Digital Nomading in Daqing
Chiang Mai, Thailand. Medellín, Colombia. These are some of the places that first pop into mind when one thinks about the alternative lifestyle of the digital nomad. Daqing, China? Nah. But I don't think this frozen little swamphole in Northeast China has been on anyone's radar, to be fair. China is usually skipped over by digital nomads for an obvious, glaring reason: the internet situation. Or should I say, the Chinternet situation. It's well known that China's internet is, erm, a little special. And for anyone who runs an online business that depends on that connection to clients, cloud storage and the outside world in general, this can immediately disqualify China for most DNs. But if you can navigate around the Great Firewall and invest in a solid pollution mask, China has a lot to offer. The cost of living can be dirt cheap, there is a robust spirit of entrepreneurship and there is a lot of adventure to be had. Here's my personal breakdown of Daqing after having lived here for 3 years now.
This is probably the number one reason why there is a shortage of digital nomads in China, and it's a good reason. The internet sucks here. It's already shitty that there's so much censorship, to the point that it's nearly impossible to use any form of foreign social media or even useful web services like Gmail and Dropbox. China does this deliberately to give their domestic copies (and they are just shitty copies with no innovation) a chance to compete. Because they would fucking fail if they were forced to compete in an open market with the foreign equivalent. Use 263 instead of Gmail for a week and get back to me.
Anyway, I covered this in my post about entrepreneurship in China, but it bears repeating if you're considering coming to the Guo. You really, really need to get a VPN if your job requires you to use the internet, especially so if you're working for a company based in another country. Using Diet Internet just won't work. But the frustration doesn't end there. Depending on where you live, your speeds are either going to be decent or utter dogshit. Based on data from 2015, the US has an average connection speed of 12.6 Mb/s with an average peak of 57.3 Mb/s. Poor China has to live with an average of 3.7 Mb/s and a peak of 23.1 Mb/s. Being a Tier-3 city, Daqing is blessed with speeds comparable to the national average and sometimes even lower than that. That's why the internet is at the top, because this will already be a deal-breaker for some.
Standard of living
So this is a big category that is generally the meat of the decision-making process for most digital nomads. I've tried to include both cost and quality of life here. Before we get into it, I should quickly explain China's tier system. Tier-1 cities are very modern and can be considered world-class. There is a lot of debate on the criteria which determine this, but this article covers the generally accepted parameters fairly well. China has five: Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Hangzhou. Tier-2 cities are growing quickly and still fairly comfortable to live in, but usually have a lower cost of living. Some examples include Harbin, Xiamen, Qingdao and Wuhan. Tier-3 cities still have a ways to go in terms of development, but are still economically important and have a very good cost of living/standard of living ratio.
1. Food & Drink
Daqing is a Tier-3 city and, thanks to the wealth the oilfield brings, one of the better ones at that. Don't be fooled by all of the BMWs, Mercs and Jags, however. Most things are still dirt cheap here. Here's a quick rundown. A decent portioned lunch - usually noodles for me - is going to cost no more than 10 RMB ($1.50). Dinner for one can be between 30 - 50 RMB ($4.50 - 7.50) depending on where you go, and when I say dinner, I mean you probably can't finish it by yourself. Domestic beers like Tsingtao and Harbin are usually no more than 6 RMB ($0.90) in the shop and a few more yuan than that in a restaurant. Grocery shopping is about equally as cheap and by that I mean you are probably not going to save that much money by cooking. Expect foreign goods to be noticeably more expensive as there are high import taxes on pretty much everything here.
One of my favorite things about Daqing is how easy it is to get around. It's convenient for me to walk or bike pretty much anywhere in my immediate area. I do it more for fitness than I do to save money, because taxis and public transport are dirt cheap here. The starting fare for taxis here is 5 RMB ($0.75). After the first 3km, the price only goes up 1.60 RMB. I can get clean across the next district over for only $5. If you've ever taken a taxi or Uber in the States, this is pretty incredible. Even cheaper are the city buses. Most are only 1 RMB; the most expensive are 3 RMB. It's nice to get away to Harbin sometimes. If you don't mind close quarters, you can get a hard seat on the slow train for only 20 RMB ($3). In my opinion, it's worth it to get a 1st-class seat on the bullet train for only 60 RMB ($9). It's twice as comfortable and twice as fast.
Thankfully, I don't have to worry about this as my employer provides me with housing. But for those that don't have that luxury, don't despair! It is very, very cheap to rent in China. My apartment is very modern and in a great central area of the city - the school pays 2,000 RMB/month ($300). If you live in a Tier-1 city, expect to pay prices similar to an American city if you want to live in a decent area. I pay 90 RMB ($13.60) for shitty internet, around 200 RMB ($30) for electricity in the summer (I run the A/C constantly) and maybe 60 RMB ($9) every 4 months for a big canister of cooking gas. My school recently upgraded the apartments with water filters, but before that I needed to pay 6 RMB ($0.90) for those big water cooler bottles for drinking. All in all, just around $350/mo for rent and all of my utilities.
Daqing is flat and surrounded by frozen desolation in the winter. A lot of your time will be spent indoors. What is there to do? Well, there is a surprisingly vibrant bar culture that has an appreciation for quality beer. I would have never thought I'd be able to buy something from Rogue or Lagunitas in my first year here, but now there are multiple places where you can enjoy craft beer for roughly the same price (~$3.50) that you'd pay in the States. Clubs are also fairly big here, although the alcohol is extremely overpriced (6 RMB in a shop, 30 RMB at a club) and often fake. I didn't think I'd be a fan at first, but KTV can also be a great time. Nothing beats renting a private room ($15/hr) with your friends to drunkenly belt out early 2000s classics. So yeah, Northern China = most entertainment revolves around alcohol. Although we do have several groups in the expat community like sports, film night, board games night, etc. Make your own fun to survive.
