Thursday, December 13, 2012


I wrote on here a few years ago about how losing things disturbs me very profoundly, derails my self-image of being someone who's in control of his personal possessions, always knows where things are. ("Hey, there's a frood who really knows where his towel is.")

I have a similar hang-up about navigation. I like knowing where I am, and knowing how to get to somewhere.

Whenever I arrive somewhere new, the first thing I do is try to obtain a map, and then study it carefully to orientate myself.

I've always liked maps. A giant atlas was one of my favourite books in very early childhood, and I'd spend hours poring over its pages - and, a little later, scouring its index to find places that I'd heard of; and, a little later again, copying features from it using tracing paper (islands were naturally appealing for this exercise; Iceland and Hawaii were particular favourites). For a while, when I was about 7 or 8, I suppose, I had a bit of an obsession with making up maps of my own - battlefield maps and pirate treasure maps and so on.

As a result of this early interest, I took quite readily to the art of map-reading, and I greatly enjoyed orienteering at school. Long cross-country walks - using Ordnance Survey maps - were also a big part of my family holidays. These experiences helped to cultivate the related skills of judging direction (from the position of the sun in the sky, or just from keeping track of how far you've deviated from a last known compass point reference) and distance (being able to judge how far you've travelled in a given time, and being able to estimate how far away from you landmark features are). I wouldn't say I've honed these abilities to a very high level, but I think I have a good basic 'map sense' and 'dead reckoning' capability.

So, I pride myself on having a good sense of spatial orientation, and on - usually - being able to find my way around quite well, even in an unfamiliar place.

But in China... this ability has often deserted me. In retrospect, I think this has probably been one of the things that I have found most stressful about living in this country.

There's a problem with maps here. They're often not very readily available (it is just about impossible to buy a city map other than for the city you are in, so you can't plan a trip in advance). They're often severely out-of-date or inaccurate. They're often in Chinese only - or an inconsistent mish-mash of Chinese and pinyin. And, whatever language they're in, the font is typically far too small to read.

There's a problem with street signs. Many lower-tier cities still have fairly little road signage in pinyin. Beijing only introduced pinyin signage for all streets just prior to the Olympics (until then, most of the narrow hutong lanes had been unlabelled even in Chinese). Many cities (even Shanghai!) seem to try to save money by only placing a street sign on one, or at most two, corners of a four-way junction (and, through some perverse trick of Fate, it never seems to be on the corner you're standing at!). A further common obtuseness is placing these signs not on the corner, but some yards further down the street, where they are not readily visible even to pedestrians traversing the junction, much less to drivers. And the lettering is often too small (and too thin) to read easily; even the Chinese characters are often ridiculously small, and there is a national chauvinist principle in play that any use of the Roman alphabet must appear less important than Chinese writing, and thus has to be much smaller. Shanghai, again, is a particular offender in this regard: there's really damn-all point in them putting pinyin on their street signs at all, because they're impossible to read from more than a couple of yards away - of little help to you even if you're lucky enough to be on the same side of the road as the sign, utterly worthless if you're on the far side.

There's a particular problem with the major road signs. In many cities, these signs will display the name of a major intersecting road ahead as if it's the name of the road you're on. Even worse, signs will often alternate between labelling the road you're on and a major road (or, sometimes, the name of a district) up ahead, without differentiating between the two. That little foible caused me a world of grief down in Guiyang last month!

Then, there's a general problem with visibility. Most Chinese cities try to prettify themselves by planting ridiculous numbers of trees everywhere (it's particularly over-the-top in Beijing, where there isn't enough rainfall to support them, and - despite heavy watering - they tend to exacerbate the city's chronic aridity); and when these are in full leaf, it's almost impossible to see any features along the side of the street. Indeed, foliage often obscures major road signs hanging in the middle of the street! When it's not the trees getting in the way, it's the huge amount of street furniture that clutters Chinese sidewalks (and city planners here, for some strange reason, seem to take particular delight in siting street signs behind telegraph poles or transformers and the like). At night, things get even worse, because levels of street lighting are so low (and the lights are so often broken, or hidden in amongst trees). Trying to navigate around a Chinese city at night - even the parts of Beijing that I ought, by now, to know like the back of my hand - can be very, very challenging.

There's also a problem of homogeneity. There's rarely anything very distinctive about a street in China. The same building materials and architectural tropes are repeated again and again and again throughout an entire city - and indeed, don't even vary all that much from one city to another across the entire country. Small - often unnamed - hole-in-the-wall shops and restaurants are pretty much indistinguishable from one another. And even larger branded stores look much the same as each other, and recur with giddying frequency: in Beijing, there are three or four Starbucks rip-off coffee shop chains that all look almost exactly the same; down in Guiyang, I found that there was a local clothing store chain called JoeOne - which had a branch on almost every single block. So, even when you can see something, it doesn't look any different than the last block you travelled... or the next one.

