Reviewed: The best courses and apps to learn Chinese

If you are planning to move to China or travel there, you are probably thinking of learning some Chinese. Which Chinese do you need to learn? Mandarin is the standard Chinese, and that is what I’m talking about in this article. Nearly everyone speaks Mandarin in addition to their local dialect. It would benefit you to learn some before you go, but also to take a class once you arrive. In this article I am going to review:

Apps:

Duolingo:
Type: App
Cost: Free
Duration: No time limit

As a concept, I really love the idea of Duolingo, however, in practice, the app isn’t grounded in enough context for a beginner, and it’s certainly no good as a standalone language-learning app.

It starts with asking a question, and if you are a total beginner, you have to obviously guess the answer. This is supposed to be based on a particular type of learning theory but as a qualified teacher, I have long-felt this type of learning, by guessing and getting things wrong, might improve understanding/participation at the time of the learning, but it doesn’t encourage long term retention of the information. As an example, I spent about 8 hours working my way through Duolingo and I learned only the word for milk. And now I can’t even remember that.

I think as an accompaniment to an organized course it can be useful but you absolutely do need to take a proper course, especially if you are serious about going to China. With Mandarin, the most important things you need to know are the sentence structures.

Without these, knowing random words is really unhelpful because people in China don’t guess what you are trying to say, they will wait for inspiration to hit you and for you to magically speak the correct complete sentence. Since there are no “yes” and “no” (your guidebook lied), you must learn how to say each sentence in the positive. For example, if you wanted to say “I understand” you would say “wo dong” and if you didn’t understand, you couldn’t just say “no” to “do you understand?”, you have to say the whole sentence, “wo bu dong”.

This is the same for all Chinese (it’s also true of Irish). So an app where you learn single words will help you expand your vocab but it will not help you to get by in China. I still recommend it as long as you’re not expecting to rely on it to learn Mandarin Chinese.

Courses:

Peking University: Chinese for Beginners
Type: Online
Cost: Free
Duration: 7 weeks
Sign up here.

This is a free online course, but it is delivered in realtime (if you want a certificate you have to complete it in a certain timeframe), so you need to complete each week’s work before the next course. It has a lot of videos in it, and honestly I found that each “week” took more than a week to learn. If I was just passively watching the videos rather than trying to learn and digest the course material, I could see this taking 7 weeks, or if I wasn’t working full-time.

It did cover a lot of content, although using my Chinese out and about, I found that people didn’t always understand what I was saying, and I feel like this course skipped over the most important basics for learning Chinese — the tones and how to properly shape your mouth/throat to pronounce words. Without that basis, any course in Chinese is not aimed at complete beginners.

I did like the fact we covered Chinese characters from the first week, and this was what I learned best and remembered the most from this course. One advantage of this course is that it is the “official” approved Chinese lessons taught by registered Chinese teachers.

With that in mind, this was a really good, comprehensive course, but it is not really for beginners, it’s more for people who have already done some basic Mandarin but now want to learn it in more depth or if they are rusty. There is a lot packed into every “week” of this course. If you have the time I think you could learn quite a lot of the basics from this course.

Queen’s University Belfast Languages Course: Chinese
Type: Online
Cost: Free
Duration: 6 weeks
Sign up here.

This is another free online course. You might be wondering why Belfast would be the place to learn Chinese. What I liked most about this course (and it’s tragic I only took this course after I had left China) was the way the teacher covered pronunciation in more depth than any other course I’ve taken. I felt like after taking this course, I had a much better foundation in pronunciation of the tones than I’ve gained from any other course I’ve taken.

Having said that, it did suffer a little from the same problem as the Peking University course, in that they were trying to cram too much learning into one “week” of study. It would better for all these courses to cover about half the amount of content so students have time to properly memorize it, especially since they all build on the content week-by-week. I felt like I was in a hard position of either skating over reams of content or missing large chunks and maybe learning 2-3 new phrases each week. Luckily, this course wasn’t done in realtime but there was still the pressure that I never knew if or when the course content would be taken down.

Shanghai Jiao Tong University: Learn Mandarin Chinese
Type: Online
Cost: Free
Duration: 15 weeks
Sign up here.

