at hotels (that cost a lot) where they have installed a master VPN before beaming the WiFi to your rooms, which is really sweet, but note that any connection going through a VPN most likely only allows you to visit Facebook, YouTube, etc., but it also slows down the connection a great deal, so watching videos could still be a painfully awful experience. I haven’t tried many VPN services, but I have always seen the connection dropping to excruciating double digits of Kbps, or even single digits, from as fast as dozens of Mbps (according to speedtest.net).
- Internet steadiness: This is an even bigger inconvenience using the Internet in China. You might be disillusioned to think that you are having world class Internet connections, but the actual performances vary a great deal by the minute and often it grinds to a freeze for no reason. A 3-gigabyte movie file in the US could take less than half an hour in most places and it normally gets downloaded without a hiccup. Not so lucky in China. Even if you put it on a China-based server or cloud service, chances are that it will take more than four or five hours to complete a full download, and most likely the connection will drop and you will have to start from scratch again if you re-download (and this happened to me almost a dozen times trying to download one such file one failure after another). This is the biggest reason I often use QQ, a Chinese messenger service by Tencent, to transfer humongous files in the multitude of gigabytes. QQ allows you to pick up from where you got cut off when the connection dropped, a life saver for me time and time again.
- Plan B’s: It’s never a bad idea to equip the toolbox with as many tricks and gadgets as possible. You never know how many plans can guarantee a success, but you should know that Plan A is never good enough in China. Sometimes even Plan B may fall through. During this trip, one of my 256G thumb drive failed to register with other computers and I had to bring a passport-sized hard drive to transport large movie files to a projection booth. It is an inconvenience to have to carry something larger than an iPhone between the hotel and the event site, yet when it comes to getting the job done, I really have nothing to complain other than being grateful for the availability of various types of technology up my sleeves.
- VPN: It’s a must to have a VPN to go around in China these days as somehow you would need to use one of more of services such as Google, Facebook, YouTube, etc. But having a VPN doesn’t seem to offer you a fast Internet connection like those in the US. Here’s a tip which could be handy though: getting a Google Nexus phone (baseline $199 through Google’s Project Fi) and its data service while roaming in China gets you around the Firewall and 4G like connection, at $10/gigabyte (if you use less, you pay less proportionally). This is on my checklist for the next China trip for sure.
In short, it takes tremendous patience and resourcefulness to get things done in China. Good news is, when there is a will, there is a way.