Useful apps and websites when traveling in China

This is a list of apps and sites that might help you when traveling around in China. We traveled there for two months and went through big cities as well as small villages. Please note that your patience will be tested when surfing/browsing as the connection speed can be frustratingly slow and this is the case in most places.

  • Express VPN (app): As you might know Google, Facebook, Twitter,… are blocked in China. You’ll therefore need a VPN service to access these platforms. 
  • Speak & translate (app): Most people do not speak or understand English. Using a translation program is really helpful. You’ll find written as well as audio translation in both Mandarin and Cantonese.
  •  Whatsapp (app): It is not blocked, so I was thankfully able to use it to connect with my family.
  •  Xe currency (app): This app is helpful when converting between different currencies.
  • WeChat (app): It’s one of the most popular apps in China. It offers a broad range of services (payment, messaging, wifi connection,…). To use it you’ll need a Chinese number.
  • Maps.me combined with Maps (apps): To get around in China I used mainly those two apps. Maps from Apple is more detailed than maps.me but I couldn’t use it offline and that’s where maps.me comes in handy.
  •  Booking.com and Airbnb (apps and sites): They helped us find the right accommodation in the different places we visited, in cities as well as in small villages. I felt that the offers were better on these platforms than Agoda and Hostelworld.
  •  Iqiy (app and site): Offers a large range of free video content. (Movies, music,…)
  • TripAdvisor (app and site): Helpful when you want to have an idea of what to do/see, where to eat/sleep, how to get to a specific location or how much you’ll need to pay for tickets,… 
  •  China DIY travel (website): If you want/need to travel by train, this is a reliable agency that works quickly. Train tickets get sold out rapidly especially during the holiday season. We also used their website to get the train timetable. https://www.china-diy-travel.com/en
  •  Wikitravel (website): You’ll find so much background information about the place you want to visit here as well as very useful transport information (how to get around).

I didn’t mention any cloud storage service for your pictures or videos, because the speed is so dreadful. It takes ages to upload a single image on the cloud. Unfortunately the only alternative for this is to bring an external hard disc and cross your fingers it won’t get stolen or lost.

Thinking about driving around in Japan?

Just do it! Honestly it’s definitely worth it. There are tons of reasons why it’s a good idea.

  • Sights: Japan has so much to offer with sights and amazing landscapes spread around the whole country.
  • Safety: People drive very well in Japan and I rarely experienced traffic aggression. In the three weeks we drove, I got honked at only once.
  • Roads: The roads are of very good quality, I rarely had to drive on gravel roads. In the Kansai area the roads in the hills were quite narrow at times but picturesque.
  • Escape the crowds: With Japan being such a popular destination, most of the sights you will visit in the bigger cities will be packed of tourists. That is why it was nice to drive to less popular areas and experience a different Japan. With the result that locals were surprised to see foreigners and starting a staring competition.
  • Comfort: Japan is all about being comfortable. Most of the cities have tourism centres with good detailed maps of the whole area. At most, if not at all, sights, you will find a parking right next to the actual sight, so people don’t have to walk too much 🙂
  • Pricing: In the end it would have cost us more to go by public transport than by car to see all the places we’ve seen when driving.

 

Things you need to know:

  • Validity of your driver’s license in Japan. As a Belgian, I was obliged to get my driver’s license translated into Japanese. It’s not enough to have only your international license! I went to the JAF in Sapporo and got my license translated in one hour. Watch out in popular cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, where this can take weeks. I recommend contacting the JAF office in advance. (link to JAF : http://www.jaf.or.jp/inter/entrust/index_e.htm)
  • Toll roads: Most of the big highways in Japan are toll roads and are quite expensive. It is however possible to take smaller roads to avoid to pay, which we did. It takes longer but you see beautiful landscapes.
  • Left, always left: Like in Britain, in Japan you drive on the left side of the road and most cars are automatic. So no need for all new left side drivers to hit their right hand repetitively against the window when attempting to change gear.
  • Maps.me: We used the mobile app “maps.me” as our navigation system and it was quite accurate. However, we still used the maps from the tourist offices to have more details. It was a good combination.
  • Rentalcars.com: We booked the cars online through Rentalcars.com. This website is reliable and the pricing is good. It offered us the cheapest deals in Japan in English.
  • Parking: We avoided driving in big cities but we’ve heard that it’s expensive to park and that the police is severe about illegal parking
  • Michi-no-eki: No worries if you don’t find a camping or a hotel to sleep at. In most of the cities you will find a free parking area dedicated to travellers/truckers that need to sleep in their vehicle. You will usually find at those locations a toilet, vending machines and sometimes a tourism office. Some michi-no-eki’s also offer access to their wifi network. Look online or ask the tourism offices to find the location of these parking areas. 

 

An Eastern Dream: Two days spent (mainly) on water between Russia and Japan

It was a sunny Wednesday morning when we said goodbye to our marvellous Vladivostok hosts as well as Russia, the Trans-Siberian and, in a sense, Europe. We had been travelling for three months overland, and the DBS ferry crossing the Sea of Japan/East Sea meant a new chapter in terms of travel means, culture and geography. Despite the differences, there was always something familiar about Russia. Even if Vladivostok is seven time zones away from Finland, it’s still part of the country I’ve spent most of my life as a neighbour with. Japan is new.