This is a longer course than the first two, and aims to teach you 1000 words of Chinese, including 30 real-life situations. There are regular starting points around the year and you do need to complete this course within a set time if you want to earn a certificate.

I felt like this one took a slower pace than the previous two, but because it ran for 3 and a half months, it meant there was time between classes to be able to digest the information and to practice the new phrases while I was out and about in China. I don’t know if it’s because this one was run by a Shanghai university, but I felt like I learned a lot more Chinese that people responded to from this course than from the one run by Peking university (I lived about 200 miles from Shanghai).

Vibrant: Come and join the Thursday photo challenge!

Welcome to the new weekly Thursday Photo Challenge, a weekly photography challenge for everyone who likes to take photos!

This week’s topic is… vibrant.

Life is a sea of vibrant colour. Jump in.

A.D. Posey

Vibrant colours are all around us, lifting our souls and energising our senses. Studies have even shown different colours behave differently at a molecular level (colour chemistry is a whole branch of the natural sciences).

So join us in celebrating the many brilliant and diverse colours in the world! You can show a photo with lots of colours, one particular colour, or an absence of colour. Whatever the word “vibrant” means to you!

I can’t wait to see what you share!

My photo is of some tins of sardines I found in a supermarket in China. I thought it fitted this challenge in a sort of pop art way.

Here’s how to take part:

  1. Take a photo or search your files for one that represents the week’s theme.
  2. Write a post, including your photo, any words of explanation or inspiration you wish to share, and a link to this challenge page.
  3. Comment on this post with a link to your page so others can see your contribution.
  4. That’s it! Super easy.

This challenge will stay open for one week, then I will be back in the New Year to post the next challenge!

Big Things on Tiny Chinese Vehicles

One thing I saw several times in various cities in China was gigantic things being carried by tiny vehicles. Some of them moved really fast and I didn’t get to capture them all through the lens before they were gone! Here’s a selection of some of my favourites that I did snap:

By Chinese standards, these two e-bikes aren’t carrying a whole lot, but the stand-off between them and the oncoming car was absolutely hilarious to watch, neither party would move, they all just kept honking at each other for over ten minutes. I was on my way to a shop and I didn’t find out how it ended as I wanted chocolate, but when I got back, the e-bikes had disappeared and the car was parked further up the road with a shifty looking security guy in black shades standing next to it.

funny things on bikes in China mamaadventure

This bloke in Xi’an was taking all of the packaging somewhere. I like to imagine a single duck egg in the middle of it all.

funny things on bikes in China mamaadventure

This guy looked like he’d built a campervan on the back of his bike, complete with easy access ladder, but I can’t help thinking it all looks a bit cardboardy, like it’ll collapse in a heavy rainstorm.

funny things on bikes in China mamaadventure

This bloke looks like he’s moving house! All he needs is the kitchen sink.

Meanwhile, this chap is having a smoko from taking his rubbish to be recycled.

funny things on bikes in China mamaadventure

But the real, baffling question was, with all those metal poles in the back of this e-bike, HOW has it not tipped backwards?

Incredible!

5 Snacks I Loved in China

Whether you love or hate China, one thing we can generally agree on around the world is China sees food differently to the west. One place that’s very apparent is in the way they design snacks. Sometimes, they look just like something from the west but when you bite into it, there’s no resemblance. Other times, the snacks are completely unique to China.

Here are my 5 favourites:

  1. Fuma Pie! Oh, my goodness, the west is missing out. The only way to describe it is like a wagon wheel but better. First, it’s smaller in diameter, and second, it’s thicker and has more cakey and gooey stuff in it. Where to buy? Any shop in China that sells any kind of food will sell Fuma Pie or at least a knock-off version.

2. The donuts at real bakeries like Bread Talk

Don’t buy supermarket or convenience store donuts. They may as well be potatoes shaped like donuts. They don’t resemble donuts. But there are small bakeries in every town, and Bread Talk is like the Chinese version of Gregg’s (only no pasties or sausage rolls); a national chain where you can get all sorts of delicious baked goodies.

