The Discontent of Disconnectedness
China’s internet restrictions blocked Google and other apps that I relied on in my daily life. Desperate, lost and bewildered as I wandered the frozen streets of Harbin without the guidance of Google Maps, I wondered how long I could remain in that state of disconnectedness.
I landed in Harbin, China in the dead of night. Shuffling my way out of the airport, I was immediately cornered by a throng of drivers vying for my business. Standing and shivering in sub-zero temperatures, I powered up my phone to use Google Translate so I could communicate with the drivers to determine who among them I could trust to give me a fair price. I couldn’t connect. I had internet, but Google was blocked by the Chinese government. I was desperate to get out of the cold, so I reluctantly let one of the more aggressive drivers lead me to his metered taxi. But, the meter was a ruse – it was rigged to make the fare skyrocket with each passing minute.
Within a few miles, it displayed the yuan equivalent of ten dollars and the total increased more and more rapidly. I caught on to the con far too late; for, now we were hurling down a dark highway in the middle of nowhere, and I was completely at my driver’s mercy. Using broken English and animated facial expressions and gestures I tried to let him know I knew what was up, but I was convinced this was not going to end well if ever we reached my hotel.
The total cost displayed on the meter was an absurd 90 dollars. I threw a twenty at him and scrambled into the hotel as quickly as I could, hoping he wouldn’t follow. Fortunately, he didn’t, and that was the end of it — he probably knew there was no conceivable way he’d convince the hotel reception or an officer that I owed him more than 20 dollars for a relatively short ride from the airport to town in his old jalopy.
The following days in Harbin proved to be equally challenging. Getting lost in the frozen city streets without Google Maps and struggling to communicate without Google Translate had me seriously reconsidering whether I should remain in China or catch the next flight out. And, my web development work, which at the time required Facebook (another blocked site), proved impossible. I was in dire need of a VPN (Virtual Private Networks spoof your IP address to circumvent restrictions imposed on internet access). But, it was a Catch 22: without a VPN, Google Play, which I used to download apps, was inaccessible. Luckily, after a few days of hand-wringing and despair, I did eventually stumble upon a website from which I managed to download the app, and my internet-related woes were over.
The last time I had visited China was approximately twenty years before this trip. Back then, I considered myself lucky if I was able to locate an internet cafe to check emails on a dial-up modem for a few minutes every few days. That was all I required to feel connected and happy. In 2019, I lose my shit if I have a slow connection for a couple of minutes.
Life is ridiculously easy now as long as we have our smartphones (our crutches) at our disposal. But, getting on without these technologies is now seemingly impossible for us as our innate ability to troubleshoot life has dulled or vanished completely. I, for one, have become entirely dependent on the internet; so much so that I often wonder how in the world I ever managed to travel around China without a smartphone back in the Stone Ages — back in the 20th century. I was a different person then, with a greater sense of adventure and much more cunning and resourcefulness than I have today.
Sometimes on my travels, circumstances are such that I am forced to unplug completely, but those rare occasions don’t last very long, and I am grateful when they pass.
To avoid the desperation, confusion, and frustration that I experienced in Harbin, I strongly suggest you load up your smartphone with all the tools you might need (particularly a VPN) on your travels before you begin your adventure. I compiled a list of some of the apps that I found indispensable (or at least marginally useful) while I gallivant around the world.