Monday, August 22, 2011

Hints for Travel to Beijing (for UbiComp 2011)

Since many people will be coming to China for the first time during UbiComp 2011 this September, I thought I would offer some tips that might be useful to you during your trip. I’ve broken this post up into three parts: 1) computing & communications, 2) hotel advice, and 3) miscellaneous. But first, I’ve created the following map that includes all of the places that I mention in this post.

Since you are mainly computer scientists coming to this conference, I’m sure you want to make sure you can stay connected and online throughout your stay. I have a few tips that might make this go a bit better. First, be warned that although the Internet is widely popular in China (now with more users than the entire population of the U.S.!), the pipes from China to the U.S. and Europe tend to be quite slow.

VPNs
In addition, these connections can be even less reliable due to the filtering that the Chinese government implements to maintain “harmony” in China. This “Great Firewall of China” (aka GFC) may also prevent you from getting to your blog, Facebook, Twitter, and other mission critical web sites. In addition, it simply isn’t advisable to do much of your business (anything that requires a password) over non-encrypted connections. Many of your companies and universities offer VPN services just for this reason. You should check in advance whether your organization’s VPN works in China (and make sure that someone can verify that it has worked in China within the last 6 months – there has been much tightening by the government on VPNs in the past year).

There are many commercial VPN providers out there and I have personal experience with a couple and my colleagues have had good experiences with others. When setting up your VPN you need to specifically ask for help with making it work in China as some basic VPN solutions do not work due to government blocking by DNS poisoning and other tricks. Your provider might need to give you alternative IP address to use for their servers when travelling in China.

A lot of people I know have had success with the VPN service from WiTopia.net. They have good online support 24/7 and are aware of the problems in China. Their service costs a bit more (around $50-70 for 1 year of service), but the more responsive service might be worth it. Their $70 package (called PersonalVPN Pro) that consists of SSL VPN for your laptop and IPSec VPN for your iPhone/iPad is quite convenient if you'd like these two sets of key devices to work in China.

I’ve also used 12vpn.com’s service (mainly on my iPhone, though I know others who use it on their laptops). I use this less expensive service (~$25/year) as a backup for when I can’t get through on my iPhone/iPad to WiTopia, but I find it less reliable. For example, when the government was blocking VPN a couple of months ago during a major Chinese government anniversary, WiTopia found a workaround whereas 12vpn.com said to just wait a few days until the anniversary was over and then they would give out new configuration information. One of my colleagues has had good luck with Astril (and it is priced somewhere between WiTopia and 12vpn).

The key to using any of these VPN services successfully is to buy and install it before you come to China (they block these sites in China so it is harder to get it turned on when you are in China) and make sure it is working correctly. Also, make sure your service provider knows you will be connecting from China and get all of the advice the company has for setting up your devices to be as immune as possible to the standard ways the GFC blocks VPNs (e.g., DNS naming tricks – make sure to use your own fixed DNS server address rather than one provided by DHCP from a hotel or mobile phone provider -- a good DNS address to try is Google's 8.8.8.8).

Data Service on Phones
Speaking of mobile phones, I know many of you (like I) are used to being able to use your phone for data services whenever you want and wherever you go. My first recommendation (if you are an AT&T subscriber from the U.S.) is to simply buy their largest data roaming package (something like 100 MB) as you will use it up and also add their international voice roaming plan. It is expensive for calls, but useful in a pinch.

In general, instead of using your home phone provider's voice service, I would use Google Voice (iPhone or Android app) to get your phone messages and then call people back using Skype on your phone. This works great if you have data working here on your phone.

In fact, without data on my phone and easy access to Google Maps, I’d often feel “lost” here in Beijing (note that Google Maps aren't always accurate in Beijing -- many sites are mislabeled including key parts of Tsinghua University). If you have an Android phone that is unlocked (i.e., allows you to put in any carrier's GSM SIM card), you are in good shape and can simply get a SIM card here in Beijing. If you are an iPhone user, things will work best if you have a jailbroken and unlocked iPhone, or if you come from a sane country that requires phones be sold unlocked (e.g., Denmark, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc.).

If you do not have an unlocked phone, my recommendation would be to borrow a GSM phone that is unlocked before you come to China or to buy an inexpensive GSM phone here in the Zhongguancun electronics area (about 2.5 km from the conference location at Tsinghua). Zhongguancun might be worth a visit anyways just to see the floors and floors of stalls selling all kinds of electronics (e.g, at Dinghao). If you have an iPhone4, you can also easily buy a small cutting device (for about $4-6 USD – make sure to negotiate as they might ask you to pay $20) that will cut a miniSIM down to the microSIM required by the iPhone4 (I’ll bring my cutter to the conference for those who need to borrow it).