3. Matcha crisps (potato chips)

You can get all sorts of things in matcha flavour in China. One of my favourites is a packet of matcha tea flavour crisps.

4. Meiji Hello Panda

These are sort of biscuity things with Nutella sort of stuff in the middle. Crunchy and creamy. Top. They also come in a range of flavours. Such as strawberry and milk flavour. I think they’re a Japanese import but they’re for sale all over and they’re not expensive (like 11 RMB is around £1.40).

5. Chinese bombay mix.

So China aren’t fans of anything curry flavoured. But they do love imitating everything and anything. It must be really hard for them to live so close to India for these two reasons. In our local corner shop I found these packets of bombay mix. There were three little packs in the giant panda packet, and I had no idea what flavour to expect. They were cheese flavour. Cheese flavour bombay mix.

They were actually kinda tasty. But not at all what I had expected.

10 things I discovered while living in China

1. You can buy almost anything in China.

Need a Valentine’s rose with panties folded up in the middle of the flower? Taobao. Need an oboe? Taobao. Need a Doraemon wedding tea set for a wedding tea ceremony? Taobao. Need 5000 personalised corporate pens with diamonds embedded in the barrel and your company name engraved in it? Taobao. Don’t understand Mandarin? Baopals! There are literally translators working at Baopals who will talk to Taobao sellers for you and ensure you can shop with confidence! Taobao is often touted as “Chinese eBay” but that’s not entirely true. Taobao sells literally everything and it’s all brand new.

2. There are no launderettes.

I never saw a coin-operated launderette anywhere in China. But everyone knows someone who can do your laundry or ironing for you and they’ll give you her WeChat so you can connect.

3. Milk is the next big fad diet.

They put milk in almost everything in China! Even sorbet! The “translate” function on WeChat will help if you’re dairy free, but it’s a LOT easier to just learn the Chinese character for milk (or anything else you’re allergic to) and scan the packet for it. Milk is seen as the next big thing over there, and if it comes from Australia or New Zealand, Chinese shoppers will pay top price for it.

4. You can fit a lot of stuff on the back of a bike.

Here are some stellar examples of this from Xi’an:

funny things on bikes in China mamaadventure

funny things on bikes in China mamaadventure
funny things on bikes in China mamaadventure

5. Everything is caused by “heatiness” or “coldness”.

Chinese medicine boils down to two things: Hot and cold. If you’re ill, you have an excess of either one or the other (or both, if you have bipolar). I lost a baby once and got taken to a traditional Chinese hospital, where I was told in all serious by a qualified doctor that I’d eaten too much cold food.

6. They have their own type of sushi.

If you’re a fan of sushi, you’ll know sushi is actually the name of the type of rice. China grows its own, which is called Jilin rice, because it comes from Jilin province, which borders North Korea. It’s identical to sushi rice and a fraction of the price in China. I got 10kg of Jilin rice as a free gift for spending over 700RMB ($70) on groceries once. That would be like $30 for 10kg sushi rice in the UK, so getting it free with $70 of shopping seemed crazy, but that’s how cheap it is. And I really liked cooking with it.

7. Pregnant women are treated like queens


It’s probably a hangup from the now-defunct one child policy (now a two-child policy), but pregnant women and new mothers are treated with great care. Old ladies stop elbowing you in the ribs in crowded areas, men give up their seats on the metro, airports let you sit in the priority seats and the doctors expect you to rest. You also get a legal minimum of 6 months maternity leave from work and they legally have to give you your job back when you return. And everyone stops to adore a baby! There are entire shopping centres just for children like Coco City in Changzhou.

8. Eggs boiled in tea make a great breakfast.


The first time I saw it I was like whaaaat? Why waste good tea? But somehow it delicately infuses the egg with tea flavour and makes such a nice start to the day.

9. Umbrellas have two uses

Many Chinese women don’t like getting a suntan because they want to look refined (and not agricultural) so they use their umbrellas on hot days to keep the sun off them when they’re walking down the street.

