Whilst we have lived in China for well over a year now, I wouldn’t exactly call us connoisseurs. However, we have found our favourite apps and websites which make living in this other-worldly country slightly easier, and we thought we would share them with those of you looking to travel to or live in the Middle Country.
1. An obvious one, WeChat
Why WeChat is yet to become popular outside of China is beyond me. It’s very similar to WhatsApp, but miles better. This app lets you do a million things to help you stay in touch with friends. You can send them messages, voice messages (have you ever seen Chinese people holding their phone to their mouths and talking into their phone? They’re on WeChat!), voice calls, video calls and stickers. Oh, the stickers of WeChat are a magnificent thing, and collecting the oddest ones has become a past time among some of our fellow expats. WeChat also has moments, where you can share photos or sights (short videos) with your WeChat friends. My family back home, as well as much-missed felllow China expats who have since departed all have WeChat and it makes chatting and staying in-touch so much easier.
2. For the students, QQ
QQ is in some ways very similar to WeChat in that it lets you send text and voice messages. But it also gives you QQ mail, an email service. We have found that keeping our WeChat for friends and our QQ for our students leads to a happier work-life balance. If you end up working in a University like we did, QQ let’s you create groups, which you can create for each class you have. That way you can easily send group messages, including sharing files, with your students.
3. Ctrip English
You can use this website to book trains, flights and hotels in English so it’s extremely handy. It’s started charging a booking fee for train tickets which is a bit of pain but it’s still better than trying to navigate the Chinese website, 12306.com. Also, if you run into any issues, all the customer service staff speak English. If you create a Ctrip account you can also collect Ctrip points every time you book something. Super convenient, super easy to use.
4. Music 163
I love Music 163, which is probably our most recent find on this list. It allows you to listen to music, create playlists and listen to other people’s playlists, exactly like Spotify. But it’s so much better than Spotify. Like a song? Well, Music 163 lets you download it. And unlike Spotify you don’t need a VPN to use it, which makes all the difference in China.
This has to be my number one website for planning excursions and adventures in China. Sod the Lonely Planet and other high-priced travel guides. Wikitravel is not only free but far more useful. When I first came to China I used my Lonely Planet guide with little success – it skims over pretty much all destinations apart from Beijing and Shanghai, the information is often out-of-date and the people who wrote it clearly didn’t love China enough to really explore it.
Through wikitravel I’ve managed to find information that no other travel guide has been able to provide me with about visiting the far out and off-the -beaten-track places I love to visit. For example, we went to a town in Southern Sichuan called Xichang. The place wasn’t mentioned in the Lonely Planet and I could find next to no information about it on the internet. But Wikitravel was able to give me some details, including some very essential bus times, which when we went there ended up being correct!
So my key recommendation for travelling around China is to trust Wikitravel.
6. Baidu Maps
Sticking with the travel theme, this app has managed to save us from getting lost countless times. It’s also been useful with taxi drivers – if we can’t pronounce where we want to go we just show the taxi driver where it is on Baidu Maps. You need to be able to type in the place you want to go to in Chinese characters (Baidu Translate can help you there) but once you’ve done that it can tell you how to reach your destination by foot, public transport (bus or metro) and car.
People often complain about Google Maps not working in China. Even if Google wasn’t blocked, Google Maps is still highly inaccurate when it comes to China. Use what the locals use and get yourself Baidu Maps.
7. Baidu Translate
This great translation app is pretty explanatory. Want to tell the barrista that you want cream on top of your coffee? Use Baidu Translate. Need to ask for a haircut? Use Baidu Translate. Want to tell that annoying sales woman you are just browsing and don’t need her help? Use Baidu Translate.
If you mention going to the cinema, booking tickets or buying basically anything people will say “use your phone”. That translates as Alipay or WeChat. Alipay is the bigger one. It can be a bit of a fuss to set up and you will need the help of someone who has done it before or who speaks Chinese, but once you have it you will be able to pay for most things you want using just your phone. China is a cash or phone economy – most smaller shops will not accept card, but anything bigger than a market stall will take Alipay!
If you need to buy anything off the internet whilst in China, use Taobao. Taobao has been a bit of lifesaver for me as I’ve been able to order lots of gluten free food I wouldn’t be able to get in the supermarkets. Other random things I’ve bought off Taobao are candles (surprisingly hard to find in shops), fairy lights, Christmas decorations, a blanket and massive bags of lentils. The entire website is in Chinese but once you’ve set it up (you’ll find plenty instructions if you search on Google) it’s easy enough to use, and translating what you want to search for using Baidu Translate will help you when it comes to finding things.
10. Youku and Bilibi
I’m sneaking two websites in at the end because they both do the same thing – they allow you to watch TV shows and films online for free. Whilst the mass of Chinese text on their homepage can look quite intimidating they’re easy enough to use once you know how. On Bilibi you can just search in English for the TV show you want to watch. It’s been quite interesting watching Broad City and seeing the many idioms and slang phrases they have to translate into Chinese for the audience.
So that’s it. Do you live in China? Do your agree with our list? Or are there better apps and websites to use? We’d love to know! For those of you looking to live in China, I hope, in some small way, this post helps you.