Preparing to Visit China

In the summer of 2019 I was able to spend four weeks in China. One week during The 37th Annual International Symposium on Lattice Field Theory (just "Lattice 2019" by the people in the field) in Wǔhàn (武汉市) and three weeks during a summer school "Frontiers in Lattice QCD" in Běijīng (北京市).

This is the first of a series of articles about my trip. You can find the whole Series via the China tag. The following map shows the cities that I've visited in China to give you a rough impression.

Partial map of China showing my two destinations. Wǔhàn is in the south, Běijīng is in the north.


I do not speak any Mandarin, therefore there was a huge language barrier. There are languages like Spanish that I do not speak either, but at least it uses Latin letters. This means that I can just type in the letters into dictionary or translation software and get some of the meaning. Chinese uses complex symbols. Once one knows the pronunciation and Pīnyīn transcription into Latin characters one can enter it on a computer. Pīnyīn is not unique, there are multiple words that have the same transcription but differ in accents, like with "wuhan":

But to make it even worse, even with accents it is not unique either:

In this article I therefore write the Pīnyīn with accents and include the actual Chinese symbols in parentheses. This way people illiterate in Mandarin will be able to get a hunch on the pronunciation and literates will be able to read the real thing.

One important thing that one should supposedly learn before the trip are the genders for the restrooms: The male ones are marked with nán (男), the female ones with nǚ (女). It turned out that most use the standard pictographs and or English writing. Only in one restaurant they only had Chinese symbols.

In order to deal with the language issues there I have downloaded the complete simplified Chinese and English languages for Google Translate. This way I can perform full text translation both ways offline. On Android I have also enabled the Pīnyīn input, this way Chinese can enter text on my phone. Also I have installed the Pleco dictionary app, from which the above screenshots were taken.

When I was sitting in the plane from DUS to PEK, an elderly Chinese woman had the seat next to me. She did not speak any English, which always works as a fallback in academia. While there was still cellular network available we had a very interesting way of communicating. It turned out that she does not know the Pīnyīn input system. On her phone she draws the symbols and then uses auto completion to select the symbol that she wants. She would type something in WeChat on her phone. I took a picture of that, let it be processed on Google's servers and got an automatic translation to English.

I would write my answer in English on my phone and have it translated into Chinese for her to read. After takeoff the optical character recognition did not work any more, so we did not have this way for her to enter Chinese characters on my phone to translate. The Pleco app has the ability to swipe letters. But later on during the flight I found out that the Google keyboard for Chinese also has the swipe ability. This way it works even for people who do not know Pīnyīn.

There are a surprising large number of people in Běijīng who learn German and were looking for a language partner. From what I learned they have English in pre-school rather early on and also classes in German are offered.

During my time there I picked up a few things and started to recognize the subway stops and could somewhat pronounce them.

Passport & visa

My last travel outside of the Schengen area was quite some time ago, so my passport had expired. Getting a new one is not hard, but it takes quite a bit of time. Getting an appointment with the city administration usually takes about a month, the passport would then take another month to be delivered. Then I would have to apply for a visa. Fortunately I managed to get an appointment with the city within a week, and they have an express option for the passport, so this was done within two weeks. Obtaining the passport in time turned out to be no problem.

The visa application was a little more involved. It could only be done 50 days before the departure. The institute took my application and sent it to the consulate in Frankfurt am Main. The application form is quite lengthy and I had to provide a bunch of information. They wanted to know which regions I have traveled to in the past year as well as the names and occupations of all my close relatives.

Another thing that was new to me were the invitation letters. In order to get a visa, you need an invitation letter from the local university or company. These invitations have to be provided for the visa application. I have heard that Russia has a similar system, but China is the first country that I traveled to that has this system.

After filling in all these forms I handed my passport to the secretary who kindly had organized everything else. A few weeks later I got my passport with visa back.


Most countries seem to be much more progressive in terms of cashless payments than Germany. China seems to be heavy on mobile payment, having AliPay and WeChat Pay. Apparently you need a Chinese bank account to use either of the system. This means that I was not be able to use them while I was there for mere four weeks.

One possibility seemed to give money to a local and then have them gift it to me within one of the payment apps. This way I might be able to pay with the app without needing a Chinese bank account. I have tried this with a Chinese colleague. He has sent me a red letter with a little bit of money as a test. Before I could open it, I needed to verify my identity though:

According to the regulations of the People's Bank of China, you must first complete real-name authentication in order to use WeChat Pay for Red Packets, Transfer, payments, etc.

It seems that this is just basic law against money laundering and other nefarious intents. The only available options to verify my identity are either a China mainland ID card or a Chinese bank card (I presume debit card), both of which I do not have. So although I really wanted to try it, WeChat payments are out of me.

With my credit card I was at least able to buy some water bottles at the airport. They are 500 ml each and only cost 5.00 CNY each. At the then current rate this was 0.64 EUR, which I consider a steal for airport water bottles.

Also the card allowed me to draw money from an ATM there. I ended paying pay cash in most places as credit card acceptance is low. This is what their money looks like:

There is a 1 CNY coin but also a 1 CNY bill. This is somewhat like the 5 DM coin and the rare 5 DM bill that existed before 2002.

At one of the restaurants they even had a WeChat Pay code for each table. So you could just scan the code at your table and have paid. During exit you would just show the payment confirmation and it would be done.

Tipping is not a custom in China. There people get paid for their job and find it insulting to be gifted money. It suggests that they are not getting paid enough. I really like this culture, it makes paying at a restaurant easier and one does not feel obligated to compensate the low wages like one is especially in the USA.

