5 Essential Websites for Living in China

Living in the bonafide sticks of China isn’t easy, especially since most of the staple websites (Google, Facebook, Youtube, some newspaper sites, etc.) are all blocked. Everyone knows of the Great Firewall of China. And even for sites not blocked, they load painstakingly slow. Without a VPN/proxy to circumvent, you can say goodbye to the real internet.

However, in my year or so living in China, I discovered some Chinese websites which proved indispensable to my sanity. Allow me to introduce them to you.

1. Taobao

You can buy anything on here. Even apartments, it seems.

Every Chinese person I have talked to loves this online marketplace, and it’s not hard to see why. When I first announced I had set up an account, all my friends resonated with “say goodbye to your money.” Truly, Taobao is awesome and you can buy anything you want on there. Like, literally anything. With this, I also should mention Alipay, which provides the fast, secure method to pay for the goods online by way of your bank account. The combination of these two services provided me endless hours of online window shopping, and access to products I would never have any hope of acquiring otherwise.

2. 12306.cn

One of China’s sexy high speed trains, capable of reaching speeds of up to 300km/h.

Ah, China’s love for numbers-based URLs. You wouldn’t know by looking at it, but this is actually the official China Railway site. When I first visited China in 2010, they still hadn’t linked all their train stations systems, let alone allowed online booking. All tickets had to be bought from the departing station, which was a huge pain since we were planning our trip from outside the country. Thankfully, at that time ID checking for trains wasn’t so strict. So I had some Chinese friends in those cities kindly buy the tickets on our behalf. In the cities where this was not possible, we had no choice but to use an agent and pay a slightly inflated price for the tickets.

As such, I was ecstatic to find that China had finally activated online booking for trains, including their high speed intercity trains. This service has truly been a godsend. This way, I could be sure to secure my ticket from 21 days beforehand, without the need to trouble anyone else. Or battle with hundreds of others to buy the ticket at the station from often exhausted and grumpy railway staff. (Note that you need to have a Chinese mobile number, and be able to read Chinese in order to book tickets online).

3. QQ

QQ’s logo is a winking penguin wearing a red scarf.

One of the first products from Chinese conglomerate Tencent, now more famous for the mobile messaging app WeChat. One the PC however, with no access to other social networking sites, this was the way to communicate and keep in contact with anyone in China. The Qzone is like their Facebook, and provided me with an easy platform to make announcements for my students, share photos, or chat with friends in other parts of China. For better or worse, you can see who has viewed your post/had it shown up on their feed, even if they didn’t “Like” or comment anything.

There’s also downloadable instant messaging software for the PC, which is akin to early-2000s style chatting.

4. Youku

Although some of the new releases require payment to watch, there are plenty of free movies on this platform.

The is the Mainland’s version of Youtube, except with full movies and episodes of TV series up almost immediately after they have aired in the US. Episodes of season 3 of Revenge were up by the following day, and I watched the entire season this way. Note that the streaming of these series is limited only to Mainland China IP addresses; other countries trying to watch it will get an error. In my experience, Youku loads quite slowly if you are outside of China anyway, which puts me off using it.

I’ve also uploaded some content before, and all uploads are audited for inappropriate content. But a lot of people re-upload stuff from Youtube on here, so you can pretty much watch whatever you want. Plus movies and TV series from all over the world (in particular US, Taiwan and Korea). There are a slew of other video streaming sites in China, but this is the one I used the most.

5. Ctrip

ctrip screenshot
You can get some good China travel deals on this site.

Known as Trip.com by everyone else in the world, this comprehensive travel booking site offers some of the cheapest prices for flights and hotels. The Chinese site especially has an unrivalled range of hotels, motels and cheap lodgings not available on English booking websites. When I was looking for some place for us to stay in Kaiping during our January trip, I could find hardly anything on Booking.com or Hotels.com. Even the English site, Trip.com, didn’t offer much. But once I turned the language to Chinese, the Mainland site (Ctrip) came up, and there were heaps of choices. I could even ask a question to the property on the site, which was responded to by staff by the next day.

If you plan to do any travel to one of the smaller, rural cities with little English support, then using a Chinese travel website is the way to go. Ctrip is currently the largest online travel agency in China, and also owns Skyscanner.

So this week, I want to give a shout out to these websites which were lifesavers when I was living in China. If you ever find yourself in China with no VPN, try ’em out! You may be pleasantly surprised how useful and entertaining they are. Plus, they can help you practice your Chinese.

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