The Great Firewall of China blocked us from communicating with the rest of the world when we landed in Kunming, China. This meant no access to anything Google related: Google Maps, Google Search, Gmail/Drive/Sheets and socials like Facebook and Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp.
We had no idea we would be blocked from standard apps used across the globe and ones we use every single day. We found it a huge challenge navigating around the city without our maps and trying to organise onward travel plans without Google.
We soon realised how lucky we had been travelling across Asia with most countries speaking our native language until we arrived in China. It was our biggest challenge yet as we were unable to speak or read any Chinese. We struggled to communicate with locals and figure out public transport. It was even hard work ordering our daily meals!
However, despite being cut off from the rest of the world, it was quite nice to have a break from socials and spend time learning how to adapt to a new lifestyle. We eventually found our haven in a quaint little coffee shop in Green Lake called Kittens Jazzland, where we met the lovely Polly, the first person who could speak English and was happy to advise which Chinese Maps and Taxi apps to help us along on our travels.
After a couple of days, we were feeling a little more settled. As we explored Kunming, we continued to meet new people who were willing to work through a language barrier and lend a helping hand. Young Chinese children with excellent English skills taught in school helped us order food on a few occasions and we even met a Couch Surfer who offered us a place to stay.
We have been very lucky to have no real bumps in the road on our travels (so far; touch wood), so we were excited for this new challenge to learn how to adapt to a brand new culture which is nothing like anywhere else we’ve been.
If you are preparing a trip to China, you will need to adapt pretty quickly to enable to travel around China and book any onward travel. Here You will find useful Chinese equivalent apps to help you along the way.
1. Chinese Sim Card
Your first mission is to find a Chinese SIM card. You would expect to find a SIM card in a standard Oppo shop or phone branded shops like Huawei, however, they do not sell SIM cards. However, they will be willing to point you in the direction of a phone shop that does sell SIM cards. We picked one up in Jinbi Square, next to The Hump Youth Hostel, which is a great spot for lunch or dinner by the way!
The cost of a Chinese Sim Card is 100 yuan (£10). This will get you the SIM card plus 20gb of data for one month. It’s a pretty good deal to be fair. Unfortunately China doesn’t offer anything lower. Don’t forget your passport either, you will not be allowed to purchase without your passport (this also goes for any train or bus tickets you wish to purchase/collect in China. I know, super strict)!
2. Google Translator
The Chinese language appears to be one of the most complex languages we’ve ever come across. You will definitely benefit from learning some basic Chinese and downloading a translator app (don’t rely on translator apps to work offline).
Google translator has to be the best app out there and not just for translating sentences which you would normally type or speak into the app.
Now, this will blow your mind, because it blew ours! While using the Google Translator App you can also use your camera to hover over pictures, Chinese symbols if you wish, and guess what, this app will translate to English. Pure genius! This has helped us out tremendously. At first, we were limited to restaurants with pictures only, so we could point at meals on the wall and kinda hope for the best. When we figured out we could translate Chinese writing, it opened up a whole new world of food to us!
3. We Chat
If you would like to keep in contact with your friends and family back home, you will need to download We Chat (and so will your friends and family). China does not use WhatsApp and while connecting to WiFi and using a Chinese SIM card can be ok, it will be very slow and you won’t be able to receive any media.
We Chat requires another We Chat user to authorise your account. This user must have been using We Chat for at least 6 months. Chinese citizens are always willing to lend a helping hand to authorise your account. Sam decided to have his haircut in Kunming and the barber set us both up with We Chat.
However, you can download We Chat before landing in China and you will not require anyone to authorise your account.
4. DiDi Taxi App
China has a fantastic public transport system (bus, train, underground tube) but sometimes you may wish to grab a cab.
You will not find Uber or Grab in China, however, there is the Chinese equivalent, DiDi. The app appears to be very reliable with reasonable prices. You may add your credit card to the app or pay cash. However, cash accepting taxis are sometimes more difficult to come by and you could be waiting a while for a cash taxi to accept your booking.
5. Baidu Search Engine
Unless you pay for a VPN for your phone and laptop, you will need to use a Chinese Search Engine. Google will not be available. Therefore you should be able to open your normal internet search app, go to settings and select the available Chinese search engine. Baidu is the most recognised in China.
6. The best VPN for your iPhone and laptop
Now you have a SIM card and downloaded the relevant apps to travel in China, but feeling desperately lost without socials or prefer to use your Google Maps and Search Engine, it’s possible to download and pay for a monthly VPN (Virtual Private Network). A VPN allows you to access all your normal apps like Google Maps, WhatsApp and socials just like you would outside of China.
The best VPN for the iPhone is Hotspot Shield. Some VPNs may not be compatible with your iOS, but this was the best VPN I used without any issues. I signed up for Premium for one week, with the option to continue monthly for £11.99.
Proton VPN worked a dream on my Windows laptop. You may sign up for one week free and move to monthly for £12.99.
Good luck in China!
Follow our travel buddies through China overland! Evelin is a marketing expert, whereas Ferenc is a lawyer originally. They are overlanders, which means driving huge distances, and so far, have conquered three continents including trips across Europe and Africa! Their latest adventure was driving from Budapest to Singapore over a period of six months in a Land Cruiser 120 with a roof-top tent! How unreal is that?
Evelin and Ferenc are blogging about the overlanders’ lifestyle. Go check them out at overlandsite.com