We gave the homeland one last wink by lunching on that “legendary Finnish burger.” I last saw a Hesburger at the Helsinki central station in May and didn’t expect to cross the brand again, but as it happens, the company has at least three restaurants on the Pacific coast. Who knew? Even more surprisingly, it tastes just like at home.

The authorities’ exit check went smoothly and we got a big smile, a determined passport stamp and our last pozhalsta and da svidanja from a young and friendly customs clerk, who had managed to apply an insane amount of mascara in a very tasteful way. I have neither the lashes or the ability to pull that off

We had booked economy, but got an upgrade to second class for unknown reasons. Maybe the crew figured meek Europeans wouldn’t manage two nights on the floor with 72-100 local budget travellers. We shared a windowless room with six others, including two quiet, young men we hardly saw and a kind, platinum blonde in her early 40s, originally from Vladivostok but working in Moscow. She also kept to herself. The third man spent most of his time drinking vodka with his dad, who we later found passed out on the floor in another room, door open. Had it not been for some occasional, loud snores, I would have thought he’d had a seizure. Our biggest surprise was meeting Anja from Armenia again, who we had shared a train compartment with from Ulan-Ude to Birobidzhan. What are the odds of that?! She was heading for Korea to sightsee and possibly study. She talked about proper Armenian shashlik with longing in her voice and gave me an apple and a red ribbon for my hair before disappearing somewhere else on the ship.

We spent most of our time with Roman, a funny Russian in his 20s, on his way to Korea to get spare parts (electronics, I think) to import to Russia. It was business for him, but he didn’t like flying so he wanted to give the ferry a try. He thought the boat took too much time, but “if I pay a lot, I get a good flight, and if I pay little, I get a horrible flight.” It’s all about pros and cons. After securing one of the few tables on the ship not in the restaurant or café, we brought out our rather unused card game and taught Roman my grandmother’s Spader Maja, which he said was too difficult. He countered by teaching us a more “simple” game, which turned out to be the most complicated thing I have ever heard of. New rules kept appearing and old ones changing and neither Christophe nor me understood what to do with our “special cards” and when. In short, we were hopeless students and Roman finally gave up and reverted to kicking our asses in Maja over and over. If the import business doesn’t work in the long run, I think he could make some decent money in online poker. The man has an eye for cards.

The ship arrived in Donghae, a port town on the east coast of South Korea that I doubt gets much attention in guidebooks, at 10:00 the following day. But since one of my goals in this area was to see the sunrise over the ocean, we woke up insanely early to do just that. We weren’t alone. This was probably the moment when leaving Europe and entering Asia felt the most obvious as we shared deck space with a bunch of Koreans, some Japanese and maybe Chinese, doing morning gymnastics and taking photos of the rising sun. What a cliché, but it was a beautiful morning all the same.

We packed our belongings, left them by the ice cream counter near the information desk, and, armed with our immigration forms, left for four hours in South Korea. Donghae was pleasant enough but not pretty and, in August, extremely hot. We walked on deserted streets for ages until we realized we were still in the harbour area. When we finally found the actual town, we also found a beach with the most gorgeous water I have seen in ages. At that point, I felt like cancelling the rest of the trip, setting up a tent along with the locals, and staying there indefinitely.

We’re practical folks, so we didn’t, and when we left our second harbour we were sent off by a dozen DBS officials standing at the quay, waiving at us while the loudspeakers blared out a farewell ballad. I can’t imagine that happening in Russia. The goodbye song replaced another power ballad about an “unsinkable ship” (not by Ms. Dion), which must have been chosen by someone with a sense of humour.

The second leg of the trip was definitely different from the first and that’s in no small part due to alcohol. If you’re used to the boats between Finland and Sweden, the Vladivostok-Donghae tour wasn’t weird. People fall over, bruises and scars are made. We walked through Korean customs with the same Russian who, the night before, had emotionally insisted that Christophe and I were such a “beautiful couple” and who, in daylight, showed off a nasty cut on his cheek and severe problems walking straight as well as upright. He picked his passport up each time it fell, though – good reflex. On the Donghae-Sakaiminato voyage the average age went down, but the trip was decidedly calmer. Chairs and tables were put out on deck and someone organized a Korean barbeque. The brunette with braises, who welcomed us on the ship, showed off an impressive singing voice in the nightclub, backed by a band made up by other staff members. But later, when I heard Gangnam Style being played and I ducked in to check if the Koreans would be rocking it, the floor was empty.

The second night we shared a room with two Australian girls as well as Dutch and Belgian bikers. These guys, together with a British couple, another Australian, a Finn and us, were among the few passengers that I noticed doing the full two-day trip. The weather was good and the sea was calm as we plied the waves through a tunnel of lights on buoys. I forgot to ask what they were for – seems you could find your way on sea easier than that – but they made for a pretty crossing.

