Now that I’m safely back at home in North America here are some conclusions and lessons learned:1. Three weeks of a seat of the pants touring may have been too much of a good thing. What I found adventurous when I was younger and more full of piss and vinegar is now more of a grind. Wandering was more satisfying when I didn’t get sore feet and when I didn’t conk out as easily. But I’m still not ready for a ring through my nose organized tour.
2. Because I arrived in China without maps I had to take the time to find a map in English in each city. That meant seeking out a book store and having Eleanor ask in Mandarin if they carried any city maps in English, a time consuming chore.
3. One nice tool that I had in my travel arsenal was a WiFi equipped cell phone loaded with Fring and Onesuite. When I needed to call customer service to bitch at Orbitz when our hotel in Shenzhen didn’t have our prepaid reservation my 120 minutes of phone frustration to a phone number in Chicago cost me a cool $3. Sprint says that they charge $2.29 per minute (plus taxes and fees) to call home from China so 120 minutes would’ve cost me a frightening $274.80. Fring just reaches down into the contact list of my phone so no editing, no addition and then links you to the SIP provider of your choice. Once I had WiFi I could call any phone number in the US for a cool 2.5 cents per minute.
4. I used Boingo to access WiFi sites in China with mixed results. In Chengdu and Shanghai I was easily able to roam on China Mobile, in Shenzhen only in Starbucks. In Hong Kong outside of Starbucks Boingo was worse than useless. That’s because most of Hong Kong, including MTR stations, is covered by PCCW WiFi. The Boingo app would vibrate and chirp my phone, sometimes every few seconds, to ask me if I wanted to roam on PCCW, only to fail and spit up an error screen. It would then ask that I send the error report back to Boingo. But without access to WiFi, Boingo’s only purpose, that isn’t possible. Then the phone would chirp, vibrate and start the whole annoying process all over again.
*Update* Boingo's customer service folks found this critique of their service almost instantly and as you can see below they requested more information, which I provided. And I never heard from them again. When I first signed up for Boingo I had an annoying problem with their software on my Android phone, it totally disarmed all wifi access on my HTC Hero. The only cure was to wipe the phone and start all over again which I found highly annoying. I called Boingo and they sounded very concerned and requested a detailed trouble report, which I quickly sent to the address that Boingo provided. And I didn't hear from them again until they read the paragraph above and commented below. Result: I cancelled Boingo. Nice idea, poor execution. Concerned sounding customer service is no substitute for actual tech support.
5. This ain’t your Father’s communism. I was hard pressed to find so much as a hammer and sickle in China, in three weeks I spotted just one. Chairman Mao wouldn’t recognize the place. I’m sure that the Chinese Communist Party is firmly in control of the country and would stomp any and all domestic challengers with the full force of the one party state. Security was tight in spots and being behind the Great Firewall is a great pain in the ass. But China seems too busy making money or looking for ways to spend it. Who thought that China would be shopping at Wal-Mart or preoccupied with this kind of cultural revolution on state run TV?
6. I may not go back to China. The cultural gulf is so wide and the language so unintelligible that my ability to understand what I see and hear is stunted and more visits might only give me more jet lag on both ends. At some point I just to have to shrug my shoulders and admit that there’s much I’ll just never understand. But no organized tour could fill these gaps for me.