Greetings from Xi’an, China, home of the terra cotta warriors and famous for biang biang noodles! I’m currently here for a week on business, but really, to eat delicious and super cheap ($1!) noodles. 🙂
It’s been over 10 years since I last came to China, and this is my first time in Xi’an. So I am not a China travel expert by any means. I assume you have your 10-year visa and typical travel preparations squared away, so the purpose of this post is just to elaborate on two major tips for any first-time traveler to China: 1) Use Apple Maps, 2) Download a VPN at home before going to China.
Apple Maps > Google Maps
I know, most of you are probably thinking, “NO WAY.” For most major cities I’ve been to, Google Maps has been completely essential and indispensable. I didn’t expect Xi’an and China to be much different, even if Google was blocked in China.
I quickly discovered that the data on Google Maps was very unreliable. As I was looking up blog posts of the best places I should get my noodle fix in Xi’an, I would copy and paste the shop name or shop address into Google Maps and often end up with no results, or very questionable results. As a result, I downloaded Baidu Maps, which is what the locals use, but it was completely in Chinese, and the way the map is presented was unfamiliar to me as a heavy Google Maps user. That would’ve been fine, but when I started trying to save a few favorite places, it asked me to create an account, and I couldn’t create an account without a Chinese phone number. Fail.
The first night, I took a taxi and then subway to the Muslim Street in order to eat delicious street foods. Google Maps was a mess. It didn’t have most of the restaurants on the street, and the ones I thought I had saved, seemed to be in the wrong place and I had trouble finding them. On the way home, I checked Google Maps for which subway stop I should get off at, and bought a ticket for that stop. While on the train, I was looking at the map on the door and it occurred to me that Google Maps was missing at least 3 of the subway stops. I switched to Baidu Maps, which did have the stops. I decided to continue on the train to a better stop for my final destination and paid the difference in fare when I got to my actual stop.
Hearing my complaints, my friend Micah suggested trying Apple Maps. I haven’t opened that app in months. I opened it up and was immediately impressed. First of all, I discovered a well-rated liang pi (cold noodle) restaurant just downstairs from where I was staying. It was not on Google Maps, and it wasn’t even on Swarm or Foursquare (generally my favorite app for local recommendations worldwide). I went for breakfast and it was awesome! I have Apple Maps to thank for that. On Muslim Street, it shows all the local restaurants correctly too:
The default for Apple Maps is to show pinyin (the romanized spelling of Chinese characters). However, if you can read Chinese, you can go to Settings app > Maps > toggle off “Always in English” setting. This will display the map using Chinese characters. I do wish Apple Maps would show the Chinese and pinyin side by side without needing to toggle back and forth, since having the pinyin is helpful for pronunciation (although it doesn’t have the tone marks), and having the Chinese characters is helpful for showing locals for help and for matching up characters with the signs you see so you know you’re in the right place.
If you’re fluent in reading Chinese and are able to make a Baidu account, you should familiarize yourself with Baidu Maps, since that is the gold standard. But for the majority of readers here, I think you probably would be more comfortable using Apple Maps.
Bonus: Another nice thing about Apple Maps is that it has the weather and Air Quality Index in the bottom right corner!
Download a VPN at Home
If you live in the US, there are a few websites that you probably love and use regularly, such as Google (Gmail, etc), Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, Slack, Instagram, etc. All of these sites and many more popular sites are blocked in China by what is famously known as The Great Firewall.
You will be able to access all of these sites from your phone if you have a foreign SIM card (such as T-Mobile with their free international roaming data). If you get on a local wi-fi network, you will suddenly find those sites blocked. To regain access, you need to use a VPN. However, you won’t be able to download a VPN software on the spot since those sites are all blocked too, so I highly recommend that you download the app onto your laptop and your phone, create an account, and make sure it works at home before your trip to China.
I personally really like VyprVPN (referral link for 1 free month; they also have free trials of 500 MB on the website). Be sure to enable Chameleon mode. Another popular VPN service is ExpressVPN (here is Michael’s referral link).
Hope you find these two tips helpful in planning your trip to China!