My brain does not let me down often in Nanjing. I manage to memorise names of colleagues – names like Kojima, Kaylan, Kelsey; and that’s just the letter K. Then there is the Academy itself with its floors and plazas and wings and staircases. There’s the new schedule, with classes during school hours, classes during lunch break, and evening classes. Finally, the new workload includes weekly plans, lesson plans, PPTs, exam prep sessions and ad hoc meetings called at a moment’s notice; in the auditorium, the library, the staff room, or elsewhere. So when I come home, I keel over and sleep, save for the odd combat session with an intrusive cockroach.
I eat at the school canteen twice a day and now, after two weeks, I really crave for cheese and crackers and milk and wine. When my flight refund arrives, I buy a bright red bike – now it’s only 5 minutes to work and not a 25 minutes’ trudge. So, on my first day off, I will shop in the centre of Pukou, the area where I live, on the left bank of the Yangtse (with the other bank housing Nanjing proper). It is over 30 °C and a film of sweat covers every part of me even before I start pedalling.
Google Maps is banned and paper maps are extinct in China, so I have to use the Baidu navigation app. My co-teacher enters the location of the Bravo, an upscale supermarket that may just have real Red Bull (it didn’t), Gouda or at least Edam cheese (it didn’t), genuine pasta (forget it) and pasteurised milk (no). The app says 38 minutes for the 7km, but I pedal it in 30 after getting lost twice on building sites. Baidu lacks the roads newly put in, and also has not updated many former thoroughfares now closed off, interrupted by colossal building projects.
In fact, all around my flat, huge fields are dug up. Night and day, motorcades of trucks remove the earth, while others drive in the concrete. An average project will produce 20 to 30 tower blocks, changing the cityscape from year to year. Every area here looks like the next, but I have my phone to navigate, and, sure, 52% power should be enough for a little shopping trip. Right?
I have always felt ageless on a bike, from when I was 8 onwards; an immortal superman in his element. Whizzing past the bright LED facades of down-town Pukou is a VR survival game. Traffic comes at me from all directions, at varying speeds. Red light, green light; it makes no difference to the Chinese: pedestrians, e-scooters, skateboards, SUVs – they all change direction, swerve, practically dance on the road. I am no saint either; the traffic lights have time indicators, and when it’s red and counting down from 160, I will cheat and cut through the perpendicular traffic stream if I think I have a decent chance of making it alive.
I shop for two hours in the Bravo, marvelling at products different from the fish spines, chicken bone marrow, and hairy mushrooms spread out on the stalls around my apartment block. I have to get wine glasses, mais oui, and jars of pasta sauce, and a frying pan. “Buy a heavy one,” Doro said, „they are durable.”
The shopping does not fit in my rucksack so I must loosen the straps to fit it on my back, and also dangle a plastic bag from my handle bars as I head home. Oh, right, so it’s gone dark all of a sudden. Moon navigation was never my strong suit; I’ll have to stop at every major crossroads to find my digital bearings. 31% juice, no problem, I am getting closer. Am I? I take a coke break along a hard shoulder. At least, I muse, if I have to sleep rough tonight, I’ll have plenty of food and drink – laughing to myself; I am just so bloody witty tonight.
The flyovers and other roads-on-stilts make it hard to turn, and when my route curves away and goes steeply up, I realise I haven’t been here before. But the blue arrow on the app leads me back. Back where though? I had asked my colleagues to type in my new address as the ‘home’ location, but they were unable to – Chinese people don’t move around much I guess, and now the app thinks I’m still in Yueyang, where I installed it a year ago. The time needed to cycle home is indicated as 62 hours. Just so funny.