For the iPhone4 and Android phones, I’d recommend China Unicom’s 3G service (in fact this service is necessary for iPhone). The bandwidth seems to be better than that from China Mobile, though China Unicom’s coverage is not quite as good as China Mobile’s. You should be able to do about 1GB of data for around 100RMB/month. You are probably best off buying this data-only SIM w/ service for 200-300 RMB ($30-$40 USD) from many of the sellers in Zhongguancun (e.g., at Dinghao). This should be plenty for a one-week trip to Beijing (I rarely use more than 500MB in a month). You may also be able to go to the China Unicom office just South of the Tsinghua University East Gate (really the Southeast corner of the campus), but they probably will require a contract that you would somehow have to cancel when you leave (I have this service that includes voice and 1.3GB/month of data for around 350RMB/month). You must bring your passport to do anything at this office. This is next door to the Unisplendour hotel and the East Gate is the one you will be walking through each day to get to the conference.

Voice Service on Phones
If you only want voice service, you can buy a 2G SIMs in the airport (that also does data, but at expensive rates) from a vending machine (look for them) or at a desk after you leave the baggage claim hall. These SIMs are from China Mobile and use TD-SCDMA so you'll be stuck with WAP-only EDGE data rates. You then buy a 100RMB ($15) scratch-off card (available at the airport or at any newsstand in the city) that requires you to call a number to put credit on your account. If you want regular GPRS on TD-SCDMA phones, you need a China Mobile M-Zone SIM card that you should buy in Zhongguancun. The bad news is these come with a bad data plan (only 10MB of data) and you can't change it until the 1st of the month! So unless a vendor has one that already has a better plan on it, you are out of luck. Note that VPNs do not work over GPRS or EDGE service.

There is English customer service available over the phone for both China Mobile (10086) and China Unicom (10010).

Other Useful Phone Applications
Besides mapping applications, other useful applications to buy and download in advance (for the iPhone) include The Beijing Taxi Guide (it costs $10, but it is well worth it if you want to show a Taxi driver the name of a place you need to go to in Chinese—this application also does not require a data connection), Explore Metro Beijing Subway Map, and the Google Translate iPhone application (this requires a data plan).

Internet at Hotels
I don't know about the conference hotels, but many hotels in China have wired internet in the rooms, but not wireless. If you have a Mac Book Air, you may wish to purchase/bring the dongle that allows you to plug into an Ethernet port.


2) Hotels
Several people have asked me where they should stay for the conference. The following are just my personal recommendations based on what I know about the hotels. I’d recommend staying at the Wenjin Hotel as it is the best combination of nice/close to the Tsinghua conference site (1.5 km walk). Contact the Wenjin directly to see if they have any rooms left (update: Anind's comment below indicates then Wenjin is sold out -- still worth a try). The Unisplendour Hotel is closer (1 km), but is not quite as nice a property. Finally, the Holiday Inn is new, the quality is said to be high (though I don’t know anyone who has stayed there yet, Holiday Inns in Asia tend to be much nicer than in the US, for example), although it is a bit further of a walk (2.5 km – note there is no direct path – you need to go through the Tsinghua University East Gate.

Other hotels include The Jade Palace Hotel, but having stayed there previously I would not recommend it to anyone and I would not believe their so-called 5-star rating. These are the hotels that the conference is planning to offer bus service to/from the off-site reception on Monday night at Microsoft Research and the Tuesday night banquet at the Summer Palace (note that Sunday night’s conference opening reception will be at the Tsinghua University Academy of Art & Design, where we will also hold the Tutorials on Saturday and the Workshops on Sunday).

Another hotel of note would be the Crowne Plaza Hotel Zhongguancun. At 4 km, it is a bit further than the other hotels (though around the same distance as The Jade Palace) and as it is not an official conference hotel we cannot guarantee bus service to/from there for the reception and banquet unless we note a substantial number of conference attendees end up staying at this hotel. It is a very nice hotel (I’ve had friends stay there), it has great access to the subway system for other touring you might do around Beijing, and it is only a 10 minute taxi ride from Tsinghua (this will cost you 10 RMB=$1.50, though you will probably need to get a taxi before 7:45 AM to avoid the dearth of taxis available at rush hour—7:45 AM-9:15 AM and 4:45 PM-6:30 PM).

The Traditional Beijing Experience
For those looking for a more traditional Beijing experience, there are a number of very nice courtyard style hotels that are based on the traditional architecture of ancient Chinese homes with the rooms surrounding a set of open courtyards. They are also located in traditional Hutong neighborhoods that have the old style of traditional housing that is quickly disappearing in Beijing in favor of modern high-rise buildings.

