WORKING ABROAD / DEC. 16, 2014
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How to Make the Most of Shanghai When You're a Digital Nomad

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China is a superpower-in-waiting, a hugely successful economic giant which is well on its way to usurping the USA’s ’World Number One’ status. Unsurprisingly, western workers are now flocking to the so-called Peoples Republic in their thousands, eager to take advantage of the myriad commercial opportunities and experience what it feels like to live and work in such dynamic, confident and energetic place.

While Beijing may be China’s spiritual heart, Shanghai is undoubtedly its financial and commercial centre. This hugely impressive and intensely ambitious megalopolis of more than 20 million people is the physical representation of communist China’s capitalist aspirations. With its massive skyscrapers, vast shopping malls, neon-lit superhighways and state-of-the-art MagLev trains, ’The Pearl of the Orient is now the complete opposite of its former incarnation as the ’Whore of Asia.’

If you are a digital nomad then it is likely you will feel the urge to come and experience this phenomenon for yourself sooner or later. Hopefully, the following information will help you to make the most of your time here...

Step 1: Get Settled

There is no general standard for hostels in Shanghai: some are very homely and well equipped while others have the ability to make you feel like an inmate at a failed brainwashing facility. The great thing about Shanghai though is that you’re always spoilt for choice so you’re never limited to staying in just one place.

Unfortunately, this wavering of standards also applies to rented accommodation: a ’standard apartment’ in Shanghai could be anything from a dark, cramped room with squat toilets to a spacious flat with free Wi-Fi and marble floors; fortunately, most offerings lie somewhere in between these two extremes.

Naturally, the price of rented accommodation varies widely according to size, amenities, location and whether or not it is furnished or unfurnished. Unsurprisingly, serviced luxury apartments (usually reserved for short-term rentals) and villa complexes (aimed primarily at China’s nouveau rich) are the most expensive rental options.

For ease of reference, accommodation hunters tend to split Shanghai into two main areas: Puxi (the older area on the west of the Huang Pu River), and Pudong (the more modern area to the east).

Puxi is within easy reach of shopping centres, restaurants, entertainment and nightlife, and has plenty of convenient public transport options operating to and from the commercial sectors of the city. In general, digital nomads and expats tend to gravitate toward the following neighborhoods in Puxi:

  • Changning
  • Zhongshan Park
  • Hongqiao
  • Gubei
  • Minhang
  • Luwan
  • Xintiandi
  • Jing-An
  • Huangpu
  • Xuhui

Once open farmland, Pudong is now Shanghai’s largest district and China’s biggest commercial and financial centre, home to the Lu Jia Zui Financial Zone and the Stock Exchange Tower (not to mention the Jin Mao Tower and Oriental Pearl Tower). In recent years, the following areas have become the most desirable places for visiting workers to lay their hats for a while:

  • Lujiazui
  • Jinqiao
  • Kanqiao

If you don’t speak Mandarin then you should enlist the services of a Chinese real estate agent to help you find a flat to rent: many of Shanghai’s estate agents speak English – the language of money – these days. It is worth noting that Chinese estate agents are likely to charge around 35 per cent of your first month’s rent so should check what the exact figure will be with your agent before you commit to anything. Most rental contracts remain valid for one year and require a refundable two-month security deposit. Once you sign your lease you will be expected to pay one month’s rent in advance in local currency.

Step 2: Get Around

Because of the sheer size of the place, Shanghai is not an easy city to navigate. While it is quite possible (and highly recommended) to explore certain areas and neighbourhoods on foot, the vast distances and downright deadly traffic means walking just isn’t a sensible option when it comes to getting from A to B in this town. Cycling too is a bit of a hit-and-miss affair (literally) as cyclists are banned from using main roads and are routinely treated with disdain by Shanghai motorists.

In general, the ever-expanding and super-efficient metro (and light railway system) is the best way to get around as it is fast, reliable and affordable. However, it is important to note that travelling on the metro during rush hour (“crush hour”) can be a far from relaxing experience. The system has no qualms about operating at overcapacity so commuters tend to get packed in solid like sardines until the carriages are full (you may even see station staff using their bodyweight to ’encourage’ passengers into carriages that are already full-to-bursting).

Taxis provide a good alternative as they are plentiful (there are around 50,000 of them) and pretty cheap. Again though, rush hour turns the normally docile Chinese into crazed monsters so attempting to hail a cab during peak times can often turn into a test of personal endurance. If you’re not up to speed with the local lingo then be sure to keep a Chinese character map with you, or even better, have your destination written down in characters. If you know someone who does speak mandarin then you can always give them a call on your mobile phone and get them to relay your requirements to the driver.

Shanghai has billions of buses operating trillions of different routes but, unless you can read Mandarin quite well and are in no rush to get anywhere, you’d be advised to avoid the temptation of catching one. Deciphering advertised routes and identifying the correct stops is far from easy, and being stuck on a packed-to-busting bus as it crawls through the city’s notorious traffic jams is not a great way to spend three, four or five hours of your life...

It is well worth investing in a transport card (jiāotōng kǎ) when staying in Shanghai for a prolonged period as you can top them up with credit and use them to pay electronically for fares when you swipe them on the metro, on buses and in taxis (the driver will swipe it for you).

Step 3: Get Wired

You will not be surprised to learn there are loads of Wi-Fi hotspots around this tech-loving city, many of which are free in places like cafes and restaurants. Many more hostels in Shanghai provide Internet these days too.

You will also not be surprised to learn that there are no standards regarding Internet speeds and reliability in Shanghai. While some connections can be (painfully) slow, others may well turn out to be 20 Mbit fibre optic connections. However, the vast majority of apartments in Shanghai still operate on 1 or 2 Mbit ADSL connections so this is something you may need to bear in mind if you plan to work from home.

If you prefer to do your work in the reassuringly sociable environs of a co-working space then Shanghai is definitely your kind of town, as there seem to be new facilities opening all the time. Of the current established batch, Innovation Camp (away from the city in Yangpu District), Agora Space (next to Xujiahui in the heart of the city), and Yu-Link (right by the main railway station) are perhaps the most popular.

Of course, we can’t talk about the Internet without mentioning The Great Firewall, officially known as the ’Golden Shield Project’ by the Chinese Government. The purpose of this shield is to censor the Internet in China – knowledge is power, and empowering its 1.35 billion citizens is the last thing the Chinese Government wants to do!

Ostensibly, this means you cannot access certain sites in the same way as you normally would: you will get an error message saying “The connection was reset" whenever you try and visit ’undesirable’ sites like Facebook, YouTube and Google (the daddy of all search engines was deliberately crippled by the government after Google refused to censor its search results). Fortunately, it is relatively easy to circumvent the Great Wall: all you need to do is sign up for a VPN (Virtual Private Network). There are plenty of options available: funnily enough, these VPN sign-up sights are not censored so it’s really easy to do. Conspiracy theories anyone..?

It is not often you get to experience a destination and culture where there is such a tangible feeling of excitement, confidence and positivity bubbling away under the surface. Shanghai’s self-assurance and self-belief is not only evident it is infectious; truly, you cannot help but feel swept along with the ’tide of destiny’ when you arrive in this city.

So do yourself a favour and put Shanghai on your digital nomad itinerary. But make sure you visit soon - it’s likely to look very different in a year or two..!

If you’ve spent time living and working in Shanghai then we’d love to hear about your experiences. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments box below.

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