Back home, my rep as a navigator is shady. I’ve always relied on instinct (not maps or GPS) to get me to places, and most of the time it has worked. But I didn’t realise that I would need more than a sniff of the nose and the goodwill of the universe to help me navigate the urban jungles of Shenzhen (how could I not, seriously?). Not one for technological advances, I also ignored the advice of a number of people who’ve been there, done that. “Get Baidu Maps.” “Moovit is the best bus app.” “A good translating app might save your life.”
It was a balmy day in Shenzhen when I was due to visit my school for the first time. That morning I walked the 200 metres to my school (yes, my apartment looks out onto my school’s field. Jealous much?), and was welcomed with open arms by everyone. Yes, this was going to be a good day … until I got a message to say that I had to come to the office in Jingtian that afternoon. All I had to do was take a bus to the metro station and then the train. Repeat the process on the way back. It all sounded easy enough, even though I had never taken a bus or train before, not even back home.
I followed the instructions of my contact teacher and made it to the office in one piece. Who needs all those apps clogging up your phone’s memory?
With my business at SDE done, I hopped back on the train, repeating the exact same procedure as I did going. My bus soon arrived, and I got on. Pretty sure my contact teacher had told me five stops, I was surprised when the bus driver pulled up three stops too early at what seemed to be a depot. A rather deserted depot surrounded by huge highways. The driver forced me and the only other remaining passenger off the bus and, despite my confusion, I was happy to see my fellow traveler looking just as befuddled. Left with few options, I decided to see if I could find an English sign or person to help me out (remember how I ignored all previous advice to get Baidu Maps or a translating app, in the least?). But there was nothing and no one, except for two security guards sitting in an air-conditioned booth. Even my fellow confused passenger had disappeared. I asked the guards for help, and they just smiled and welcomed me into the cool booth with the customary cup of tea. I was so grateful to be cooling off that I nearly forgot my predicament. I needed an intervention, and I needed one fast. The sun was about to set, and my tears were about to come out. There was no way my adventure instincts were going to get me out of this one. Also, I never bothered to write down my address in Chinese (rookie error). So I called my specialist, a darling who always manages to solve my problems.
She spent a few minutes on the phone with the kind security guard, after which she told me: “I don’t understand his Chinese dialect, but he’s written down the name of your school, so hopefully he can direct you to a bus stop.” With relief washing over me, and my tears retreating to their hiding place, I walked boldly with the security guard to the right bus stop at the depot. Ten minutes, 20 minutes, 45 minutes later and not a single bus had pitched yet. Not one. So I decided to do one last scan of my surroundings, even taking a few steps in each direction to see if I could spot something that might be of help. It wasn’t long before I spotted a metro sign, evidently having missed it before in my panicked mode. I didn’t know which station I was at, or in which direction I should go. But the day had taught me to at least check the subway map.
I eventually made it home and realised the error of my ways: I had taken the wrong subway exit in the first place, which means I took the wrong bus in the opposite direction, which means I could have avoided all the anxiety if I had only, just only, listened to all those folks who told me to “GET THE APPS!”
What to do when you get lost
1. Don’t be brave. Call your specialist; they’re there to help. Or call a friend. Just let someone know what’s going on.
2. Get a good map app, as well as a translating app. Baidu Maps is great, but it’s in Chinese. Don’t let this deter you, though. One of the best ways to learn a new language is by reading maps. If you’re not keen on learning Chinese while getting lost, Bing Maps works just as well. If you have a VPN, Google Maps can get you places, too.
3. Get a powerbank. All these wonderful apps on your phone will be useless if your battery can’t last long enough to help you. Smartphones are life in China, but make sure your phone doesn’t become “dumb” by constantly turning off.
4. Get DiDi, the Chinese Uber. Besides being able to use the app to get you from point A to point B safely, you can also use the map function on the DiDi app to figure out where you are.
5. Again, call a friend – in this case, your specialist.
6. Remember the golden rule: travel in pairs as far as possible, especially at night.
You’ll soon learn the lay of the land in Shenzhen. Take it from someone who can get lost in her own one-bedroom apartment: it does get easier, and soon you’ll be able to get around without even thinking too hard.