I have never stayed at these hotels but have heard good things from folks at Microsoft here in Beijing. Each of the hotels listed below will require you to take a 20-40 minute taxi to and from the conference (note the advice that this is only advisable if you do it outside of rush hour – so get to the conference 30 minutes early and don’t expect to go back to your hotel between 4:45 PM and 6:30 PM).

I’ve simply edited the notes sent to me from my Microsoft colleagues for each of the hotels below, but I’d probably try the Orchid myself (closer and fairly nice), then Duge (same general hipster Hutong as the Orchid), and then Red Capital Club (towards more central Beijing, but will take longer to get to the conference – could probably subway from there with 1 change for a total ride and walk of 60 minutes – I do this type of commute daily). Finally, if you are idependently wealthy, go for the Aman, as I hear it will be a once in a lifetime experience (right next to the Summer Palace).

“I’ve stayed at the Aman for a weekend (won a silent auction) and it is everything you could hope for and more but you’ll drop a few thousand dollars if you want to eat at and get all the experiences of the Aman so unless money isn’t an option I’d recommend going to the Orchid Hotel…”

“There’s always Aman Resorts, at the Summer Palace if you can afford US$650 / night.”



The Orchid Hotel (web site at http://www.theorchidbeijing.com).
“I’ve not been at the hotel myself but I’ve had friends who have stayed there and really enjoyed the experience.  Room rates seem reasonable, they have a nice bar and it being in the Dongcheng district you’ll still be able to get to a lot of nightlife and other attractions without too much hassle while still enjoying a hutong experience.”

“I went to a party in small hotel in Gulou last Friday. It was located down one of those hutong alleys. The place had a different look from typical hotels, with a courtyard, rooftop areas and bar. It was called the Orchid.”

Red Capital Residence (http://www.redcapitalclub.com.cn/)
 “while I’m not sure about their rooms their food and restaurant setting was great so if nothing else a good place to eat and go see some 1950s and 1960s Communist memorabilia.”

Red Capital Club is small but luxurious. And the Yi House Art Hotel is a cool hotel in the midst of 798 [this is a very cool Arts district, but not close to the conference]”

Other Courtyard Hotels mentioned that I have less info on:
“A more budget option is the Lusongyuan Hotel, which is located in the heart of the hutong area.”

“Duge is also nice…” http://www.dugecourtyard.com/ [this is closer to the conference than Red Capital Residence. Looks nice and near The Orchid, but less info on it]

Beijing Friendship Hotel  (http://www.bjfriendshiphotel.com/english)
You may want to also suggest the Beijing Friendship Hotel for ubicomp attendees seeking a more traditional Chinese experience. It’s very historic, built in 1954. The hotel has very nice gardens, and also has the oldest expat watering hole in Beijing. Back in the Mao era, legend has it, it was the only place foreigners were allowed to live in Beijing
[Note: this is not a Courtyard hotel, but if you are into this mid-20th century history it might be cool to see.]

Opposite Househttp://www.theoppositehouse.com/)
“A lot of people looking for something ‘less traditional’ stay at Opposite House in Sanlitun, which is more like $300/night I hear.”
[Note: this is not a Courtyard hotel, but instead the most-hip, modern hotel I’ve ever seen. It is right next to the biggest western shopping/restaurant area in Beijing (and the highest revenue Apple Store in the world) – if you want to go where the new money heads at night or on the weekend in Beijing, this is the place to stay. It is about a 45-minute taxi to/from the conference or a 1-hour ride on the subway – this is near to where my own apartment is.]

3) Miscellaneous Advice
I’ll add to this as I think of things.

Chinese Toilets
One thing to remember is that in China they use squat toilets (i.e., a porcelain hole in the ground). This can sometimes be a bit of a shock for westerners used to sitting on the toilet. Most of the western-oriented hotels (e.g., everything I’ve listed above) will have normal toilets, but on the Tsinghua campus you may run into only Chinese toilets. Be prepared in two ways: 1) go to the bathroom in the morning in your hotel if you don’t want to deal with it, and 2) bring a small packet of tissues for toilet paper as often there is none – we will try to have some in your conference bags and also watch that the bathrooms near the conference venue are stocked, but you never know where you might end up in Beijing. So be prepared!

Beijing Air Quality
As many of you may know, the air quality in Beijing and other major Chinese cities can be quite bad. Beijing is in many ways similar to Los Angeles in that it is a basin surrounded on multiple sides by mountains that trap the bad air generated by factories and a huge number of cars on the roads in Beijing. This bad air only tends to go away when the wind blows or after it rains. You can check out the current air quality by going to this URL (http://iphone.bjair.info/) on your web browser (works nice on the iPhone) or by following @BeijingAir on twitter.

