Getting Around the Great Firewall and Other Frustrations in China
The “Sleeping Dragon” is wide awake and on the alert. After settling in to my hostel in Shanghai, I tried to connect to my blog. The connection was abysmally slow, but it was infinitely better than the connections to Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, which were nonexistent. To my chagrin, I soon discovered that social media in China has been totally blocked by the government.
I knew communications might be difficult from China, so I had taken some steps in preparation. One of my cousins, Len, with whom I will be traveling for a couple of weeks in China, set up a Virtual Private Network (VPN) on his home server, and sent me instructions how to set it up it on my Macbook Pro. A very simplified explanation of this setup is that China blocks access to sites based on ip addresses, the numerical equivalent of website names (urls). So if I try to access Facebook.com, China sees that as an ip address like 188.8.131.52, and they don’t allow Internet traffic to get to that site. However, by setting up the VPN, when I type Facebook.com into my browser address field, I actually go to my cousin’s server back in Los Angeles first, and it redirects to Facebook, so China can’t see that I am trying to access a social network.
Len set up what is known as a PPTP VPN, which worked fine when we tested it from the U.S. Unfortunately, neither of us were aware that China has figured out a way to block select traffic being rerouted through PPTP VPN’s; the only kind of VPN that works in China is an SSL. Frantic emails back and forth between Len and I ensued; thank God China hasn’t (yet) blocked access to Google and my gmail account. He found a company, WiTopia, that offers subscriptions to a VPN SSL service that provides “secure, unblocked, encrypted access to the Internet and VoIP services from anywhere on the globe.” I had a little trouble with setup; the first two days it simply didn’t work for me. That may have had something to do with the fact that I was using Len’s configuration, which was setup to allow access by both Windows and Macs (the company does allow sharing of one connection, as long as both users are not accessing the service simultaneously). Eventually, I wiped his configuration off my Macbook and bought my own subscription for $59.99 per year. Once I did that, I connected with no problem and I have had seamless, fast access to all the blocked sites. I have to send a BIG thanks to the WiTopia tech support team, who never stopped trying until we got it working.
With one hurdle cleared, I was on to the next set of problems. My cousins would be arriving in just a few days, so I needed to purchase train tickets from Shanghai to Beijing, where I would meet up with them. The front desk clerk at my hostel directed me to a train ticket office two blocks away, but when I arrived none of the signs were in English and no one behind the counter spoke English. I returned to the hostel,where one of the employees wrote out what I needed: a soft seat to Beijing on September 5th.
Back at the train ticket office, I handed my scrap of paper containing Chinese hieroglyphics to the agent. Click, click, click on the computer, followed by a head shake. Click, click some more, and she threw her hands up in the air, saying something that sounded like like “may ow.” “English?” I asked. “May ow,” she repeated, throwing her hands up in the air and shaking her head. I turned to leave and a Buddha-bellied Chinese man sitting on a low slung chair along the wall beckoned to me. He whipped out a packet of tickets and shoved one at me, seemingly indicating it was what I needed, but the ticket was all in Chinese. I couldn’t even see a date and time, much less a route or seat type. No, I shook my head, and headed back to the hostel once again.
“May ow,” I explained to the front desk clerk, flinging my hands into the air like the ticket agent. “Ah, they are sold out, he explained. Perhaps on the night train.” Armed with yet another scrap of paper filled with indecipherable characters, I hoofed it back to the ticket office. She took one look and just shook her head. Frustrated, I went to Plan B. I would walk to People’s Square and use the services of a travel agent, or find a concierge in one of the big hotels that could arrange for tickets for me. Three hotels (Sofitel, Radisson, and Howard Johnson’s), four travel agents (one of which told me that to travel independently in China I must speak Chinese), and two more train ticket windows later, I finally found an available ticket for $660 RMB, which is slightly less than $100 USD. I whipped out my credit card, anxious to complete the transaction. “No credit, must cash,” the agent said in broken English. I don’t carry that much cash around with me on a daily basis when I travel internationally, so my only option was to walk the mile and a half back to the hostel to get more money. By the time I returned, the remaining ticket had been sold.
As much as I hated the idea, I decided my best bet would be to fly to Beijing, so I started a search on the Internet. One site let me get all the way through the booking process, until it came time to enter my credit card info, then informed me I must use Internet Explorer. Since I work on a Macbook, I don’t have IE; back to square one. I was finally successful at Ctrip.com, the Chinese booking service, which worked fairly seamlessly, but it cost me a whopping $170 for a ticket. Not only am I finding it difficult to travel independently in China, it quite expensive.
I may have to rethink my plans for a month of independent travel around China, but right now I’m going to focus on the present moment. I am in Beijing, have met up with my cousins, and in 24 hours we will be sleeping on the Great Wall of China. And despite the frustrations, it can’t get much better than that.
Image courtesy of WiTopia