5. Health & Safety
Here is the real cost of the low cost of living in China. You've probably been waiting for me to mention it - the pollution. In the summer and fall, Daqing actually has very pleasant weather and abundant blue skies. The problem is winter, when the government switches on the central heating system, which is powered by coal. Northeast China is notorious for the result - blankets of smog that regularly exceed an Air Quality Index of 150, the generally accepted threshold where masks are necessary. It's outside, it's indoors, it's real and it sucks. Beyond the pollution, you also have the monthly food scandal in China to worry about. I've been lucky to avoid them in my 3 years, but they certainly exist. Another thing that might kill you is the traffic. It is a complete free for all. Everyone I know that owns a motorcycle has had at least one accident. There's a lot to enjoy in China, but there is definitely an opportunity cost that you will eventually pay.
A lot of people who work remotely don't like being holed up in their apartment all day. A dedicated work space can increase productivity while home has a lot of distractions that are too easy to fall prey to. For this reason, a lot of digital nomads prefer to rent out a co-working space. Unfortunately, I don't think any such thing exists in Daqing. What we do have is a shitload of net-bars, which can do the trick if you have noise-cancelling headphones to drown out teens shouting profanity while playing LoL or Dota. So yeah, it's not ideal. On the bright side, China has a growing café culture that they're really starting to get the hang of. This is usually my venue of choice. There is a café right down the street from me that does a decent job and the WiFi is faster than my apartment's. This works for me. Those who want some dedicated office space might be out of luck, however.
This aspect of Daqing is going to subtract a lot of points for a lot of people. Depending on the season, Daqing can be two completely different planets. Most of summer is positively pleasant with clean air, lots of greenery and a hot, but bearable average of 23.3 °C (73.9 °F), although it can get much hotter than this. The evenings are perfect for outside BBQ restaurants and ice-cold beer. But every Daqinger is perpetually aware that winter is, indeed, coming. Winter can be hell. Ever seen those videos where people throw a cup of water into the air and the water instantly turns into a frozen cloud of ice crystals? That's Daqing. The average winter temperature is -18.5 °C (-1.3 °F), but there is a long period in Jan/Feb where it can get much colder than this - the worst I've seen was -38°C. Not only are these temperatures uncomfortable, they can be dangerous if you're not properly dressed. That said, there's a lot of time spent indoors during the winter months. Lose yourself in your work, pick up a new hobby or fight and eventually give in to creeping alcoholism.
Upon a cursory glance at a map, Daqing seems fairly isolated. However, there are a lot interesting places that aren't too far away. With the new high speed rail link, Harbin - famous for its annual ice festival - is only an hour away. There's also a lot of great nightlife there and an interesting blend of Chinese and Russian culture. Wudalianchi, a system of dormant volcanoes (and the cleanest place I've been to in China) is a 4-hour bus ride north. My favorite city in Heilongjiang province is Yichun, 5 hours northeast of Daqing. If you like the outdoors, the Lesser Khingan Mountains run through the city and the surrounding area and there are multiple places to hit the trail. These are just a few places that are definitely worth checking out nearby, but never forget the ease of access China's amazing high speed rail system grants to the rest of the country.
As you might have guessed, China is quite strict when it comes to visas and who can get one. I know several people that came to China on the wrong visa, and it's always a story that screams "not worth it" if they haven't gotten directly involved with the law (read: deported). I don't wish that hell on anyone, so I've listed the four most common visas people use to enter China and what they allow you to do.
Tourist Visa (L) - China has a booming tourism industry, which makes this visa quite easy to obtain. Both single and multiple entry options are available and if you are a US citizen, you could be eligible for the new 10-year multiple entry visa. Either way, each stay is going to be limited to 30-60 days, and you will have to provide proof that you are leaving in the form of a return ticket, as well as list the addresses you'll be staying at. Working on this visa is strictly prohibited - a pretty universal rule for tourist visas.
Non-Commerce Visa (F) - The F used to be the business visa, but now they've demoted it for people coming to China for research and cultural exchange programs. This has been a classic favorite for schools to get English teachers into the country illegally due to the higher duration of 90 days. The visa can then be renewed by leaving the country, usually in Hong Kong, South Korea or Mongolia. Working on this visa is still illegal, but that doesn't stop people who either don't care or have just done zero research on which visa they need (I've met both).
Business Visa (M) - This visa is relatively new and is reserved for people traveling to China for commercial activities such as work conferences, industry conventions and factory tours. There's also a 10-year, multiple entry option for the M-visa, although the maximum duration is only 60 days. Don't be fooled by the name. Money changing hands is still forbidden on the business visa.
Work Visa (Z) - As the name suggests, this is the only visa on which you legally work and be paid for it. You can read all about the red tape involved in this article that I wrote after successfully obtaining my own Z-visa. Once you get the Z-visa, it is single-entry only. So don't leave China until you convert it into the multiple-entry residence permit! I know someone who did this, and they had to go back to America to restart the process. You can work on the Z-visa without fear, although it is predicated on finding a job in China, which could be limiting to most digital nomads.
Is Daqing the perfect destination for digital nomads? Not at all. The internet sucks, the pollution is slowly killing you and there are cheaper places to live. But this is China, the elusive REAL China and the wild west feeling that permeates everything can get addictive. It's easy to get comfortable here despite the shortcomings that any developing country is going to challenge you with. If you invest some time and money into your internet setup, that's something that can be overcome as well. What you're left with is a country that, despite what may be actually going on with the economy, is still filled with that spirit of entrepreneurial optimism, and it's contagious. It's been a positive environment for me to turn my own aspirations into something tangible while unraveling the mystery of one of the most misunderstood countries on the planet.