I never thought I would have ended up in China; the idea of visiting Guangzhou, a more that 12 millions inhabitants city, was never really an interest of mine. Sometimes our life journey takes some unexpected turns, and here we go, I am now in the center of Guangzhou, China, more precisely the TianHe district and I am writing this post from the hostel I been staying for the past 2 weeks.
I really knew very little about Guangzhou and China, prior to turn up (and I still know very little about it, of course). I did my diligence and research, but nothing has really prepared me for the real thing and the practical problem I had to overcome.
But let’s start from the beginning, so that I can go through each step in my mind and give you some tips about coming over to Guangzhou, China as a digital nomad.
I got my Chinese Visa from the Chinese Consulate in Chiang Mai, Thailand (http://www.chiangmai.china-consulate.org/eng/). Pretty stress free operation, took little time as the Consulate has a well-organized system for issuing visas. All I had to do, is to fill up the Visa application form and provide the following:
- Chinese visa form (Chinese Visa Form PDF)
- A recent picture attached to form
- Main passport page copy
- Passport Thai visa entry stamp page copy
- In and out flight confirmation
- Accommodation booking confirmation for the whole stay
- 1100 Thai bath fee (some nations like US pay well more than that, around 5500 bath)
Standard application takes 4 days and express service available. Make sure to check Thai and Chinese holidays when planning your Visa application dates.
I reserved the hostel I am staying, online through Agoda.com, which gives you the options of paying later and/or cancel the booking till 24 hours prior to check-in, I am sure you are familiar with the procedure.
I flew with Southern China Airlines, which runs daily direct flights between Chiang Mai and Guangzhou (2.5-3hrs). The flight fare is about 12000 bath return, the airline is modern and efficient. The flight lands at Guangzhou Baiyun International (www.guangzhouairportonline.com), a really modern and easy to navigate airport. There’s money changers and it’s possible to purchase a mobile phone SIM card, right there.
As soon as I reached the center of town from the airport (by Metro, fast, easy and cheap), I quickly realized I was in China. I found myself walking into thousands of Chinese commuters, whom pretty much were swarming around me, not really bothered by my presence or any other obstacles, for that matter. The sky is covered, the hair is thick, humidity is very high and the landscape is very different from what I pictured by looking at pictures online.
Anyhow, I manage to get to the hostel, which I then learn is basically a two floors apartment adaptation, in a 32 floors high building; there a few of this kind of solutions in Guangzhou. Finding the hostel has been a mission, all of the signs are in Chinese and nobody knows what you are on about. I met very few people that can speak any other language but Chinese.
In Guangzhou, the internet is generally slow, as connections are shared by many people at once. Every restaurant, coffee shop, tea shop and so forth, in the center of town, has WiFi for customers. Unless you use a VPN, to bypass the Digital Wall of China you will not be able to access Google services as well as many other websites you might be used to (see https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Websites_blocked_in_mainland_China). Google Maps does not work, neither! even if you have downloaded the offline map the coordinates of the GPS will not match!
Guangzhou is a relatively expensive city, expect to pay similar prices to central Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Hostels run at about 50-150 RMB, small hotels at 150-350 RMB. Local food is varied and tasty, although kind of oily, expect to pay 20-30 RMB for a local dish. Entertainment doesn’t come cheap, a night out could easily cost you hundreds of RMB, I would compare the entertainment prices to downtown Singapore.
The overall experience of Guangzhou has been positive so far. People are friendly and in many cases welcoming, food is good and diverse. There’s plenty of sites to visit and the town is easy to explore by public transport. I think Guangzhou is a very good starting point for China exploration. Is it, thou, a good destination for digital nomads? If you rely fully on internet connection, I would say NO. If you can manage with a VPN and can have offline times, I would say YES.
HERE COME THE TIPS
- Buy a SIM card (prepaid 50 or 100 RMB) and change money at the airport.
Being a smart ass as I consider myself (but I am not), I didn’t change money at the airport and I didn’t buy a SIM card! Once in town, it had to visit 3 shops to finally get hold of a SIM card, it took over 3 hrs and a fair amount of frustration. To change money, almost the same story, over 2hrs.
- Prepare a document with names and addresses of hostel / hotel you will be staying, metro stations and any other important detail in Chinese. Don’t open your mouth, don’t speak, simply point to the Chinese writing and show it to someone, you will be helped.
- Purchase a VPN subscription
The number of blocked websites and services in China is enormous and growing. Use a VPN to bypass the Chinese censoring system and to access sites like Google, YouTube, Gmail and so forth. No VPN, no access! Purchase the VPN, prior to come to China, once you will be here, the VPN website won’t be available for you to access.
- Download Baidu maps
It’s all in Chinese but it will still show you where you are, based on GPS coordinates, Wireless connections and so on. You can also use it to search for places, in Chinese.
- Use Yahoo.com or Baidu.com for web searches in English.
If you don’t have a VPN subscription you can still search the web with Yahoo and Baidu but the results are very limited, nothing compared to Google.
- Take with you an umbrella, some plastic flip-flops. The environment is wet and humid and can get cold in Nov-Dec months.
- With trolley luggage you wont go far, use a backpack. Pavements are not designed for small wheels, I have met a number of travelers who broke their trolley luggage.
- Ear plugs will come handy.
- When you are meeting someone, arrange to meet at a specific exit (A1, B2 and so forth) of a Metro station, any other meeting place might end up creating confusion.
- Download the offline language pack of Google Translate for Chinese. It works offline and it’s very handy for quick translations from English to Chinese.
These are just a few tips to get you started. I will add more as the time goes by, and please feel free to add some too.