By July 5, 2019

Freelance Programmer on the Road: Tips for Traveling and Working From China

The freedom of making your own decisions about where and when to work is definitely one of the main perks of freelancing as a programmer

Best of all, this freedom enables you to travel and discover the wonders of the world while working to fund your adventures. And coming to China should be on the “must-do” list for any traveling freelancer. This country is incredible, and immersing yourself into the Chinese culture can inspire your creativity and teach you a lot of new things. And the experiences you’ll gain here are sure to be unique and memorable.

However, not all those experiences will be good. Inevitably, you’ll feel frustration and anger when dealing with China’s many internet restrictions and slow connection speeds. But sometimes, the obstacle is the way!

This is where preparation matters. Being equipped with the right tools will make your trip more enjoyable and give you a chance to actually do some work while you are exploring China. In this post, I’ll offer you concrete tips for traveling to China while working as a freelance programmer.

VPN and Apple Tech to Boost Productivity and Avoid Restrictions

To all the owners of Apple tech, the first and, arguably, most important thing you’ll need to do as a developer traveling through China is find an Apple-compatible way around the “Great Firewall.” 

Of course, this means you’ll need a virtual private network (VPN) for Mac. You literally cannot do anything even remotely efficient as a programmer in China without using it. Therefore, if you want to work while here, post to Facebook and Twitter, or even access Google, you have to get a VPN and resign yourself to everything that using it implies.

As you should already know, this means that your internet connection speed will drop somewhat. Considering that as a traveler using Wi-Fi in China, you’ll be subjected to a slow speed by default, performing some tasks with a VPN can be downright painful.

You’ll need to use a device-compatible VPN even if you aren’t using a MacBook for work. However, in such a case, working in China will be even worse. As a consequence of multiple blocks and restrictions, your productivity as a programmer will drop greatly by default.

Therefore, you’ll need to use the most efficient tech to stay on top of your game. While many Apple resources are blocked, just like everything else in China, due to the popularity of the brand, you get somewhat more leeway with the help of the local Apple services.

It’s not a perfect solution, however, especially if you are going to do any app development whilst there. VPN can interfere with the testing, and it can slow down uploads/downloads that aren’t fast to begin with.

Without this solution, though, you will struggle to do much online in China. The only services and sources that will be open to you are the local ones. This means they will only be able to provide limited information to freelancers who aren’t developing localized Chinese solutions.

Overall though, regardless of which tech you use, VPN will be your main ally when traveling through China and trying to circumvent its “Great Firewall.”

Access NPM via a Mirror

Every developer knows the value of Node Package Manager (NPM). Yet the entire nation of China—and all freelancers who visit—is unable to access this largest software registry from within the country without some maneuvering. Accessing it is such a struggle, as is freelancing from China in general, that using the 10x rule should be your personal motto during this trip. If you don’t aim the highest in China, you won’t get far. 

So, you definitely shouldn’t give up on using NPM in the face of restrictions. Instead, you’ll need to master the magic of Chinese mirror. You can find it at cnpmjs.org and simply follow the instructions on the website that tell you how to use it exactly. Sadly, this won’t change the fact that you can’t upload anything to the NPM while using a mirror, but you will be able to get the things you need from the registry itself. 

If you actually read Chinese, here’s a bit more information on the mirror.

You can also use GitHub for your coding needs while in China. Even the local government is unable to block it completely. Therefore, if you aren’t using GitHub yet, consider looking into it before you depart on your Chinese adventure, as it’s much easier to work with than NPM.

Set up Proxies for APIs

Proxy servers are essential if you want to use third-party APIs whilst developing something in China.

Trying to develop something for Android is insurmountably difficult. Google is so thoroughly restricted here that even accessing its open-source services with the help of a VPN will be hard. Overall, it is best to leave this kind of work for when you aren’t actually in China.

The good news is that this country will force a vacation upon a freelancing programmer. Bear this in mind when planning your trip. If you have some pressing orders or need to pick up several of them fast to make money, China isn’t the place to do this. But it can definitely be on your travel list next when you need to spend that money relaxing and visiting fantastic natural and historical sites. 

Beyond Programming

Being a freelancer is liberating in some ways, but it can also be rather stressful, so you’ll need to take steps to prevent emotional burnout. Taking a few days off and going tech-free on those days is one of the most effective methods through which to achieve this.

China is a land of many wonders that you are sure to enjoy exploring, and cheap local airlines make it quite easy. You should also look into last-minute hotel deals, which are numerous and will help save you a lot of money.

Go out to explore the natural beauties of the Chinese countryside and leave all tech—aside from a camera—in a safe somewhere. This way you’ll see some of the most incredible places on the planet and will be able to avoid the frustration that comes with trying to use the internet away from big cities.

Instead, “go local” while you are off on these small adventures. Monitor food stalls and cafés in the different areas to see where the majority of the locals go to find the places with the most delicious food. Allow yourself to “follow the tide” when in China to experience the fascinating local culture on a deeper level.

And when your tourist visa expires after 90-180 days, pack up and move on to your next inspiring destination. You’ll be able to return and explore more of China next year when you need another break. This country certainly has its struggles for a freelance developer, but it’s an incredible place to enjoy a bit of a working vacation where you mix an odd job with exploring some of the most beautiful places the planet has to offer.

About the author

    Vyacheslav Boyko

    Vyacheslav Boyko is a developer from Ukraine who aims to visit every corner of the Earth while working as a freelancer on Upwork.com. He shares tips for traveling to various countries gained from his experience to inspire and help others make their own trips more pleasant and productive.