More roads pass under my wheels as I push on in my Trance of Pain. Man, the shopping on my back is a tiresome burden. “Get a heavy one,” she said, “it will heat your food evenly.” The major road leading up to the route I took on the way in, is blocked with rows of cranes and builder’s barracks. I try to go around, but the path gets narrower and steeper as it winds and winds and then I hit sand and whip out my Samsung Galaxy once more. 13% – shall I call a colleague and beg for help? I can send out my precise location through the Wechat app. No, I have my pride; I dim the screen to save the battery and soldier on past huge campuses and across bridges and office blocks. None of it looks familiar, and at the same time, all of it does. I may never make it, not for all the T-junctions in China, as I find my road walled up again, and push my Taiwanese two-wheeler through a tarpaulin-covered hellscape, shoulders aching. “Get a big pan,” she said, “You’ll fit everything in – you may have guests over.” Ha, they’ll never find me.
As always when I’m in a scram, the finale of Brahms’ First Symphony takes up residence inside my head, and I only become aware of it after I’ve been humming its main theme and variations for 200 nervous pedal turns. If I ever happen to suffer a stressful death, it will no doubt be the last music I hear, this slight rip-off of Land of Hope and Glory. Danke, Johannes.
I feel like I’m halfway to Tibet. I take out the phone again; 1%, and with the Samsung logo, my smart phone goes AWOL. Now a lot of options have suddenly vanished: I can’t phone, I can’t book a Didi (the Chinese Uber), and I have no map. I used to carry my home address with me in simplified Chinese on a piece of paper, but then stupidly emptied my rucksack before I set out today, readying it for all the shopping. “Get a big one,” she said, “with a glass lid – quality is key.”
Pedalling straight on, uphill; legs burning, bum numb, my back feels like I’ve had eight consecutive massages by Thai MMA fighters. I reach a major road where bikes are banned. I turn around to try another way through, soon marvelling at the timeless Feng Shit of more dusty, cordoned-off building sites. The Great Wall may be splendid, but it’s these smaller ones that are really starting to piss me off. Even in September at this hour, it is a humid 28 degrees under the full moon and I am leaking sweat like an addict in withdrawal mode. Now I understand why this part of China does not have any greenhouses: no tomato wouldn’t notice the difference. Trucks rumble past as I begin to despair in earnest. This was supposed to be a shopping trip, okay? Not the Beijing Olympics.
A young man struggling with a dying e-scooter stalls next to me, and I perform my best harmless&helpless foreigner routine. We instinctively bond over our empty battery problems. His English is largely fictitious, but he gives me his power bank; of course with a plug that won’t fit – industry standards are for sissies don’t you know. I take his device and type in my school: Hankai Academy, but the Chinese keyboard setting transforms it into Pinyin (the Chinese way of dealing with our alphabet). Mao only knows what that produces, and Scooter Man’s stunned expression betrays that not much of the meaning has remained. Perhaps it now reads „Sexy Lab Rabbit”, or „Soft Yellow Orb”. He is a darling and tries to phone his girl, who has once heard six more English words than he, but she won’t answer pick up. He points to where I came from and says: „Go! Go – are little people.”
„There are Little People??” Stunned, I gesture below the hip.
-”No, oh, no, lottle people.”
„Ah, a lot of people! You’re sending me back to the centre.”
He’s been as useful as a giant panda. I greet him cordially, curse and turn around to where I came from, Brahms’ deafening crescendos bouncing around my battered brain in my private, personal China Syndrome. It strikes me as beyond irony that I should be utterly lost, not in the Serengeti or on the Mongolian steppes, but in a city of eight million. After twenty minutes of plodding misery, I enter central Pukou – again. Nobody here speaks English, so all these lottle people might as well be yaks, or a terracotta army for all I care. Just when I want to start screaming randomly, a pedestrian calls out to me invitingly. „Hello!” I squeeze the brakes to swerve around and ask him, „Hello! Can you help me?” But alas, „hello” was the full extent of his ESL – he really only called out on behalf of his son, who has English in school, and to whom he now points. So I smile and bend over, putting my life in the hands of this 10-year-old, and say
„Hello! I am LOST!”
-”Hello,” he replies cheerfully, „I am Kevin!”