10. Family is everything

This stems from the Confucianism on which China’s society still functions, even if 60% of the population are now atheist. Confucianism is a “humanist religion” which believes in no God, but which values hierarchy and prosocial values, especially respect for ancestors (including living ones, e.g. your parents, aunts etc). This is so ingrained into Chinese culture that you will almost never hear anyone in China criticizing their parents or going against their family’s wishes. Conversely, children are also precious, although this is sometimes expressed in ways we don’t understand very well in the west.

To sum up…

Culturally, China is difficult to pin into a box because it’s one huge country, with so many nuances across the different regions, but these are the things that sum it up for me!

How to get a flight over Everest for 1/10 of the price of a charter plane

After our first trip to Xi’an, we headed to Kathmandu, Nepal. We completely didn’t expect to see Everest until we arrived in Nepal.

We boarded our flight, and I was feeling a little better after having quite a bad fall in Xi’an. To help with the travel sickness I often get, I’d asked for a window seat at check-in and we were near the front of the queue so I got my wish.

Our plane took off and on the ascent, we went straight through a thick, white cloud that stayed with us throughout our journey. We were travelling in early July 2018. Summertime in Nepal is the height of the rainy season. There are few tourists at this time of year, since most go to Nepal in the (northern hemisphere’s) winter months in order to capitalize on the dry, cooler temperatures for mountain expeditions to Everest and Annapurna.

FYI, rainy season = cloud cover. All the time. The skies are SUPER grey in Nepal at this time of year and it rains pretty much every afternoon, you can almost set your watch by it.

We hadn’t gone to Nepal with any intention of doing the infamous Everest Base Camp trek. We just wanted to see Kathmandu, for itself, as a destination in its own right, so there was no real plan to see Everest at all on this trip. Some people will be outraged by that or see it as a waste of an opportunity.

What can I say? As I said in my article on 17 things to do in Xi’an, I’m not a fan of box-ticking travel, to go somewhere just to do one thing then to leave again without taking in the culture. I had to go to Xi’an twice before I saw the Terracotta Warriors, haha.

I had hoped to see Tibet from the air, as we hadn’t been able to organise travel there, due to needing time to apply for the travel permits (even with a China residence visa, you still need a permit to visit Tibet as it is a conservation area).

The whole flight was cloud cover. But as we got to the border between China and Nepal (which is exactly at Mount Everest), the pilot made a surprising announcement.

“This is your captain speaking. We are about to fly past Mount Everest on your right,” he said.

There was great excitement. And by some incredible stroke of luck, we were sitting on the side of the plane that passed Mount Everest.

At first, little cones of mountaintops poked through the clouds like puppy noses. Then, into view came this huge behemoth, surrounded by the little puppy noses but dwarfing them.

The mountain was almost as high as the plane, and we got so close, I felt like we could have stepped out of the plane and glided over there if we’d only had a hang glider. The distance was probably an illusion caused by the sheer size of Mount Everest.

People say it’s the highest mountain in the world, but from the ground, every mountain looks huge. It’s difficult to explain how different they looked from the air, especially since the clouds were so thick.

But if the clouds hadn’t been covering the ground so much, we wouldn’t have been able to see Mount Everest projecting so clearly and majestically out of the biosphere, with a background of delicious blue sky.

Fun fact: Mount Everest is the only part of the Earth in the whole world that occupies the troposphere, the layer of sky above the biosphere, where no mammals can actually survive.

The total cost for two plane tickets from Xi’an to Kathmandu was about 3300RMB (about £350) one way for two people. When we arrived in Kathmandu, we saw several “travel agency” places advertising a chartered flight over Everest for the equivalent of £1000 (8000RMB) for ONE person, so our flight over Everest was about 1/10 of the cost of the chartered planes.

It was one of the greatest travel experiences of my life. Here are some of the incredible photos I took:

Why I got rid of my silver hair

If you’d asked me in October 2018 whether I would ever stop dying my hair silver, I would have replied with a resounding no. I’ve written so many tutorials and made so many videos about how to dye your hair silver and how to get white hair that I think I spent about 1/3 of 2015 just teaching other people how to get silver hair at a time when no one else was doing it.

I explained the science, how to get your hair to a point where you can bleach it, and what to do if you accidentally over-bleach your hair (I’ve achieved that at least twice, haha. This was before protein filler was perfected. Hair grows).