The grid system that predominates in most of China's (only recently built) cities causes further difficulties. If there's no sun visible (and there usually isn't in this smog-choked country), it can be impossible to distinguish north-south from west-east. And, even if you do know which way you're headed down a particular road, it is dangerously easy to become disoriented when crossing a major junction - particularly if, as in Guiyang, you have to descend into a deep, deep underpass to do so (and when those underpasses often have no signs, or very misleading signs inside them; and when their exits are often not placed directly on the corner of the intersection, but some way off to the side; and when those exits do not follow the orientation of the streets themselves, but are offset on a diagonal); and particularly if there are no street signs on hand to reassure you that you are still on the street you want to be on.

The camel-back-breaking final straw is the quirkiness of street naming and address allocation. Streets often change their names for no good reason every block or two (but local people - and, sometimes, the major road signs - will take a more common sense view of things, and use only one name for a road that according to street signs appears to have five different ones). Streets sometimes resume the name they had a few miles back, after an unfathomable interlude of being called something else. Streets will sometimes divide into two for a while, with both branches retaining the same name - even though they diverge by a hundred yards or more. In Beijing, many road signs display the names of old city districts rather than the road names - districts that are probably unfamiliar to people who aren't local residents. Moreover, there is a frequent mismatch between what something is officially supposed to be called and what people actually call it: my nearest exit off the 2nd Ringroad is labelled on the road signs as Zhonglou Beiqiao, but everybody knows it as Gulou Qiao.

There's an additional problem in Beijing that - ha! ha! - logic is not applied consistently to street naming. The suffix -wai, meaning 'outer', for example, is usually applied to extensions of major roads running outside the 2nd Ringroad (the limit of the city centre), but Dianmenwai is well inside the 2nd Ringroad. The words for north, south, east or west are commonly affixed to names of streets radiating from a central junction, such that a Beidajie (North Avenue) typically runs northwards. Very helpful - except that in a few places, such as around the Workers' Stadium, the compass point designations are applied not to roads that run in that direction but to roads that run along that side of a square or rectangular feature - such that Gongti Beilu (Workers' [Stadium] North Street) actually runs east-west. Moreover, they rarely manage to give all four streets radiating from a junction the same name; near where I live, we have Jiaodaokou North, South, and East Avenues meeting at Jiadaokou Cross, but... what one might naturally expect to be Jiaodaokou West is in fact Gulou East. (And there's a Gulou West, but the north and south streets have other names.)

Postal addresses can be particularly misleading, especially here in the capital. Some streets number odds on one side, evens on the other; but some don't. Street numbers are rarely displayed on buildings anyway; there are frequent extended lacunae of no numbers at all, or sudden inexplicable jumps where almost adjacent numbers are 10 (or 20 or 50) apart, making it impossible to work out how far down a given street the address you're looking for might be. What's more, many housing compounds appropriate numbers from an adjacent street, so that a single narrow entrance may account for dozens of addresses. And many of the larger housing complexes take their names from a nearby major road (better known? more prestigious??) rather than the road that actually gives access to them! Then, of course, you have the problem that many of the more aspirational housing complexes (and malls and office blocks) give themselves an English name - but are known to local people only by a Chinese name, which is often not displayed on the building, and, in many cases, is neither a close translation nor a recognisable phonetic equivalent of the English name. Believe me, it can get very, very confusing indeed. Finding an address in Beijing for the first time is something you need to allow at least half an hour for. (Thoughtful hosts always provide detailed maps and/or directions for their party guests.)

One of the most egregious examples I've experienced was a few years ago when I was trying locate one of the low numbers - No. 4, I think it might have been - on Nongzhanguan Nanlu. Now, this is the road that runs along the south side of Chaoyang Gongyuan, the city's largest park. Hence, it has always been commonly known as Chaoyang Gongyuan Nanlu (Chaoyang Park South Street). A few years ago, the city fathers succumbed to the pressure of common sense and renamed the road this (or at least the section of it that runs alongside the park). But they didn't change the postal addresses, which are all still Nongzhanguan. Still, I knew this; all I had to do was work out how the numbers went on this street. I figured a low number would most likely be at the west end of the street; and that, probably, the odd numbers would be on the north side and the even numbers on the south. Or vice versa, since Chinese maps still often follow an ancient convention which inverts their compass orientation! Of course, it is difficult to find any numbers on a Chinese street. And this is, unfortunately, a particularly long street - some two-and-a-half miles. I was with a Chinese friend who thought she knew the area fairly well. We tried two different taxi drivers, and stopped to ask several local residents - none of them had a clue where this address was. And we found ourselves repeatedly confused by the fact that the street appeared to be all odd numbers, and then all even numbers on the same side (presumably just an unfortunate coincidence arising from the fact that 90% of the numbers weren't displayed at all); and by the fact that the street seemed to have high numbers at both ends. Yes, the mistake we'd made was assuming that the numbering would start either at the west or the east end; on this street, the numbering starts somewhere in the middle (just to the east of the main entrance to the park) and proceeds clockwise - east along the north side of the street, then west along the south side, and then, with the highest numbers, east along the north side again.

You couldn't make it up.

