May 162011

I’m currently in Beijing, China on a business trip; one of the nice things about my job is that it’s allowed me to see places that I’d likely never otherwise have had the chance to see. The travel has a downside, of course; usually I just go to the same places over and over again, and often those places have little of interest other than the office that I happen to be visiting. Also, while in the past if I was coming some place that was new, I’d seriously think about buying a 2nd ticket for my wife and extending the stay a little, that’s no longer really practical now that we have kids.  Still, Beijing is new and I’m thankful not just for that, but also that a last-minute agenda change provided enough free time to take a vacation days while I’m here.

I’m sure I may have more things to say later, but for now I wanted to pass on a tip for how to confuse an illiterate (and unprepared) pedestrian. As of late, when visiting a place, I tend to look up where I’m headed before leaving and a rough plan of how to get there, but then I just walk without really having directions, a map, or a GPS (unless it looked really confusing, or I’m on a tight timeline). I prefer this both because I tend not to walk the same route too many times, and because you also tend to walk unremarkable but very local streets, as opposed to simply popular/large ones.

Of course, if things go very wrong with this approach, there’s always a backup – ask someone, use the GPS on my phone, or even get in a taxi. Also, many major cities have maps all over the place, so you can get your bearings. But in Beijing, I saw a new trick with maps I hadn’t seen used before:

(sorry for the tall image, it was the only zoom level that showed the English names). After visiting several places of interest – Tianamen Square, the Imperial Palace (Forbidden City), Jingshan Park, and Beihai Park – I decided to head back to the hotel, having been on my feet for quite some time by that point. was directionally pretty straightforward, but I checked the map anyways, as I was walking along Dongsi West. Now, Dongsi West is itself interesting; it’s only about 500m in length despite being a “major” road; west of that, it’s called Wusi St., and east of that it’s called Chaoyangmen Inner St. One might thus understand why you might omit labeling the street on a map. Indeed, the map I was looking at had no “You Are Here” type dot, and just had a single road labelled “Dongsi” (without a direction), and which ran north/south as you see above.  I knew for certain I wasn’t walking north, so I re-calibrated to the belief that I was walking south. Which of course, I wasn’t, thanks to a junction in which three of the four roads can have the same name!

To cut a long story short, I wound up walking considerably longer than the shortest path back to the hotel, finally caving in and using the GPS in my phone to get my bearings. Still, it was certainly an interesting walk along the way, as I wound up in some really run down alleyways, with poverty on display that was an unbelievable contrast to the Rolls Royce, Lamborghini, Ferrari, and Aston Martin dealerships that are all a 3 minute walk from my hotel (which wasn’t that far away). Unlike the tourist areas where people pounce on you, trying to get you to ride in a rickshaw or spare some change, the people I saw in this neighborhood seemed genuinely surprised to see a foreigner. Frankly, other areas of Beijing felt more like any other big city; these alleyways felt more authentic, more distinctive, and more like China as I had imagined it.

So I’m glad I walked a different path, and learned about a little trick that I won’t be falling for again :).

 Posted by at 8:13 pm

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