Staying Connected on the Road: Wi-Fi Hotspots and How to Hop the Great Firewall of China

China and the Internet. It’s a long story (and yes, we realize it’s not as exciting as colorful ethnic markets). But it’s one that affects everyone living, studying and traveling in China.

Mao Statue - Chengdu, China
Mao is still visible…

Wifi and Internet in China: Skip ahead to what interests you most:

China’s Internet Censorship and Infrastructure

China is reported to employ more than 30,000 censors to “protect” its internet users. The term The Great Firewall of China gained broad currency after journalists arriving for the 2008 Beijing Olympics faced blank screens when performing online searches for human rights organizations or topics like Tibet.

Whatever these journalists faced during the Olympics was relatively unfettered compared to what we experienced when we first arrived in China at the end of 2007. Websites like Flickr, Wikipedia, BBC News, YouTube, Blip.tv, Blogspot – even Google’s cache function – were blocked. Censorship was so precise that Flickr (where we host our photos) itself was not blocked, but the servers that displayed the photos were. What good is Flickr if you can’t see the photos?!

Each time we published a post, we would contact a friend in the uncensored world via Skype or Gmail chat to confirm that videos were properly uploaded and photos properly displayed. We cheered out loud when we later arrived in Thailand to relatively free and open internet.

Our friends in China tell us that access and censorship has remained at the more desirable level of the Olympic Games, but you never know when it might change.

Censorship aside, China’s internet infrastructure is surprisingly impressive, particularly when compared with that of its neighbors Kyrgyzstan, Nepal – and even India. From a convenience standpoint, we prefer the reliable yet censored internet one finds in China to its neighbors’ spotty connections.

Tools to Circumvent Internet Controls

By no means is this an exhaustive list.

Proxy servers:

Web-based proxy servers allow you to access blocked sites by routing your internet browsing through an anonymous server in another location.

What’s your favorite proxy?” Answers to this question circulate in expat and traveler communities across China.

Proxy browsing isn’t the ultimate solution (there are limitations that prevent it from being useful for blogs that use javascript for editing and uploading content) but it is useful for accessing news sites or Wikipedia. Here are a few proxy browsing sites to get you started:

Foxy Proxy

a handy Firefox add-on to manage full-time and rules-based proxy surfing. Those of you uploading videos or content to blocked sites can try this. The only drawback: proxy servers are notoriously slow and many listed on proxy server indexes simply don’t work. For a list of proxy servers, check out Proxy4Free.

Access Flickr:

A Firefox add-on that circumvents censorship of Flickr so that you can see your (and others’) Flickr photos while browsing in China, Iran, UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Patience and Trial and Error:

One day YouTube may work, the next day it may not. One minute, that article criticizing China will be accessible, the next minute it won’t. Be persistent.

Chicken Legs - Xishuangbanna, China
Ballet chicken legs

Guest Houses and Cafes in China with Wi-Fi or ADSL

Here’s the list we wish we had when we entered China:

Kashgar, Xinjiang Province

  • Post Hotel: ADSL internet connection in the room. Negotiate. 120-150 RMB for a double room with ensuite bathroom. Address: 40 Renmin Xilu, Kashgar.

Urumqi, Xinjiang province

Xi’an, Shaanxi Province

  • Bob’s Guesthouse: Free Wi-Fi, but make sure you test your room for a signal before taking it. Rooms are a bit cramped. Double room with ensuite bathroom 80-120 RMB, depending on the room and season.
  • Bell Tower Youth Hostel is located downtown next to the Bell Tower. Free Wi-Fi in the restaurant, but not in the rooms. Good for a rainy day with a pizza and beer.

Pingyao, Shanxi Province

Note: Competition is so fierce that almost every guest house features free Wi-Fi.

  • Harmony Guesthouse offers free Wi-Fi in the restaurant and in the front rooms. Negotiate, particularly in the off-season. We paid around 80 RMB for a small, but comfy, double room with ensuite bathroom. Address: No.165 Nan Da Jie Street, Pingyao email: harmonyguesthouse@asia.com
  • TianYuanKui Hotel: this is the place to go for Pingyao Beef and to check your email. Address: 73 NanDa Jie, Pingyao
  • Zhengjia International Youth Hostel: features a pleasant lounge and DVD room to hang out in while you check your email and surf the net on their free Wi-Fi network. Address: No. 68 Ya Men Street, Pingyao.

Beijing

We stayed with a friend, so we didn’t need to look for it. Wi-Fi is almost everywhere, however. Here’s a listing of where to find free Wi-Fi internet in Beijing: Danwei’s Wi-Fi Spots in Beijing

Qingdao, Shandong Province

  • YHA Old Observatory features free Wi-Fi in the lobby and in some of the rooms. Ask for a room with a strong signal. Rooms are clean; double rooms with ensuite bathroom are 90 RMB with IYH card.

Shanghai

Chengdu, Sichuan Province

  • Mix Hostel features free Wi-Fi throughout the hostel. There’s even a comfortable DVD room and lounge area downstairs.

Kunming, Yunnan Province

  • Cloudland Youth Hostel: offers free Wi-Fi throughout. There’s even a second router to ensure access on the upper floors.
  • Salvador’s Coffee House: An island of LAN connections and plugs hangs in the center of the main eating area. Technically, you’re supposed to spend a certain amount in food and drink each hour to have the internet for free, but the staff never bothered us. Great bottomless cup of coffee and bagels – a little oasis of western comfort food. Address:76 Wenhua Xiang, Wenlin Jie, Kunming

Yuanyang, Yunnan Province

  • Internet cafés: A huge internet café sits on the left-hand side near the big gate on the edge of Xinjie’s main square. Get a card with an access code from the front desk. 4 RMB per hour.
  • Windows of Yuanyang offers internet access on the computer upstairs for a few yuan per hour.

Jinghong, Yunnan Province

  • Mei Mei Café: Free internet access via their computer if you eat at the café. When we were there they were also preparing to offer Wi-Fi access for a fee. Address: Manting Lu.
  • Internet Cafés: Several large internet cafes operate on Manting Lu. Pay in advance and get a username and password to enjoy the various levels of surfing comfort, from desk chairs to recliners.

Kaili, Guizhou Province

  • Shiyou Binguan (a.k.a. Petroleum Hotel) on Yingpan Donglu doesn’t advertise wireless internet, but our Wi-Fi sniffer key chain found a signal. If you are close to the stairwell on the 5th floor, you can pick up an unsecured network from one of the organizations in the building.

Another Helpful Tip: Most International Youth Hostels (IYH) in China feature free Wi-Fi, either in their lobbies or throughout their facilities. If you plan to stay in hostels (many offer decent double rooms), it’s worth the 50 RMB investment to purchase an IYH member card at the beginning of your journey.

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