Sunday, October 21, 2007

Mamas and the Great Firewall of China

The Great Firewall of China
Back home, we finally get to bed, and have a good sleep before waking up in the afternoon. I was supposed to go to see the pandas this afternoon with Lynn, but I’m too tired, plus it’s raining and Zac says the pandas would be awful in the rain (my excuse).

I ring Mei in Beijing, we’re trying to hook up on our travels. Then use the internet. In China all traffic gets filtered. Why? Anyway, it is estimated that about 10% of sites are blocked. They don’t tell you why sites get blocked – if you try to access a blocked page rather than saying “this is blocked”, your browser just times out, I think it’s just a DNS timeout. Apparently if you try to access a blocked site repeatedly your IP address gets barred!

So my blog, this site, is blocked! At first I thought it was something I’d said about China previously, but I think I was getting a bit ahead of myself to assume that the Chinese internet police had investigated me personally – they’ve in fact blocked the whole domain, but strangely not, the administration page. Similarly, the photo sharing site, is not blocked but their image hosting farms are, so flickr loads up with broken images!

Also the BBC is not blocked, but is, which unfortunately sport appears under. Top news stories appear on the BBC home page though. Other news sites don’t appear to be blocked, despite hosting the same stories. Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia, is not accessible either, which is a realy shame.

There are relatively easy ways round this block – there are proxy sites which route your traffic through another web site. Of course the Chinese are continuously shutting these down as they find them, but new ones are always popping up. In Burma they use, but the one of choice in China at the moment is One theory as to why is blocked is because it hosts lists of these proxies on one of its blogs.

Anyway, given all of this, I make the decision not to update my blog until I get to HK. No point in getting into trouble unnecessarily! And yet, in China you can walk into any internet cafĂ© and use the net without ID – in India net cafes log your usage and ID. The connections here are fast, thank goodness.

In the evening go out for dinner (breakfast?!), we head round the corner on the main street where there are a string of cheap eatieries. The one of choice is called Mamas. Well it’s not called Mamas, that’s the student nickname (not to her face!) for the mad woman who runs the place – smoking, heavily made-up, peroxide blonde gone asian orange. A frightening woman, but she does apparently look in from her card games occasionally and make sure all of her customers are happy. The floor is filthy, a warning sign for me if I were on my own, but apparently the food is good.

Do you have? Mei yo!

In the restaurant we’re on our own, and Zac flounders trying to order, as the dishes he knows how to say seem to be out. Restaurants rarely have English menus in China, so it’s a case of pointing at other people’s dishes (not many people in here yet, it’s early), trying phrases from guide book (the girl just says “we don’t have that”, without suggesting alternatives), or starving! In our case, several of Zac’s German friends join us, one of whom is a whizz here, in minutes we have a great selection of dishes.

Diced spicy chicken

Zac tucks in

A good selection of Sichuan food

It is here I have my first experience of the unique Sichuan peppers, local peppers that do something incredible and strange to your mouth. They’re not chilli hot, it’s more a numb tingly feeling in your mouth like nothing else you’ve ever tasted before.

Apparently rural dentists use them before operations! There are also chillis in every dish but the food doesn’t seem to spicy. With the combination of chillis and tingly peppers, your mouth ends up in a very strange state.

The gang

The Germans politely switch their conversation to English because of Zac and I – Zac’s German is probably good enough but I don’t think mine is up to it! One of the girls was moaning about the general lack of wifi in Shanghai. Having just come from India, I find it hard to drum up sympathy!

Zac and I avoid beer for some reason. If you want drinks at Mamas, you generally pop round the corner to the shop anyway, it’s all very casual.

Back home, I end up booking flights and organising my trip until all hours whilst Zac studies (a large proportion of this “studying” being done through Gmail and Skype someone suspiciously!). Ah the perils of broadband internet. Perhaps that’s why India is experiencing the growth it currently is – no one wastes time surfing!

My domestic flights in China are all booked through eLong. After a couple of false starts, I work out the drill. eLong lets you price compare all of the domestic air carriers, and there are some great deals – booking a week before it’s often the same price or cheaper than the train. The prices vary greatly according to routes though, so Chengdu to Nanjing is about a third of the price of Chengdu to Shanghai (despite Nanjing and Shanghai being an hour apart by train, both about 2 ½ hours flight).

So, you book your flight, you choose eTicket as your option, you put in your international credit card, then in the miscellaneous text part of the booking, you tell them to please send the credit card authorisation letter to your email address. Otherwise they put your booking on hold and try to get in touch with you. So, next morning, you get an email into which you paste a digital photo of your signature, you email it back to them, and they issue the eticket. Simple!

It’s worth knowing how to do this, because initially I found they put on hold then cancelled my flights, and when I called them they were talking about couriering that letter to me, or faxing it, both painful options. Only as an afterthought did they mention they could email it to me!

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