I still have dreams where my hair is that beautiful color, then I awaken and see myself in the mirror. Dark hair. Washed-out face. Different. Older.

I still think silver, white and white blonde hair are the three most stunning colours you can dye your hair. The next most stunning? Purple.

In October 2018, I took about 3 bottles of Renbow Crazy Color Platinum, 2 bottles of Crazy Color Lilac and a medium bottle of silver shampoo and another of conditioner back to China with me in my suitcase, along with other western staples I just don’t like living without (coco pops, decaf coffee). They got through New York JFK airport no problem, and I couldn’t foresee a time when I would stop coloring.

Fast forward to December 2018, when I was stuck in the bathroom in our apartment in Malaysia, just being sick constantly. Pharmacy. Test. Positive. The most exciting day of our lives up to that point (it was about to get a lot more exciting). We had seen half of the world, flown over Everest, learned to cook in Cambodia and driven to Rome from York in our homemade Citroen Picasso campervan. It all paled in comparison to this. We were about to embark on the biggest adventure of our lives.

After years of trying and heart-wrenching disappointment, our baby was finally on the way.

We had four miscarriages before now, including two in England, one in Nepal and one in China. I was not going to take any chances on anything at all. I occasionally had wine before now, but when we got that positive test, I stopped drinking. I wore socks in my sandals which is the Chinese way. I wore nothing tight around my waist and didn’t even wear a bra for 7 months. I slept on my side. No coffee or tea. Vegetables. Vitamins. I wanted that baby to have everything.

This pregnancy was kind to me, especially contrasted with my first pregnancy, where I’d had hyperemesis and ended up in hospital on IV fluids. And finally, when the baby arrived, I thought I’d start doing all the things I’d done before.

I didn’t.

See, there’s this thing called breastfeeding, and it turns out, you’re not allowed to do anything while you’re breastfeeding. Except make cosmetics with excess milk. So I left my hair alone. And left it. And left it. Eventually, I had this block of white which was around my collarbone, and lots of dark hair further up. In February, I got most of it cut off, and the rest went in July, so now all my hair is brown.

I’m still breastfeeding. Jellyfish is 15 months old and I will keep giving him boobie milk as long as he wants it. I could probably dye my hair again with no major problems, but honestly, at the moment, I don’t have any interest in doing it. White hair is ultra-high maintenance. Silver hair is labour-intensive, too. I don’t want to spend so much time on it. I thought about (gasp) getting it done at a hairdresser but they’re all a) closed and b) always tell me not to have silver hair which leaves me frustrated at wasting money on a hair colour I don’t want.

There’s a box of Schwarzkopf silver permanent dye in the bathroom. It’s been there since last August, when I bought it without thinking. Every time I go in there, the girl on the box stares at me, her gaze penetrating into my soul and calling to me, like Poe’s raven. Nevermore. Nevermore. Nevermore.

And like the raven, my hair will be silver again… nevermore.

Okay that was way too serious. It’ll probably get attacked with bleach in a year or two. IDK. I don’t want to say never but I’m not feeling a full-color whiteout right now.

How about you? Have you stopped coloring your hair? Started? Let me know in the comments!

How to access your Gmail emails from China without a VPN and 7 other solutions

This article will cover how to read your emails without a VPN, even if you use Gmail, and 7 other solutions to internet access problems caused by the Great Firewall of China.

What is the Great Firewall?

Basically, China has some concerns about the data security of specific western companies and they have blanket banned their services. This includes all Google services, not just Google search, so Maps, Gmail, Google Drive, Scholar and Google Books are all affected.

You might be forgiven for thinking that no one in China uses the internet, or that it’s a bleak, pared-down service with no real value to anyone. Google is EVERYTHING, right? Uh… no.

People in China use the internet like 24/7, and they do pretty much everything on there. More things than you. I’m pretty sure they’d use the internet to sleep if there was an app for it. The internet in China is thriving, and you can use it, too, you just have to know what to do instead of what you’re accustomed to.

If you have an iPhone, you can use Apple’s in-house programs instead of Google services.

