A Tech Tourist's Guide to Beijing

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Welcome to Beijing!

Technologically, Beijing is a city at a crossroads. It is the capital of the world's largest mobile phone and Internet user markets, and its universities, especially Tsinghua University, produce some of the world's top technology minds. At the same time, Beijing cannot compare to its Asian neighbors, namely Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong for Internet and telecom services, such as 3G (third-generation telephony). Its Internet access is censored and far slower than in those cities: China Netcom's fastest consumer ADSL (Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line) is sold at 2M bps, but often clocks in below 1M bps. While China wins gold for the size of its technology markets, it is in many cases an also-ran in terms of the quality of technology implemented.

The basics: Electricity in China is 220v, 50 cycles. Power in Beijing is consistent, but surge protection of some type is advised. Plugs are two, flat vertical pins, like in North America, and three-pin plugs, with one flat vertical pin, and two slanted pins, like in the U.K. Adapters (for the plugs that are not voltage converters) and power sticks are readily available at department and large grocery stores.

The biggest issue the visitor will face will be language. Although Chinese schoolchildren study English for years, the emphasis is on reading and writing, not speaking and listening. Therefore, the average taxi driver and restaurant employee speak no functional English. For taxis it is almost essential to have your destination written down in Chinese to show to the driver. You can also overcome the language barrier with the Immersion Guides' Mandarin Phrasebook, which provides not only the English phrase and its Chinese equivalent in characters, but also the Pinyin romanization, in case you want to try to say it as well.

Getting connected/mobile phones and landlines: China's current mobile phone technology is 2G (second-generation telephony) GSM (Global Standard for Mobile communication). Most dual-band, tri-band and quad-band handsets will be able to connect here, provided that you have the ability to roam overseas with your service provider, and your service provider has a roaming deal with either China Mobile or China Unicom. Check with your provider before leaving home. Blackberry service is supported in China, including T-Mobile's U.S. service, but again, confirm this prior to departing for the games.

GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) or 2.5G service is commercially available in China through China Mobile, but is only available on post-paid accounts, for which only Chinese citizens can register. It is possible for your company's Beijing office, or even a Chinese friend, to arrange such an account for you, provided they are willing to be on the hook for your charges if you leave the country without paying.

3G is not yet commercially available in China, and 3G phones from other countries will only receive 2G support, as China's TD-SCDMA (Time Division Synchronous Code Division Multiple Access) is not compatible with other 3G standards.

GSM users with unlocked phones may save on roaming charges by buying a prepaid SIM card. (If your phone is locked, your service provider may be willing to unlock it for you prior to coming to China.) Prepaid SIM cards can be purchased locally and are easy to find and inexpensive to buy. Any China Mobile office or China Unicom office can sell you a prepaid SIM for as little as 30 yuan (US$4.40), as can most permanent newsstands, found on sidewalks throughout Beijing. Recharge cards come in 50 yuan and 100 yuan denominations, and the recharge menus are available in both English and Chinese.

No mobile? You can buy one for as little as 280 yuan, look for ubiquitous mobile phone shops around Beijing.

For visitors who prefer using landlines, Skype and other PC to PC or PC to outside line services may be used without difficulty. IP (Internet Protocol telephony) cards are available in denominations of 10, 20, 30, 50 or 100 yuan.

Beating censorship: Despite promises of Internet openness throughout the games, it is likely that many sites will still be blocked this summer. For example, while the English version of Wikipedia is current accessible, its simplified Chinese version is not. Many blogging sites, including Typepad, are also blocked.

Accessing blocked sites requires going through either a VPN (Virtual Private Network) or a foreign proxy site. This list offers numerous choices for proxy sites that anonymize browsing and allow users to reach blocked sites. At the time of writing, Proxy4Web, Aniscartujo and Proxyforall were all functioning. Spysurfing and Avoidr were themselves already blocked.

Commercial and free VPN software is widely available. OpenVPN works for both Linux and Windows, although the Linux version is easier to configure. StrongVPN offers VPN service for $15 per month, although there are less expensive VPN solutions available. Note that most proxy and VPN software may slow Internet access in Beijing considerably, so it may work well for reading blocked sites, though not for watching video.

Wi-Fi hotspots and "Wireless Beijing": One area where Beijing outpaces many rival cities -- including in the U.S. -- is in the wide availability of free Wi-Fi hotspots. Many Starbucks Coffee locations, along with cafes and restaurants including The Bookworm, Sequoia Cafe and outlets of Pacific Coffee, a Hong Kong-based chain, offer Wi-Fi.

Operated by Chinacomm, "Wireless Beijing" is designed to offer free connectivity to visitors during the Olympic Games, later becoming a fee-based mobile Internet service. Coverage areas during the Olympics include Beijing's Central Business District (CBD, one of the Beijing municipal government's favorite acronyms), the Financial Street area of western Beijing, and Zhongguancun, the city's hi-tech area. Excluded is the Olympic Park -- Wireless Beijing wasn't given access to the park's light poles to hang transmitters and repeaters due to security concerns.

Results in using Wireless Beijing have been decidedly mixed. Staff from Azalea Networks, which is providing most of the hardware for the project, said that the signal would be most easily detected in Zhongguancun and Financial Street.

However, in Beijing's Chaoyang District in the CBD, IDG News Service only succeeded in accessing the service once in seven different spots, using a 2G Apple iPhone. Users must first register via the login page, although reading this from a mobile device is difficult. Efforts to access the site, to create an account before going mobile, from fixed line connections both in Beijing and outside the city failed.

Tech shopping: While Beijing isn't Tokyo for goods unavailable in other markets, it can offer good prices on parts especially. So many technology products are made in China, that they are sold within the country cheaply and reliably.

The mecca for this kind of shopping is Zhongguancun. Near Beijing's universities in Haidian District, it's a 45-minute taxi ride on a really, really good day from the CBD, although it's closer to the Olympic Park in northern Beijing. The area became the capital's technology hub first by employing and serving college students; now some of those college students have companies listed on overseas stock exchanges, and work from buildings in their old neighborhood named after their companies.

You can cut some time off the ride by taking the subway. The Zhi Chun Lu station on Line 13 puts you close by. For a full look at the area's technological goodness, see this guide by IDG News Service's Sumner Lemon.

Closer to the CBD is Bai Nao Hui, a technology market, about 400 meters east of the Chaoyangmen intersection and subway station. Although less extensive than Zhongguancun's markets, the selection is still solid for portable hard drives, accessories like headsets, blank DVDs and CDs, and mobile phones. Most vendors speak enough English to bargain, and if push comes to shove, use the calculators they provide to display your offer price. Depending on the item, you should be able to get a 20 percent discount, sometimes more.

So, good luck and have fun!

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