It’s easy to despair of the language problem. And, indeed, I didn’t find anything that would help me with reading the pictogram language. But I found a way to cheat in trying to converse with people.
I downloaded a bunch of utilities for my iPhone. Two stand out as being actually useful: iTranslate and Eng-Chi Lite. iTranslate is essentially a front end to Google Translate, and Google is pretty good at translating simple sentence… if you have an internet connection, and if Google isn’t blocked. Both can be problematic in the People’s Republic but, as that gets solved, something like iTranslate is a thing of beauty. You type in the English sentence, press a button, and the sentence gets displayed in Chinese, with another button to speak it aloud. It’s not Spock’s universal translator, but it’s very very good.
When offline, try Eng-Chi Lite. It stores its whole database internally, so it doesn’t need an Internet connection (after the first run where it does a database update, so run it first on Wi-Fi!). It walks you through a more simplistic sentence-building exercise, so there’s not a lot of flexibility, but if you want to say “I want a cup of tea with sugar”, this will get it done.
So the iPhone came in very useful. I could make 3G connections from Korea and Hong Kong, so I was optimistic about China. (I’d bought the buy-before-you-leave 100 MB international data package from AT&T, and it turned out I overbought… I burned just under 50 MB of cellular data in ten days.)
Mixed results. I could occasionally get a 3G signal in Chengsha, but mostly it told me “The Internet connection is not active.” When I disabled 3G, I consistently got a low-speed interface that was good enough for Google Maps and other light duty (like iTranslate). I never got 3G in the more remote areas, but almost always had a strong low-speed signal.
Again, in Korea (at least in the airport) and in Hong Kong, fast free Wi-Fi appears to be a civil right. I never had a problem getting a signal, including on trains and ferries.
China isn’t there yet. Only one hotel (the utterly gorgeous Samantha Resort and Spa in Zhang Jiajie) had Wi-Fi. Everyplace else had wired Ethernet in the rooms at respectable speeds (although speedtest.net was blocked) and, in three of the four hotels, I had zero trouble plugging in my laptop and roaring away. In the fourth, it blocked HTTPS connections, which made it impossible to access Webmail and to upload photographs to SmugMug.
VPNs solve this problem. The Georgia Tech VPN didn’t work, for some reason, but PublicVPN.com worked perfectly. The only challenge was bootstrapping my way to a working account without a secure connection on this end. The answer was to set up the account from the China end (HTTP only), then have a trusted confederate back home (my wife) log into that account and pay, since she already knew our PayPal password. Once I had PublicVPN installed, it worked great for that hotel, even for the iPhone. $7/month; recommended.
The device that got short shrift this time around was my iPad. I used it to watch one movie on the flight over. And I typed a few trip notes into it, but found myself typing mnenomic notes into SimpleNotes on the iPhone just due to convenience. (That’s where most of the snippets for these blog posts started.) I never expected to get a 3G signal on the iPad, and I didn’t. I could piggyback off the laptop’s Ethernet connection by setting up AirPort Sharing, so I did that sometimes. But to make that work, by definition, I had a working Internet-connected laptop running, so the use case for the iPad was less compelling.
If I had thought about the lack of Wi-Fi, I could have brought an Airport Express Wi-Fi base station. In theory, plugging that into the hotel room Ethernet cable would have given me everything I needed to use the iPad over Wi-Fi. In theory. I’m not sure how well it would have worked at the fourth hotel, where I needed to set up a VPN. It should have worked. But I’m glad I had my laptop.
I got heavy use out of my laptop on this trip… which is ironic, since it’s the first trip on which I’ve even taken my laptop since the day the iPad was released. Advantages:
- Wired Ethernet jack; see above.
- iPhoto, so I could download, edit, and cull photos for publication every evening at http ://photos.stephenandcissa.com/Travel/China2010.
- SmugMug plugin for iPhoto, so the publication was painless.
- Photoshop CS3, so I could assemble some Photomerge panoramas and upload them to SmugMug as well.
- Full email client to stay on top of stuff at the office.
- Web browser, Twitter, etc.
- DVD burner to back up copies of photos from camera SD card.
- Skype videocalls back home
I could actually have done most of that except videocalling from my iPad (AutoStitch makes good panoramas) with the addition of an Airport Express. No way to burn a DVD, but JungleDisk would have let me upload a backup copy into the cloud, which is just as good. And it would have been nice to not lug the weight of the laptop with its various cables and connectors. (I found three different styles of 220V connectors in four cities, plus the standard 110V plug on Korean Air.)
But, you know, having the laptop meant one less set of things to worry about in a very foreign environment. If I had to have left one of my devices behind on this trip, it would have been the iPad. It surprises me to say that, and it probably won’t be true next time I take a trip like this. But there it is.
And, of course, I had the standalone Kindle, which is just a joy for long trips like this. Basically weightless; with wireless turned off, the battery has lasted two weeks without charging; I think I have over 100 books installed. For just reading in decent light, it’s better than the iPad.
I’ve been lusting after Micro Four-Thirds cameras for a while, but I wound up surprising myself by not buying a new camera for this trip. I continue to have good luck with my Canon A720is (successor to the A710is I used on my South Africa trip), and my conclusions haven’t changed from this post from two years ago.
1) The best camera is the one you have with you. Which is why some of my travelogue photos are from the iPhone 4, which finally has an acceptably sharp camera. But, in general, it’s important to have a camera that fits in your pocket. I covet a Canon 5D Mark II, but it’s not going to fit into my pocket.
2) The A720is has a good set of manual controls, so when I want to control aperture or timing or focus or all three, I can do it. If I’m in a hurry, I can just leave it in Program mode and use it as a point-and-shoot.
3) It lives on AA batteries. I can’t emphasize how important this is. But if you have a camera that eats something else, I don’t have to explain it to you.
Canon probably has a newer stronger faster replacement for the A720 out there. I’ll probably buy it someday. But this is a great travel camera.