We arrived in Sakaiminato at 9:00 on Friday morning and Japanese immigrations was a breeze. I had expected them to ask for an exit ticket and bank statements proving we could support ourselves, but there was nothing but polite bows and apologies for keeping us waiting for a few minutes. The customs official in charge of searching my bag looked surprised when I described what route we would take and desperate when starting to go through my luggage. After checking my sleeping bag and rain gear he concluded the rest would not be hazardous and sent me off with more apologies.

And so we were officially in Japan, a country running so smoothly I wonder how we’ll ever manage anywhere else after being spoiled here for weeks. There are information desks everywhere and as soon as you ask a question you get a handful of maps and brochures. Signs are plentiful and people are polite, although we meet surprisingly few English speakers. We took the train to the quaint village of Yodoe and our lovely couch surfing host Sakio and got ready to tackle the rest of the country.

 

Travel on the Eastern Dream – How does it work?

Before leaving, I looked all over for recent information about the DBS ferry between Russia and Japan and found precious little. In case anyone would be looking for the same thing, these are some notes from August 2016.

  • First off: This is not your regular cruise ship, which I felt some commentators had expected when I looked through old reviews. It’s a good way of getting from A to B to C if you don’t want to fly, but if you want an on-deck pool and margaritas, look elsewhere.
  • We had booked our tickets by e-mail several months in advance to be sure to be out of Russia before our visa expired as August is peak travel season and DBS only has one boat leaving Vladivostok per week. We used the website e-mail address and got quick and helpful replies by Olga every time.
  • We paid (by credit card) and picked up our tickets at the DBS office a few days before leaving and we were probably an exception. Most people just lined up on the day of departure. We were asked to show up for boarding at 12:00 or 12:30 the latest and the ferry left at 14:00. The DBS office is on the water side of the train station building on the second floor.
  • The Vladivostok port tax was 760 roubles per person, payable only in cash on the day of departure at the same office.
  • Both times we boarded it didn’t matter what nationality we had. Both times we left the boat we were in the “other foreigners” group and left after the Russians and Koreans in Korea and before everyone else in Japan.
  • Second class accommodation: We had a room with bunkbeds for eight people. The beds have curtains for privacy, but there are no lockers. You can leave some small valuables locked up at the information desk on the second floor. There is one room key that stays in the room as long as someone is there. When the last person leaves, he or she locks up and returns the key to the information desk. If you arrive at the room and the door is locked, you go to the info desk to pick the key up.
  • Toilets and showers are shared and clean. There is a (heavily air-conditioned and quite empty) nightclub, a restaurant, a cafĂ©, a (meagrely stocked) shop selling soft drinks and snacks, and some tax-free shops selling more pricey goods.
  • There are no meals included in your ticket price, so if you want to eat in the restaurant, you have to buy a voucher and you’ll be allotted one out of three dining hours. Alternatively, you can buy food and drinks in the cafĂ© Ă  la carte, which seemed decent. If you want to cut costs, there are hot and cold water dispensers, so you can bring your own pot noodles. Just note that the hot water isn’t really that hot – more like a degree over lukewarm. You’ll know what I mean if you use it for coffee.
  • There isn’t really any common space where you can sit down without buying anything to eat or drink. A lot of people sat on the carpet on the third floor or, on the second night, by tables on deck outside of the nightclub.
  • We counted zero (0) electrical outputs, so if you want to charge your phone, you need to bring it to the information counter where they’ll do it for 1 dollar.
  • You can pay in US dollars, Korean won and Japanese yen. You cannot pay in Russian roubles. Didn’t try credit and debit cards.
  • If you do the full trip from Russia to Japan, you still have to change rooms as the boat docks in Korea. Unpractical, but true. You can stay in Korea for about four hours or on the boat. We were asked to leave our luggage in a pile by the ice cream counter near the information desk. There are templates for how to fill out the transit immigration form and the Korean customs officials were used to people stopping off for the day. Dollars and won accepted at the ferry terminal.

 

How to pack your bag (first steps)

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PURPOSE OF TRAVEL?
I’m not an expert at this but I’d like to share my thoughts since we are packing our bag almost every second day. This of course is purely subjective and everything depends of the purpose of your travel, the range of activities you want to do and how many people you are going to be.

FIND THE RIGHT BACKPACK
Before talking about packing it is crucial to choose the right backpack. Try and walk in the shop with different backpacks on (with weight inside) and feel which one fits you best. My focus was to protect my back as best as possible. I felt that the Deuter models answered best to this. (Other brands include Osprey, Fjällräven, Ayacucho, etc…)

PACKING METHODS
1. Try to save on the weight and pack lightly, by for example buying lighter clothes or a light tent, matrass…

2. Pack things you need often as high as possible, so you don’t need to go through your whole backpack

3. The heavier material should be placed close to your “bassin,” this to not pressurise your back. This is for example where I place our tent

4. Try to roll your clothes as tight as possible. On YouTube you will find good videos explaining the different methods from socks to trousers (link)

5. You should pack compactly. Try to fill the holes as best as you can, this will save some space

6. Consider the use of compression bags. If for example you will pack a thick sweater, this will reduce it’s size considerably

7. Use different coloured bags (not a must). This to distantiate dirty clothes with underwear or electronic material, chords… It will help you to find what your looking for more easily.