If you have Google’s Maps app on your phone or tablet, the app will still work (ish) but it will be horribly inaccurate because it doesn’t know where anything in China is, streetview doesn’t work, and half the addresses are written in Chinese characters instead of English, so don’t use Google Maps in China anyway.

So anyway, there’s this firewall, and you’ve heard the answer is a VPN (virtual private network… you basically lie to the internet and tell it you’re somewhere else). You’re about to go to China and you are wondering about buying a VPN? STOP! Ask if you really need it. If you’re only going for a short trip, you likely will be about to waste £100!

Lots of rich-kid travel bloggers will tell you that you need a VPN to use the internet in China but it’s just not true. And actually, it can cause more problems than it solves.

Here’s the main reasons people think they need a VPN to visit China:

  • Gmail
  • Google Search
  • Google Maps
  • Google Drive and Dropbox
  • Google Translate
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • To access news sites and anything using AdSense or Analytics
  • YouTube

This article is going to cover how to set up your stuff so you won’t need a VPN for most purposes. It’s for people who are only going to be in China for a week or two.

If you’re going as an expat, a VPN makes more sense because these workarounds are not long-term solutions, but as a tourist, why waste £100 on a year’s subscription to something you’ll never use after you get back from China?

How to get at your Gmail emails in China (do this before you go):

The biggest reason you might seriously need to use non-Chinese internet is to access important messages in your email inbox. Many things in the West are done via email these days so not being able to communicate with people is an abject nuisance, especially if you’re a digital nomad running a business.

Here’s how to read your emails and and stay in touch with your contacts while you’re on holiday in China:

  1. Go to Mail.com (that’s a different website to Gmail.com – note there’s no G at the start because it’s not a Google site). Set up a free account. It’s fairly basic and their popups are really annoying but they have one huge advantage for tourists in China trying to read their email, which is that mail.com is not banned in China.

    You could also use Yahoo Mail (the search engine is banned but not the email, so bookmark a direct link), or if you have a self-hosted website or a work email, you could set up Outlook, Mac Mail or Thunderbird (but these are complicated for getting at web-based mail).
  2. Go to your Gmail account and go to “settings” (the cog). Click “go to all settings” near the top of the menu. In the tabs across the top (grey and hard to spot, see my screenshot), go to “forwarding and POP/IMAP” and check “forward a copy of incoming mail to:”
  3. Click “add a forwarding address.” Type your new mail.com email address into the box here and check “keep Gmail’s copy in the inbox” so you have a record of all your emails in case you need them later. Ignore all the rest and click “save changes”.
  4. Go back to your Mail.com account and confirm the forwarding request. If you don’t do this, the whole thing doesn’t work.
  5. Go to China and read your emails. It’s that simple!

What to use instead of Google Search in China?

http://bing.com

http://baidu.com

These work fine. Bing throws up more results in English. Take your pick.

What to use instead of Google Maps in China?

A mapping app is something we’ve all come to rely on to help us find our way around. Sure, you could buy a paper map, but it won’t tell you shop opening times or give you a company website when you click on it.

However, there are LOADS of alternatives to Google maps which work in China. Here I’ll review all of them along with discussing the problem most of them share:

1. Bing Maps.

This is basically the best mapping app for China.
Pros: The road names are all in English so you can read them. It shows the public transport lines really clearly, like WAY better than Google which absolutely isn’t geared up to showing you public transport very well. It gives you details about things on the map such as their website and opening hours, where these have been added to Bing. It works in your browser so even on a Mac you can use this Microsoft app. There’s also a downloadable Bing Maps app for your phone!
Cons: None. I am not a fan of Bing search engine but their mapping app is really good.
Find it: https://www.bing.com/maps

2. Apple Maps.

Misses out on the top spot because it only works on Apple products and there’s no browser option.
Pros: Works on your iphone, ipad or Mac. You don’t need to remember a URL to get a map. Has more up-to-date China maps than Google.
Cons: Doesn’t work on non-Apple products and you can’t use it in a browser.
Find it: On your Apple products.