This is why I have so often felt hopelessly lost in this country - both geographically and metaphorically.

[I mentioned Guiyang, the capital city of the south-western province of Guizhou, a few times above. On my recent visit there I suffered one of my most embarassing ever experiences of getting lost in China. All of the elements I outlined above were in place: streets that had very little to distinguish one from another, very patchy - and misleadingly inconsistent - road signage, very poor visibility (the smog build-up during the rush hour was just horrendous, cut visibilty back to barely 100 yards), and these unnecessarily deep and bizarrely convoluted underpasses everywhere which tended to screw up my sense of direction. It's actually a fairly small city, relatively easy to get around on foot. But I was tired and ill, suffering stiff muscles and sore joints after running an ultra-marathon over the previous three days, and carrying a heavy bag of groceries; I was impatient to get back to my hotel, and exasperated at myself for having managed to become lost. As dusk fell and the smog descended, my anxiety escalated. There were no cabs to be had for well over an hour, and the few people I asked for directions weren't able to be very helpful. Eventually I managed to enlist some remote assistance from a friend in Beijing who tried to give me directions courtesy of Google Maps - but these were of limited use to me because of the frequent absence of any visible street signs in my vicinity, especially when crossing junctions.

After walking around in circles for an hour-and-a-half, I eventually managed to hail a cab. The driver thought this was hilarious, because I was barely 300 yards from my destination. In fact, I think I had more than once been within a hundred yards or so of the hotel, but just hadn't been able to see it (because of trees or other buildings in the way, and the awful fuggy weather), or to recognise anything else nearby. Oh, the shame, the embarrassment!

When I managed to get hold of a map the next day, I discovered that the root of my problem had been that mischievous Fate had taken me along Youyi Lu (Friendship Street - oh, the irony) - which is about the only major road in the centre of Guiyang that does not run in a straight line. I hadn't noticed its gentle curve, but in fact it swings around through a little more than 90 degrees. Hence, it had completely distorted my sense of direction: roads that - in the mental map I'd constructed for myself - seemed to run east-west, in fact ran north-south; roads that I had thought were parallel to each other actually intersected each other.

This is about the most stupendous orienteering cock-up you can conceive of, and I am appalled at my failure here. Never mind that I had no map, no sun, no compass; I really shouldn't be able to lose my bearings so easily and so completely.

I begin to worry that I have lost my 'dead reckoning' ability while I've been in China. I suspect that I have become so used to being permanently at least semi-lost while I've been here, and so overwhelmed by the difficulties of navigating my way around, so used to the perpetual sense of helplessness - that I have given up paying attention to my surroundings.

I wonder if it's a little bit akin to my attitude to the language. I don't get lost overseas (I don't think). And I wouldn't find it too daunting to try to scrape the rust off my French or to acquire some Spanish for the first time. But here in China, learning the language just seems too damned hard; and so does finding your way around. And so, I seem to have given up; I've accepted defeat.]


JES said...

My job here at the city is with the Public Works department, which includes the sign shop (responsible for street-name signs, traffic-control signs, and such, for all streets within city limits which are not maintained by other government agencies -- state or county). A few years ago they finished an intergovernmental team finished the enormous task of eliminating all duplicate and/or terminally confusing street names. They'd come to realize -- as I myself didn't, until having it explained to me -- that it was a public safety issue. When you've got a single emergency-dispatch office, you don't want to have deal with questions like "Do you mean Adams STREET or Adams WAY?," "...First Avenue spelled out or First-as-in-ONE, S, T?," and "Was that Willam Street or WilliamS Street?" You only have to send fire trucks to the wrong address once before it becomes obvious you have two problems, one of which is very big.

And this is in a city of fewer than 300,000 people. If I lived in Beijing I'd be terrified of house fires and such, for exactly this reason.

Froog said...

Beijing might be one of the worst examples, but I think this problem of erratic address allocation/road naming and inadequate signage is repeated almost everywhere across the country.

But then, most of the country doesn't have anything in the way of emergency service provision anyway, so that's not such a pressing concern as it is in Florida. Heck, Beijing didn't have a fire service worthy of the name until a few years ago (it was dramatically upgraded as part of the city's Olympic preparations; one of the few good things to come out of that); and I believe that it's still technically a division of the PLA rather than an independent organization - it used to be, anyway.

The fire service here is still pretty rudimentary, compared to what we're used to in the West. But, mercifully, fires do seem to be an uncannily rare event. I suppose people are just more careful, knowing that there's not likely to be much help available to them. (My last apartment was only a hundred yards or so from a fire station, and I don't think I heard a single call-out in the two years I lived there.) The 'neighbourhood watch' mentality is probably a help here. People live in such densely-packed communities, and there are so many people - older folks, especially - who don't have any full-time work, and are just hanging out in the courtyards all day long: any fires that do start are usually spotted promptly and doused by the neighbours, I would guess. I've seen a couple of potentially quite bad fires in restaurants that were dealt with by the staff (at the sort of scale where you'd imagine in the West that people would just evacuate and wait for the fire department).