Power Plugs
Many of the western-oriented hotels offer power outlets with both Chinese and American style outlets. The Chinese outlets often come in multiple styles (I see #2 and #5 most often from this image--the angled ones, #2-Australasian, are the most common). But you just can't always count on them having European/US electrical outlets so it might be best to bring an appropriate plug adapter with you. Note the power is 220V power in case you have some old 110V only devices. Plug adapters can also be purchased at places like Dinghao  in the Zhgonguancun Electronics area if you are already planning a trip over there to check it out.

Tour Operators
I don't have a lot of personal experience with tour companies. The conference has recommended the China International Travel Service Beijing for tours after the conference (you can sign up at UbiComp for these tours on any combination of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday after the conference). You may try contacting them directly to negotiation ar price for a tour before UbiComp, though many of these sites (other than the Great Wall) are easy enough to simply do by getting a tour book and going on your own using taxis or subway (all are within walking distance of a subway stop). For the Great Wall your hotel could probably arrange something for you (I recommend you go to Mutianyu rather than some of the other spots).

Water
You should not drink water that comes from the tap! It is not safe to do so! Please make sure to only drink bottled water or water from a large bubbler when in China. It is up to you if you are willing to eat uncooked vegetables, but they are likely washed in tap water so it may be dicey.

Clothing
September offers the nicest weather in Beijing (not too hot, nor too cold). But, I noticed the temperature is definitely starting to drop. The forecast right now shows no rain for the week of UbiComp (Sept. 17-21, 2011), but the daytime temperatures are starting to moderate quite a bit (highs in the low to mid 70sF/low 20sC and overnight lows in the mid 50sF/low teens C). So, I would recommend you bring a sweater or light jacket for the evenings.


Let me know if you have any questions about your upcoming visit to Beijing and I'll try to answer you here!

note: the views expressed in this blog entry are my own and do not represent an official position of UbiComp 2011 or the conference organizers.


7 comments:

anind said...

Great advice, thanks, particularly on the mobile phone data plans/voice plans.

To save folks time, the Wenjin hotel is sold out for the days of the conference. We were too late to book when we tried last week.

Don said...

do you have any recommendations for tour operators? I'll be coming early rather than leaving late and would like to see a few things.
Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Can you verify the kind of plugs that are common in and around Beijing? Most sites seem to indicate the slanty plugs (Aus/NZ) but some seem to indicate that parts of China use US/Japan style plugs. Thanks!

James A. Landay said...

I've added information on how to check the air quality in beijing, power plug requirements, and tour operators.

Neal said...

Very helpful post! I've also found google maps pre-caching very useful when abroad (Android only.. enable it via menu > more > labs).

How about some pointers for the best ways to get around town?

Neal

GadgetMan said...

Great post James! Very useful information. For those of you social media fanatics (I am one of them), I can provide pointers to help you stay in contact on Facebook and Twitter on your phone. First, you can install Foursquare on your Android, Nokia or iPhone and link your Twitter and Facebook account here. I have used this on an Android and iPhone and it works perfectly, so you can easily checkin at places in Beijing. If you do, please add me "Alvin Chin" as your Foursquare friend.

For updating to Sina Weibo (China's equivalent of Twitter), you can easily download the client for Nokia, Android and iPhone/iPad. If you want to checkin, you can use Ushii.

As you've probably noticed, there is always a Chinese version of something in the US.

For the question on Beijing guides, I've downloaded the Beijing Subway iPad app which is great as it tells you how to get to a particular place from the source to destination and shows you on the map how to get there. Other useful navigation guides are Google Maps and Nokia Maps. Nokia Maps is great for navigation if you need to let the taxi driver know how to get to a place if he/she does not know. It's been indispensible for me. And now, Nokia Maps is available for iPhone at http://m.maps.nokia.com as a beta so you can try it out!

Anyways, have a safe journey coming to Beijing and see you at Ubicomp! And you can follow me on Twitter (gadgetman4u) and Facebook. Both James and I use all the social networks although I'm not sure if James has Jiepang account though, so you can keep in touch with us.

mLu said...

Thanks for your post! Great info. I have two tips for Iphone apps:
1) Pleco (basic is free), great offline translator/dictionary. You can buy OCR (parsing signs & text via the camera) in the app if you like.

2) Galileo (basic is free, 3$ for bookmarks and offline maps). Really neat app for offline browsing of apps. Snappy as the Maps app and allows loading of offline maps. Then, you use a program on Mac/PC/Linux to create an offline map which you transfer w Itunes. No jailbreak required. Maps can be Google maps/earth, OpenStreetmap etc etc. (latest version removed Google but email me and I can help you fix this).