3. Here We Go.

This works in your browser or as an app, across a range of products. I saw reviews which said it only worked on Windows, Android or iOS but I tested it on my MacBook Pro and I can safely say it also works on Macs.
Pros: Works on all platforms and there’s a browser mode. Great for getting from A to B when you know where you are and where you are going.
Cons: No business listings, destinations or places of interest, it only works with addresses you already know, so it’s not great for getting travel inspiration or mapping to somewhere by place name rather than street address. Very simple in terms of features shown, e.g. there’s no green to show parks.
Find it: https://wego.here.com/

4. Maps.Me

This is a mapping app that claims to work offline and be a great friend to travellers.
Pros: Works offline (if you downloaded the map)
Cons: Doesn’t work on laptops, you can only run it on iOS or Android. No good for late-night laptop research for tomorrow’s itinerary. Am I the only one who does this?

The one problem all mapping apps share when you’re in China:

Street names are shown in Chinese characters or Western translations, both of which are, of course, useless for people who aren’t bilingual. Pinyin of the Mandarin street names written out in full would have been a better choice for readability and would also help with conveying addresses to taxi drivers (many of whom can’t read Chinese characters either).

If app developers are looking to update their maps with a major improvement, things like the screenshot below (from the English-language version of Apple maps) are basically useless when trying to get around in China. Instead of Fengcheng 1 Rd, it would be 1000% more useful to see “Fengcheng Yi Luo” written out in Pinyin, so travellers to China can read this out loud to taxi drivers, and those Chinese characters are hopeless, too.

Maps Conclusion:

Bing maps, y’all. It’s the best of the lot for getting around in China.

How to access Google Drive or Dropbox in China without a VPN:

You basically can’t. Sorry. The best workaround is to back up your files onto an external hard drive and use that, instead. Large-scale file sharing is a non-starter in China.

How to translate things in realtime in China:

Google Translate is very useful when you want to paste some text into a box and see some English. However, it is banned in China, which is a country where few people speak English.

Instead of using Google Translate in China, locals use a phone app called WeChat, which includes a translation option. You can either translate text, if someone sends you a message in Chinese, or you can use the phone’s picture scanner to translate Chinese into English.

Go to “options” “QR code scanner” then on the QR code scanner, press the “translate” button to toggle between QR scanner and translation. This will take a picture of the thing you want to understand, and it will translate it for you. Be sure to snap a screenshot if you need to keep the translation, as WeChat doesn’t save the translations for you.

You can also use a translation app but I have tried about 6 and none of them (even the expensive ones) were useful for China if I’m honest, so I have nothing else to recommend.

If you want an app to help you actually learn Chinese instead of translating, get Duolingo.

How to use Facebook in China (and Twitter) without a VPN

The only way to use Facebook in China is by using a VPN. And you can’t use a VPN on mobile data. BUT you can stay on top of your notifications by being clever.

Go to Facebook and look at your email settings. Get it to email you notifications for everything that happens on your Facebook. If you set your email up (first section, above), these notifications will be forwarded to your Mail.com and you can see who has liked your cat photo. This also works for Twitter. Who knew those crazy emails every 2 seconds, like, “Bob Smith liked your post!” were actually useful for something?

How to read western news in China without a VPN

A lot of western news sites are blocked in China. Without saying too much, this is usually because they’ve been identified as having an anti-China bias. To make it even more annoying, paranoid webmasters in western countries block Chinese IP addresses for no good reason.

You can still get western news however. Your local hometown newspaper is very unlikely to be affected by this, because when was the last time the Springfield Gazette ran an article on China?

Bookmark your local hometown news site. If you’re from a big city like LA, Washington DC or New York, you might be better finding a smaller gazette or chronicle.

Additionally, certain western news sites are not blocked. This list is ever changing but if you bookmark the main sites, you have a good chance of finding one that can keep you abreast. When I last checked, the Independent and the Guardian weren’t blocked, and both cover US news as well as European news, although I suspect it’s only a matter of time before they get banned.

How to get YouTube in China without a VPN

Sorry, YouTube is a Google company, so you basically can’t access YouTube at all without a VPN. If you’re a Youtuber without a VPN in China, stay up to date on your channel notifications by getting them all via email, and save your videos of China to share when you get home.