I groan and grit my teeth, turn around again and randomly enter a restaurant with fifteen customers. I promise myself, if I survive this, to study Sun Tzu’s lesser-known second book, The Art of Where? My back is now the most painful thing in China since foot-binding was abolished. Hallucinating freely, I grab the owner’s pen from a box on the counter and write on the tab „Hankai Academy, Wuhua Road, Pukou” which is all I know (my own home address is still unmemorisable to me).
It is the Kindness of Strangers I am drawing on here. The waiter is clueless and I feel like a fool in a china shop, but then, one of the eaters stands up and speaks some Chinglish, typing away on her knock-off iPhone clone. She finds my school online – the breakthrough I needed. I ask her to write it down in the local scribble script, almost kiss her, and run out to get a taxi. I tie my bike to a post – at least my second bike lock came in the mail this morning, so there is a reasonable chance that it will be recoverable tomorrow.
Taxis in China have a red or a green light in their windscreen, which means absolutely nothing. The green ones could be driving someone around ‘off the meter’, having negotiated a better deal. The red ones could still stop and pick you up if you are going in the same direction as the person already in the cab. So I wave at all of them, invariably getting gestures and looks thrown back that range from „can’t you read the light, you tall, foreign thicko?”, to „don’t you see there are already three passengers here, you alien dork?”
On this evening before a holiday, many people need taxi rides. Inconspicuously, staring at their phones, Chinese pedestrians come to loiter ten yards up the road from me, to suddenly flag down the taxi that I was so happy to see slow down for me. This means I have to keep overtaking those scroungers, to stand to the left of them, all the time carrying my bursting rucksack and shopping bag ever further in the wrong direction along the street. “Get a heavy one,” she said, “They stabilise the temperature.”
My bed (God knows where it is) is the Yang I am so longing for, but for now I’m firmly stuck in the Yin. Time for assertive action, then. I prey at the crossroads for the next taxi that halts at the red light, and it is going to be mine. I open its door and confidently plant myself next to the driver. “No,” he yells in Mandarin, “you can’t DO that.”
“Oh, but I just did, didn’t you see?” I grin back. Had I phoned him, he asks, to book his taxi? No, but I simply need a taxi. He calls a number and a lady confirms she is standing ten paces away from us, waiting. He gestures me out but I smile and refuse. He starts the car and then brakes, to give a physical signal that my short ride is over. I ignore this. He puts his manager on, who tells me the bare facts in decent English. I stay put. I am banking on a lovely national trait that I’ve exploited before: when the Chinese are presented with a truly tricky situation, Taoism kicks in and they accommodate.
First, the lady is brought to her destination, and then I get my ride. It is in the other direction I would have gone, through a Gesamtkunstwerk of scaffolding and netted trenches. China’s land surface must be 80% concrete high-rise shells, with the other 20% made up of blocked roads. I would indeed never have made it back on my own, let’s face it. I’d be this grizzled, wandering freak in the surrounding hills that anthropologists would come to film using drones, watching me clutch my fists at the camera.
At the school, I have to insist the driver drives on, to my flat – I certainly know this stretch and I am buggered if I am going to walk the 25 minutes home. Now he laughs and we get there quickly. Chinese people are never grumpy – I admire that. I walk from the gate of my estate to my block, still cursing the dead weight crushing my shoulders. “Get a heavy one,” she said, “the teflon will last longer.” The odyssey back from the Bravo has lasted over four hours, and I fall asleep under the shower before hauling myself to bed, still wet, feeling like I’m on Rohypnol.
The next morning I take a Didi to central Pukou to walk around for half the afternoon in the never-familiar heat, looking for my bike. I remember leaving it near a Huawei shop, but it turns out there are at least seven Huawei shops in Pukou. My phone has charged all night; a power bank is attached to it at all times. Then, suddenly, I recognise the restaurant, and enter it to thank the owner through my translation app. Right outside, the bike is there and I ride it home, exalted.
Yes, I got out of that one; bravo, Mark. But I have a feeling I’ll be humming a lot more Brahms before the year is out