Internet access

A lot of internet services that are used in the Western world are blocked in the mainland of China. This means that everyday things like everything Google, WhatsApp or Telegram are not be accessible. There are lots of suggestions of using a VPN to get around the blocking. Besides being illegal one is also up against a firewall which uses deep package inspection and artificial intelligence. Colleagues already told me that they experienced the physics institute VPN to get blocked within a couple of minutes. I decided to not bother with any of this and just make sure that I have the data that I need offline. Colleagues have tried using VPN with different outcomes.

There is a website where you can check domains for their accessibility from within China. This way I could already see that my website and my email server seem to be fine.

For maps I have installed the OsmAnd app for Android and downloaded the whole region around Wǔhàn and Běijīng from the Open Street Map beforehand. Google Maps supports downloading of certain regions, but even when you are in Germany you cannot download the map for any region in China. I once read that maps from China must be distorted just slightly. Map vendors would have to give their maps to some Chinese authority, they would apply the distortion to the data and give it back to the company for publication. Perhaps Google has not vetted their maps in this way and therefore one must not be able to carry them into China. Downloading the maps has proved extremely helpful, others have not thought about this and had a much harder time navigating the city.

Google Drive is blocked, so I have to put the files onto my phone and tablet without the cloud. Using the SSHelper app I just started an SSH server on my Android devices and copied all my papers onto it. I have also downloaded some YouTube videos with the youtube-dl program and put them on my tablet to watch in the plane.

I have noticed that the whole of Wikipedia is blocked as well. This made it a bit cumbersome as I regular use it. Also Google search is blocked, so I have been using Bing. This also has the ability to show pages from its cache, this way one can still access Wikipedia pages. I wonder whether this is intentionally allowed or just a little gap in the filtering.

The connection speed to servers outside of China is really bad. Sometimes it just does not work at all, sometimes I can get 1 MB/s. This Comic sums it up pretty well.

After a while of being there I still got WhatsApp messages and could reply to them. Sending pictures did not work, but text messages came through somewhat reliably. WhatsApp Web was not accessible at all. For Telegram I received the notifications but could not see any messages in the app. This is something that I do not understand. Telegram tries rather hard to evade the filtering in various countries, WhatsApp seems to abide by the local laws, it should not work for me, yet it did.

Cell phone

My cell phone provider charges heavily outside of the EU, therefore I planned to obtain a local SIM card. My phone supports dual SIM, so this seemed like a perfect fit. One can of course buy them there, but one can also just order them online from Germany. They have to be activated when in China with a simple phone call, so that should be easy to do already at the airport.

According to a now defunct website there are three cellular providers: China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom. Only the middle one has a network that works with European phones (non CDMA), therefore I ordered such a SIM card via beachSIM with 1 GB of LTE data within 30 days for 19.90 EUR. The time starts at first usage, just like the 30 days of the visa start at entry. Also a perfect fit.

Locally you can apparently get 30 GB for just 10 EUR, there is a China Unicom store right on the Běijīng Dàxué campus, this would also be a slightly cheaper option. The concrete offer from China Unicom is 5 CNY basic fee per month and then 1 CNY per 100 MB. That is much cheaper than the SIM card that I bought.

As lots of services that are widely adopted in the western world are blocked in China, like WhatsApp and Google, I already installed WeChat while I was in Germany. Without access to the Google Play Store I could not have installed it in China.

Android displays a "no internet connection" sign while I was there, both with WIFI and cellular networks. They seem to check whether they can reach some Google service, and as the phone cannot, it determines the internet as broken. It somewhat makes sense!

One could get a SIM from Hong Kong, their internet is not filtered. If you have such a SIM card and go to the mainland of China, you will still have unfiltered internet. They are bit more expensive but a real sensible alternative to fiddling with VPNs.

Public WLAN

At the airport of Běijīng I saw that they have a public wireless network. One has to have an account in order to use it, though. The only option that seemed sensible for me is the WeChat login. It just did not work. After I was through the security again I saw a little machine that creates an account for you. You just have to let it scan your passport. I am not entirely sure what I have signed up for with that, but I was then able to use the internet. Well, with the restrictions.

Conference hotel WLAN is really slow and had connection drop issues. Some of these issues might be caused by the transfer to outside of China, but still it was not really fun to use.

A bunch of cafes offer public WLAN, this is not really unusual. I was surprised by finding public networks in parks, though.

Classes of filtering

Before I had just assumed that there would be just two classes of internet in China, one being filtered and one being without any filtering at all. It turns out that it is much more fine grained. I think that there are four classes.

  1. There are people with SIM cards from the USA with a roaming plan, they seem to have completely unrestricted internet in mainland China.
  2. The next level you have is the Hong Kong style internet which I also happen to get via eduroam at the university. There you can access Google Search via and also use things like Google Photos from my Android phone. A lot of services are usable, but Facebook for instance is blocked. Sending images via WhatsApp works just fine. If I had gotten a Hong Kong SIM card I would have likely also gotten this level of access over the cellular network.
  3. The hotel WLAN connection does not allow things like the German TV network ZDF, it also seem to block sending images on WhatsApp, at least most of the time. I found that some messaging apps also work via the hotel WLAN, but this somehow depends on the day.
  4. The most restrictive is my China mainland cellular. There I cannot access said messaging apps. WhatsApp and Tinder work most of the time, though messages sometimes get stuck for half an hour before they are send out.