For non-Youtubers, if you download your favourite videos with a YouTube downloader (my go-to one has just stopped doing free downloads so I no longer have a recommendation for this), you can watch them offline. Otherwise, buy a DVD and external DVD drive to take with you.

Are there any other apps or sites you’re struggling to use in China? Let me know in the comments and I’ll do some looking and update this article for you. 🙂

5 things everyone asks me about China

“Oh, you’ve been to China? Here, let me ask you one of these five questions…”

When you come back from China, be prepared to answer these same questions. A lot. Taxi drivers, nurses, immigration officials, shop assistants, friends, family, your dog… everyone will ask you these.

1. What was the food like?

Sometimes we ate at the finest restaurants in Beijing or Shanghai. Other times we huddled on airport benches chowing down on free noodle cups because our flights were delayed. Other times we were served food at cheap restaurants and we had no idea what it was. Supermarkets were a little surreal but you got used to it and you were never short of a laugh with seaweed flavour crisps and things inside packets that look nothing like their photo. Like everything in China, there’s really good stuff and really awful stuff, you just have to separate the two.

2. Did you see the Great Wall?

Yes. And I have all of the deets on the best places to see it, how to get there, what else is nearby and the best time to go. Article coming here.

3. Did you see the Terracotta Warriors?

Eventually. You can read all about it here. Although it took two trips to Xi’an before we managed it because there’s just so much to do in Xi’an.

4. Do you speak Chinese?

A little bit. Enough to get by in taxis or restaurants in most areas and not to call your mother a horse (seriously, “ma” has four meanings depending on tone). The hardest thing about Chinese for me was the fact that, like Irish, they have no true words for “yes” and “no” (your phrasebook is wrong). You simply put the question into a positive or negative form to indicate your answer. This is fine if you can speak in complete sentences in Chinese. Not so great for beginners.

5. Would you go back?

Yes, but I’d want to be more choosy about the city we lived in, and go somewhere with lots going on, like Chengdu, Shanghai or Shenzhen.

Hit like if this is relatable haha.

20 random facts about China

Today I wanted to share 20 random facts about China with you.

  1. China is the second largest country in the world by landmass
  2. China’s full name is the People’s Republic of China which is sometimes shortened to PRC.
  3. There are about 1.4 billion people living in China; 18% of the world’s population.
  4. China has the world’s largest bullet train network.
  5. China has the fastest growing economy in the world
  6. China is losing 4000 square kilometers of land each year to desertification
  7. The largest producer in the world of rice, wheat, tomatoes, aubergine, grapes, watermelon and spinach is China
  8. China is the third most biodiverse country in the world (after Brazil and Colombia), with over 34,687 species of plants and animals.
  9. China is the second largest country in the world by land mass, after Russia, and the third-largest by total area.
  10. There are 658 billionaires in China — the highest number in the world.
  11. China’s currency is called the “renminbi” or “RMB”, and it’s the eighth most traded currency in the world.
  12. Mainland China is home to over 600,000 expats, most of them live in the Shenzhen area.
  13. China is a major investor in scientific innovation and research, spending $279 billion on this in 2017.
  14. The road network in China is the longest highway system in the world, at 142,500km (and they’re still building more of it)
  15. Most people live within 1000 miles of the coast, with far inland areas such as Inner Mongolia being sparsely-populated farmland.
  16. In 2010, there were 118.06 boys per 100 girls. Most countries have about 105 boys per 100 girls.
  17. The main ethnic group in China are the Han-Chinese, who are the world’s largest single-ethnic group.
  18. 70% of the population speak Mandarin, and although we think of Cantonese as a second language of China, only 80 million people speak it, amongst over 200 other living languages being spoken in China! Standard Mandarin is used as a bridging language between people in China who cannot speak the same dialect as one another, so many people speaking Standard Mandarin don’t have it as their native language, which means many people e.g. taxi drivers can’t actually read it.
  19. China is committed to improving the education of its residents, and invests $250 billion annually in compulsory-level education.
  20. China follows traditional Chinese medicine still in many hospitals but there are some more modern-thinking ones, called “western” hospitals.